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  • Pangaro Incorporated

    the discipline, not the hype:
    its history and applications

    Running Title: "CyberWired"

    - Paul Pangaro

    (c) Copyright Paul Pangaro 1993. All Rights Reserved.

    [The following proposal for an article was sent to WIRED magazine in October 1993 but it was not accepted for publication.]

    Cybernaut, cyberpunk, cyberspace; "cyber" is the badge of techno-cool. Where did this "cyber" stuff come from? And what does "cyber" really mean?

    Cybernetics is a science dedicated to understanding the roles of information and purpose in both mechanical and living systems. When first conceived in the 1940s, the ideas were so revolutionary that a new word was necessary to represent them. "Cybernetics" was derived from the Greek word "kubernetes", meaning "steersmanship": the art and craft of guiding a system under changing circumstances. Originating in notions of feedback and circularity, cybernetics has matured into a science of describing and has a lot to say about our daily experience. It says that the content of reality is a social construct; in contrast to being "true" or objective, "reality" is already "virtual."

    Although it began with an abstraction called "systems", without regard to what the systems are made of, cybernetics has evolved into a discipline of the subjective and a philosophy of technology. It qualifies and quantifies conversations, with computers or people, individuals or societies.

    Understanding cybernetics is relevant to readers of "Wired" beyond the origin of a prefix. The application of cybernetics has a practical impact on the effectiveness of computing, communication and media. At one level it provides detailed guidance for the design of hardware/software interfaces for multimedia. At another level it affords the most effective tools for maintaining a human-centered (as opposed to technologically-centered) direction for the social future that is being constructed empirically. Its philosophy (that "our world" is as at least as much cognitive construction as it is physical) and its ethics (the primacy of individual responsibility) are tools to understand as well as to influence the social matrix now under construction.

    It is mistakenly said that cybernetics is about feedback, and control servomechanisms, and building robots. That is where it first became publicized in the science fiction of the 1950s. But why it started, and how its ethics and philosophy emerged, is a fascinating, unavoidable story. It is also the story of our global information culture.

    Story Development

    • Why the question "What is cybernetics?" is to be rejected
    • Question reformulated: cybernetics is when the subjectivity of the describer is contained explicitly in the answer
    • Some history of the coinage of the term
    • Trans-disciplinary nature of the field
    • Early participants and conferences
    • Control, feedback, thermostats, stability
    • First 20th century application (you guessed it): war
    • Systems: the figment of observers
    • "In the beginning was the interaction....."
    • Describing is always relative to purpose, and
      • Purpose includes the perspective of an individual, so
      • Descriptions are always subjective
    • Embracing subjectivity in science: it's not so bad as it sounds (it's that way already anyhow)
    • Soft sciences are becoming harder while hard sciences are already softer
    • From observing the observed, to observing the observing: self-reference
    • Applications, from family therapy to software design to organizational change
    • Machines to computers to livings systems: the evolving metaphor for brains and societies
    • The unavoidable future: cybernetics of culture

    So we see how cybernetics is

    about control                     but in service of interacting                 
    less about nouns                  and more about verbs                          
    less about communication          more about conversing                         
    less about bit streams            more about meaning                            
    less about "absolute truth"       more about agreement                          
    less about reality                more about consensus                          
    less about being                  more about becoming

    Other Potential Topics

    • "Information": discovery or invention?
    • Data, information and meaning: that awkward tango
    • Personal and impersonal computing: why e-mail stinks, and other indisputable truths
    • Causality means control, while intervention means interaction: designing a usable interface
    • Purpose, action and agents: how will we master all this computing machinery?
    • Similarities and differences: identity, conversation and community
    • How do our minds touch when our nervous systems do not?
    • Cybernetics of art and the art of cybernetics
    • The new corporation modeled as a living system
    • Birth, growth and death in the cognitive domain: all about learning
    • Great figures of the field: eccentrics, gurus, and geniuses all
    • Great devices of the field, including artificial turtles and evolving ears

    Author's Biography

    Paul Pangaro was graduated from MIT with a BSci in Computer Science and Humanities (Drama). He worked on the Research Staff of the MIT Research Lab of Electronics (on contracts with Jerry Lettvin, on computer simulations of neural models) and then the MIT Architecture Machine Group, the predecessor to the Media Lab (on contracts with Nicholas Negroponte, on color computer graphics and user interfaces for animation by simulation). He then collaborated with British cybernetician Gordon Pask, the celebrated developer of Conversation Theory, a theoretical framework that provides programmable approaches to hypertext, computer-aided learning, and conversational media. Their collaboration culminated in research projects funded by the US and UK government agencies, and Pangaro being awarded PhD in cybernetics from Brunel University (UK).

    Since 1981 Pangaro has directed his own consulting firm specializing in the application of cybernetics to complex, "real-world" problems, including formal approaches to, and software development of, systems for strategic planning, training, and organizational modeling. Clients have included the Admiralty Research Establishment (UK), the US Army and US Navy, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, NYNEX, Du Pont, Lotus and Xerox.

    Pangaro is active in the American Society for Cybernetics, contributing to conferences on a regular basis, and he is a past Associate Editor of one of their publications, Cybernetic Magazine. In 1988 he was Vice Chair for the Gordon Research Conference on Cybernetics. In addition to Pask, Pangaro has a personal rapport with other greats of the field including Heinz von Foerster, Jerome Y Lettvin, Stafford Beer, Humberto Maturana. Continually interested in the history of cybernetics, Pangaro maintains a sizable archive of papers and unique artifacts.

    Pangaro has given lecture/performances on his work frequently over the years, including at the MIT Media Lab, Washington Philosophical Society, Society for General Systems Research, the Harvard Graphics Conference, ACM SIGGRAPH, the National Educational Computing Conference, the Human Factors Society, Conference on Computers in Education (Wales) and Machine Intelligence in Defence (England). He wrote the entry on cybernetics for the Encyclopedia of Science published by Macmillan. His articles have appeared in Data Training and Creative Computing and his work has been reported in InfoWorld, Seybold Reports, IEEE and many other reviews of computer-aided instruction software.

    Unwilling to lose the edge associated with live performance, Pangaro is an accomplished cabaret singer and appears regularly in Boston and Washington, DC.

    © Copyright Paul Pangaro 1994 - 2000. All Rights Reserved.