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Shoulders of a Giant

Tribute to Heinz von Foerster

This text was written in March 1996 for Ranulph Glanville who is in the process of editing a Festrschrift for Heinz von Foerster.

I entered the field of cybernetics as everyone does, as an observer of my own thinking. It was Jerry Lettvin who introduced me to the concepts as expressed by the field, though to my memory he never emphasized "cybernetics." When I met Gordon Pask and dived into his work, I realized that I had been well prepared by Jerry's seductive lectures on perception and epistemology, the nervous system and knowing.

Pask was my guide into the depths of the field, and I first learned the name von Foerster from him. For very few did Pask hold a fatherly deference, but Warren McCulloch was one and von Foerster also. When I read von Foerster the Thinker, I fell in love with his crystalline originality. His seminal work in the modeling of mental processes as Eigen values and Eigen functions was a critical, formal foundation for Pask, who is first an experimentalist. Von Foerster's epistemological and mathematical frames gave Pask the shoulders to stand on. (Humberto Maturana too takes flight from there.) I found the Source of my own cybernetics, in his elegant exposition of the cybernetics of cybernetics and self-reflexive views of thinking about one's own thinking. His writings on 2nd-order cybernetics in the context of science and ethics show the force of cybernetics as an explanatory core of our post-objective world.

The relationships of so many individuals and so many parts of cybernetics make up a whole that von Foerster stands under, both with his formal concepts and the countless encounters that he initiated. For his connection-making across disciplines and cultures, his Biological Computer Laboratory was like his living room, except for the addition of the extra-ordinary presence and collaborations of Mai, his spouse. (To know Heinz one must also know Mai.)

When I did first met Heinz the Man, it was at an academic symposium whose political agenda was to install Pask as an influence at that university. His opening remark was, "Ladies and Gentleman, I am a Paskian." Gestures of great generosity, founded in personal truth, I have found to be his way.

At that same symposium was the occasion of trying to gain entrance to a building in the midst of a blizzard. Each of us tried various doors; Stafford Beer, Carl Auer, Pask, Heinz, myself and others found door after door in this block-long array to be locked. I was dispatched to find a telephone, not because I was the youngest but because (they led me to believe) I was the only cybernetician in sub-zero weather in possession of both hat and gloves. By phone I was told that one of those doors was certainly open. On return and now an exhaustive search, we found this to be the case. With all those players present, somehow this seemed like part of my initiation into cybernetics. (What mocking irony in this lesson about the honest place for reductionist problem solving despite a cybernetic Weltanschaung.)

My next occasion of Heinz was at an evening of oral tradition at the American Society for Cybernetics. Heinz was Master here, telling story after wonderful story of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, McCulloch and everyone else he knew so well, from the seminal days of our field. I contributed my small tale of the doors, interspersing as the mantra, "I am a cybernetician", pointing up what little good that was for getting into the building. Afterwards Heinz came toward me, grabbing my hand and shaking it vigorously. Blue eyes flashing, he looked up at me from his elfin frame and said in his persistent, energetic way, "Paul, as a cybernetician, you stand on the Shoulders of Giants!" Bathed in the torches of his eyes, overwhelmed by his acknowledgment, how could I possibly respond? But there was no need, for he wasn't finished. Holding my gaze in his, he continued: "Tell!"

Paul Pangaro was graduated from MIT in Computer Science/Humanities, where he collaborated on neural simulations with Jerry Lettvin and designed user interfaces and graphics systems in Negroponte's original research laboratory, The Architecture Machine Group. There he met Pask with whom he subsequently did his PhD at Brunel University (UK). Pangaro started a consulting firm in 1981 to pursue "real world" applications of cybernetics, and has since then performed software development for the UK Admiralty, US Army and US nuclear industry, and strategic planning/technology strategy for Lotus, Xerox, and Du Pont. In addition to a dialog on behalf of Du Pont, he has had many interactions with von Foerster over the years, especially on the nature of cybernetic societies and its archives.

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