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    Cybernetics Classes

    Stanford University 2001—2007


    The Domain of Cybernetics — Cybernetics may be defined as the science of describing goal-directed systems. The term comes from the Greek word "kubernetes", meaning "steersmanship." (From the same Greek word but through Latin, English gets the word "governor.") In general (center of diagram), cybernetics is useful in understanding a goal-directed system that exists in an environment which, because it is dynamic, makes an unchanging set of actions by the system inadequate to achieve the system's goal. Initially (left side of diagram) cybernetics was concerned with systems that were observed (such as thermostats). It soon became clear that one could also observe systems that were themselves observing (right side of diagram). This brought issues of language, meaning and subjectivity into sharp focus.

    Introduction to Cybernetics and Systems for Design. Autumn 2002 through 2007—Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro

    This class focused on the similarities between the framework of cybernetics and the processes of design, and how cybernetics provides tools for the design of complex systems, whether purely mechanical (such as product and software design) or collaborative (such as organizational and process design). See also online class description and syllabus.

    Introduction to Cybernetics, An Humane Approach to Computing. Autumn 2001—Paul Pangaro

    This class focused on the differentiation of modeling based on a cybernetic framework and involved the students by requiring assignments to model the concepts in the readings. Authors read include McCulloch, Pask, von Foerster, Maturana. Videos of some lectures are available online.


    On-Line References

    Materials on cybernetics are only slowly being made available on-line, and these limited references cannot reflect the depth and breadth of the field. And, as in any field with many contributors, not everything under the name of cybernetics is consistent, and some sites may give a confusing impression of cybernetics.


    Wikipedia has a growing body of useful links on cybernetics, while not all are authoritative or on-point.

    Heinz von Foerster

    There are many "giants" of cybernetics, but none so crystal-clear in thinking and writing as Heinz von Foerster.

    Gordon Pask

    Eccentric beyond description and 30 years before his time, Gordon Pask has influenced generations of innovators, including Ted Nelson and Nicholas Negroponte (to name the most well-known figures). Unfortunately very little of Pask's own writing is on-line.

    • Comprehensive list of links about Pask
    • Videos of lecture and Colloquy of Mobiles from ICA Installation of Cybernetic Serendipity
    • "A comment on the cybernetic psychology of pleasure" is from the 1960s and only introduces concepts that are developed further elsewhere (see the first Off-Line reference, below). Beware an apparent mislabeling of the 2nd numbered list, which should be "a, b, c and d" instead of "1, 2, 3 and 4."

    Personal Links

    These links are from pangaro.com:

    • A definition of cybernetics
    • An application of cybernetics to customer relationships and organizational design
    • A summary of software implementations and approaches to user interface design

    The remainder of these links are included on the summary page just mentioned:


    Off-Line References

    This paper describes in detail an interaction environment where the user playing a musical instrument is engaged in a conversation with a mechanism that focuses the user's attention, gets bored, and otherwise stimulates the user in novel and unexpected ways. It is a fabulous proposal for a type of video game, though Pask built the original version of this system in the 1950s and carted it around England in vans for installation in music halls.

    • Gordon Pask: "A Comment, a Case History and a Plan". In Cybernetic Serendipity, edited by J. Reichardt. Rapp and Carroll, 1970. Reprinted in Cybernetic Art and Ideas, edited by J. Reichardt. London: Studio Vista, 1971, 76-99.

    Special thanks to Hugh Dubberly.

    © Copyright Paul Pangaro 2003-2005. All Rights Reserved.