The Identity Crisis in Cybernetics

This post-conference reflection on Mark Johnson’s blog raises a really interesting issue for traditions of intellectual inquiry which fall beyond or between disciplinary boundaries:

At my University over the summer, we hosted the annual conference of the American Society for Cybernetics. It was really good – despite some worries I had beforehand. It seems that Cybernetics provides a space for people to play with and break the ordinary rules of disciplinary discourse. That’s refreshing and good fun.¬†Cybernetics has an identity crisis. This can be boiled down to a question: “Can something which sees itself as transdisciplinary establish itself within the disciplinary context of the academy?”

There are a number of responses one might have to this. But judging from a rather fierce online argument currently underway, I would say the answer is “no”. At our conference, there was an implicit anti-academic thread which presented cybernetics as in some way divorced from conventional discourse. This caused many of the problems that blew up before the event started. The difficulty is that the provenance of cybernetics is clearly academic: it came from physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, education, economics, mathematics, computer science and management studies. It would seem reasonable that any advances in the discipline would emerge from those discourses. And indeed they do, but (the problem for the ‘subject’ of cybernetics) is that as cybernetic ideas are advanced in each area, nobody refers to them as cybernetic ideas! They are now ideas in computer science, mathematics, physics, etc. Which leaves the cyberneticians sulking in a corner, feeling unloved and (frankly) short of funding.

(I give it six months before someone has the idea of rebranding cybernetics as ‘cybernetics studies’)

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