The Second Cybernetics

I’ve recently been reading Magoroh Maruyama’s writing on the second cybernetics and I’m quite taken with it. There’s a context to his work which I only dimly understand, given my lack of grounding in the first cybernetics, though I’m still finding his writing extremely thought-provoking. One of the key themes seems to be the critique of an exclusive focus within the first cybernetics on deviation-counteracting processes and the self-equilibrating systems which they engender. In contrast Maruyama is interested in the role of deviation-amplifying causal relationships in shaping systems over time. This is the example which has really caught my imagination:

Development of a city in an agricultural plain may be understood with the same principle. At the beginning, a large plain is entirely homogeneous as to its potentiality for agriculture. By some chance an ambitious farmer opens a farm at a spot on it. This is the initial kick. Several farmers follow the example and several farms are established. One of the farmers opens a tool shop. Then this tool shop becomes a meeting place of farmers. A food stand is established next to the tool shop. Gradually a village grows. The village facilitates the marketing of the agricultural products, and more farms flourish around the village. Increased agricultural activity necessitates development of industry in the village, and the village grows into a city.

This is a very familiar process. But there are a few important theoretical implications in such a process. On what part of the entire plain the city starts growing depends on where accidentally the initial kick occurred – The first farmer could have chosen any spot on the plain, since the plain was homogeneous. But once he has chosen a spot, a city grows from that spot, and the plain becomes inhomogeneous. If a historian should try to find a geographical “cause” which made this spot a city rather than some other spots, he will fail to find it in the initial homogeneity of the plain. Nor can the first farmer be credited with the establishment of the city. The secret of the growth of the city is in the process of deviation-amplifying mutual positive feedback networks rather than in the initial condition or in the initial kick. This process, rather than the initial condition, has generated the complexly structured city. It is in this sense that the deviation-amplifying mutual causal process is called “morphogenesis.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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