Introduction: The Foundations of a Cybernetic Discourse

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“I think that cybernetics is the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last 2000 years. But most of such bites out of the apple have proved to be rather indigestible—usually for cybernetic reasons. Cybernetics has integrity within itself, to help us to not be seduced by it into more lunacy, but we cannot trust it to keep us from sin.” — Gregory Bateson, From Versailles to Cybernetics (1966)

Ashby, McCulloch, Grey Walter and Wiener, at the 1951 Paris congress on cybernetics

Gregory Bateson’s collection of essays and lectures, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (StEM) begins with a series of “metalogues”. These are dialogues between a father and his young daughter in which the father explains the principles of communication and organisation.[1] To the contemporary reader their tone is a little cutesy and more than a little patrician. However, the texts serve as an excellent introduction to the themes which dominated Bateson’s work – and which dominate The Fabulous Loop de Loop.

The first metalogue is entitled “Why do things get in a muddle?” and explains the principle of entropy. The second law of thermodynamics states that organised entities will run to disorder and dissipation over time. Things get in a muddle because of entropy. The notion of entropy was central to Bateson’s thinking and his reading of it was specifically cybernetic.

Cybernetics (“the science of feedback”) seemed to resolve the curious issue that however much things tend to get in a muddle, they also (in the natural world and in human society) tend toward organisation and order.

Norbert Wiener, who coined the neologism “cybernetics”, adopted the term, “negentropy” (or negative entropy),[2] to account for the way in which systems and organisms establish and retain their organisation despite the ever-present effects of entropy. The concept of negative entropy resolves the problematic issue of how, in a universe which is prone to the forces of disorganisation, systems and organisms actually stabilise, become more complex and reproduce.

The principle of negative entropy was the unifying element in Gregory Bateson’s output from the 1940s to the 1970s, incorporating anthropology, aesthetics, psychiatry, evolution, biology, and ecology. The order to be found in all these disparate fields is neg-entropic insofar as information cycling within a negative feedback loop establishes homeostasis and affords its adaptation. This is the case regardless of whether that system or organism is biological, psychic, social, or mechanical. For Bateson a coherent wholistic world view (meta-theory) is dependent on negative entropy as the central organising principle.

Norbert Wiener, in Cybernetics (1948) provided a precise relation for entropy and information, in the sense that units of information (Binary units or bits) within a message can be measured against noise (which is the measure of entropy in the message): “Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise.”[3]

In Wiener’s equation for negentropy, the second law of thermodynamics still holds, systems will always run to disorganisation, but negentropy allows for a decrease in the rate of dissipation.[4] This is because knowledge of order (information) is fed back through the system which allows the system to conserve order.

In this sense, negentropy represents a localised reversal of time’s arrow. It is possible, stated Wiener “to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives. Clichés, for example are less illuminating than great poems.”[5]

Organisms carry news of order back through the system. Human beings, for instance, have maintained, and even increased, the level of organisation, which, as with all negentropic (information) systems, allows an enclave of order within a general stream of increasing chaos;[6] and, furthermore, as the father explains in the first metalogue in Bateson's book, your muddle might be my order.[7]

If entropy framed the understanding of the central scientific and social issues of the nineteenth century – powering its steam engines, spinning its mills – organising its discourse of economies of energy; negentropy recognises the relationship between information and energy that frames the current age of communication – the discourse of ecologies of information.

Wiener’s theory of negentropy provides a solution to a conundrum which had plagued evolutionary theory throughout the nineteenth century: how in an entropic universe could order be established and maintained and how can it increase in complexity? Wiener’s equation for negentropy accommodated biological order within a general field of physical flux because it provided the context for self-organisation and adaptation.[8]

In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson translates Wiener’s idea as follows:

“The technical term ‘information’ may be succinctly defined as any difference which makes a difference in some later event. This definition is fundamental for all analysis of cybernetic systems and organization. The definition links such analysis to the rest of science, where the causes of events are commonly not differences but forces, impacts, and the like. The link is classically exemplified by the heat engine, where available energy (i.e., negative entropy) is a function of a difference between two temperatures. In this classical instance, “information” and “negative entropy” overlap.”[9]

The world understood as a series of differences, as opposed to a series of forces, proposes a new materialism. Bateson builds his argument of the difference that makes a difference to argue the relation between negative entropy and conscious purpose.

Bateson: “Wiener points out that the whole range of entropy phenomena is inevitably related to the fact of our knowing or not knowing what state the system is in. If nobody knows how the cards lie in the pack, it is to all intents and purposes a shuffled pack. Indeed, this ignorance is all that can be achieved by shuffling.”

Negentropy now enters the realm of culture, as human beings interfere with the randomising machinations of the entropic universe. Humans systematically set out to “trick” the second law of thermodynamics – organising against the relentless forces of improbability. Bateson next argues that because choice is bound to order, in seeking information humans also seek values. Bateson describes a man who “for his breakfast,[...] achieves an arrangement of bacon and eggs, side by side, upon a plate; and in achieving this improbability he is aided by other men who will sort out the appropriate pigs in some distant market and interfere with the natural juxtaposition of hens and eggs.”[10]

Here Bateson extends the individual choice to a larger ecology of choices: man + environment. The prosaic example of a man choosing his breakfast makes the key relation between negative entropy and Bateson’s ecology of mind which will underlie the Fabulous Loop de Loop. For Gregory Bateson human decision-making serves as “Maxwell’s demon”, bringing order to an entropic system.

Both Bateson and Wiener are sensitive to the fact that the term "negentropy" is open to misinterpretation. Negentropy does not violate the second law of thermodynamics and create "order out of chaos". The term is only useful when understood as synonymous with information. It must be stressed again that negentropy represents a localised reversal of time’s arrow. It is useful in explaining how information distributes energy within a system. Bateson makes this distinction clear in his essay in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,

“Ecology has currently two faces to it: the face which is called bioenergetics—the economics of energy and materials within a coral reef, a red-wood forest, or a city—and, second, an economics of information, of entropy, negentropy, etc. These two do not fit together very well precisely because the units are differently bounded in the two sorts of ecology. In bioenergetics it is natural and appropriate to think of units bounded at the cell membrane, or at the skin; or of units composed of sets of conspecific individuals. These boundaries are then the frontiers at which measurements can be made to determine the additive-subtractive budget of energy for the given unit. In contrast, informational or entropic ecology deals with the budgeting of pathways and of probability. The resulting budgets are fractionating (not subtractive). The boundaries must enclose, not cut, the relevant pathways.
Moreover, the very meaning of "survival" becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bioenergetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas.”


It became apparent to many thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century that the dominant model of entropy was inadequate for the innovative theories of the era. The theory of evolution and natural selection – theories of homeostasis; genetics, mathematics, semantics and theories of the human psyche – all struggled to accommodate the second law of thermodynamics.[12]

The theorisation of (negative) entropy in the era of cybernetics required the production of new knowledge, but it also required a reordering of existing knowledge. The janus face, which sees the possibilities of the future folded into the past, is therefore central to this text. I will emphasise how the moment of the Macy conferences on cybernetics invited a re-consideration of how thinkers prior to that "cybernetic moment" sought to establish a new horizon of possibility. [13]

As I follow this track, I will depart from the emphasis taken in recent analysis of this discourse. This understands the period of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics (1945-52) as a moment when a “new universalism” was established (Bowker)[14]; it is the moment when we began to learn how we became post-human (Hayles)[15] and when the foundation of a new discourse network for the twenty-first century was established (Kittler)[16], a discourse which was established on “the ontology of the enemy” (Galison).[17]

I do not detract from the claims made by these writers, cybernetics has had a profound effect on contemporary culture. My own emphasis will be that the key thinkers of the new epistemology of cybernetics – Wiener, McCulloch and Bateson among them – were avid narrators of the development of their emerging science in a lineage of anti-cartesian, non-thomian thinking which was already well established in the centuries before. In this sense, I read them as discourse theorists who argued the stake of past and present knowledge.

In that vein I emphasise that the discourse of experimental psychology (neurophysiology), which had developed since the beginning of the twentieth-century, was central to the discourse of cybernetics as it developed in the 1940s. Many of the cyberneticians were leading brain researchers before and after the war. In the case of Edward Craik, Ross Ashby and Grey Walter, the cybernetic “thinking machines” they created arose directly from their brain research. [18] The new technologies of scanning devices and predictive servomechanisms, which had researched for the war effort, when added to the repertoire of brain experimentation developed in the 1920s and 30s, produced new models of behaviour and new perspectives on the relationship between machine and the organism.

The British cyberneticians Ross Ashby, Edward Craik and Grey Walter, and the American cyberneticians Lawrence Kubie and Warren McCulloch were well established in the discourse of experimental psychology, which developed clear arguments of how mind is constituted – from an “anti-cartesian”, “non-thomian” perspective (which is to say, they refused an essentialisation of “self”). The new affordance of servo-machines within this established discourse allowed for the extension of experimental psychology into first-order cybernetics. The meeting of experimental psychology and war-time research produced a new formal theory of feedback and control technologies which begged fundamental questions about the nature of organism and its relation to environment, and about the nature of mind.

At the heart of the cybernetic discourse of the 1940s and 1950s is the idea of machine-organism equivalence, which had also been at the heart of neurophysiological research in the preceding decades. This is the notion that a machine – to the extent that it modelled an organism, in that it could order its environment – could “think”, “learn”, and “adapt”.

Gregory Bateson played a key role in extending this discourse still further. Bateson was born into a world where the entropic universe was passing into a new universe of information and communication. The development of his cybernetic epistemology leaves clear traces of this transition: he draws on visionary figures who intuited the new order – Samual Butler, Clark Maxwell, and his father William Bateson to name a few– and reframes their work in the light of the cybernetic explanation provided by Craik, Ross Ashby, Grey Walter, McCulloch, and Wiener. As much as these writers were concerned with how the world works and how mind and the human brain function, they also acknowledged the pressing need to reframe the nineteenth-century thermodynamic discourse from the new perspectives provided by cybernetics.


A recurring feature within the Fabulous Loop de Loop is a close reading of machines which were produced within a particular discourse of cybernetics. These machines operate at the point where neurophysiology, psychoanalysis, ecology and cybernetics find common purpose.

I will introduce a close reading of two types of machine which bear a close relation.

The first type of machine are those which express negative entropy (as opposed to demonstrating or illustrating it): these include Grey Walter’s Tortoise, Norbert Wiener’s Moth-Bedbug and Ross Ashby’s Homeostat. Such machines organise information, and in their inter-spacial and inter-subjective actions, make a performative claim on the world, similar to the claim made by living organisms. These machines – referred to by their creators as “toys” and “thinking machines”– can be understood as expressions of negative entropy, rather than simply outlining the principle of negative entropy. In this respect they differ from the scientific models that went before them. Scrutiny of these machine, “in the metal” [19] so to speak, is in line with the experimental epistemology propounded by the subjects central to this discourse: Ross Ashby, Craik, McCulloch, Grey Walter, and Wiener, in the generation of cybernetics in the 1940s and 50s.

The second type of machine I read in the Fabulous Loop de Loop, also express negative entropy, but they differ because they fold human subjectivity into their apparatus. These machines include Alfred Korzybski’s Structural Differential (Anthropometre); Claude Shannon & David Hagelbarger’s SEER (SEquence Extrapolating Robot); the E-Meter (Electropsycometer) used in scientology audits; the Sony Videorover II AV-3400 (Portapak). These machines represent technologies of the self through which the subject through their interaction with the machine is made to adapt. All the machines in this second category require the subject which establishes a relation to the environment or context, they are media for self-construction.

The difference between these categories of machine is subtle but significant: If Get Walter's Tortoise produces a subject (other) in relation to context, Korzybski's Structural Differential produces a subject (self) in relation to context. Having made that distinction, both categories of machine, in their relation to their environment and in relation to their subjectivity, propose a new definition of purpose.


In their seminal paper Behavior, Purpose and Teleology (1942),[20] Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow sought to provide a new definition of purpose – best demonstrated by the hypothetical cybernetic devices I describe in the Fabulous Loop de Loop. These devices, which did not ‘resemble human beings’ would nevertheless exhibit complex behaviour despite being fed little information. The simplest and clearest demonstration of this claim was realised a few years after the publication of Behavior, Purpose and Teleology, in Gray Walter's Tortoise (1948), one of the first in a menagerie of teleological mechanisms.

In Behavior, Purpose and Teleology, the behaviourist approach is distinguished from the teleological approach (later to be termed cybernetics). Behaviourism has some relation to the teleological approach but only to a limited extent. Behaviourism ignores the relation between the object and its surroundings (context), which is of central importance to the cyberneticians. The approaches also differ in that teleology is goal-directed[21], Wiener et al make the distinction between purposeful machines and non-purposeful machines, “Purposeful active behaviour may be subdivided into two classes: “feed-back” (or “teleological”) and “non-feed-back” (or “non-teleological”).[22] All feedback machines require negative feedback to operate, meaning “some signals from the goal are necessary at some time to direct the behaviour” [23] We can compare the conditions of a functioning thermostat (feedback machine) with a kitchen clock (non-feedback machine). The latter may allow exterior output (to be wound up) but outside signals do not circuit through it to modify its behaviour, as is the case with a thermostat. The clock is incapable of learning and of adapting (and in this sense it is entropic, it will always need energy from the outside to wind it up). For ‘teleological mechanisms’[24], cause-and-effect relations are replaced by ‘circular causality’ which requires negative feedback as a regulator (Wiener will later identify negative feedback as negentropy). The senses of the organism (touch, sight, and proprioception) guide a given action through constant feedback and adjustment. ‘Circular causality’ can occur in man and machine or machine and machine, but all are goal-directed and regulated within a circuit.[25] Many goal-directed circular-causal activities can be understood mathematically, if not through the tractable (linear) mathematics in which A causes B. Behavour is therefore understood as systemic and probabilistic.

After the publication of Wiener’s Cybernetics in 1948, the relation between information and energy became more clearly defined – order is re-enforced as information loops through the system. In this context behaviour, thinking, and mind are imminent to system – mind cannot be divorced from the material circuitry in which it is produced. This has significant implications to our conception of behaviour and requires a radical reconsideration of the concept of mind. For the cybernetic group at the Macy meetings the new conception of teleology extended the realm of exact science, revising the epistemology of modern science[26], which traditionally was the study of the intrinsic way in which beings and things functioned.[27] The teleological approach shifted the emphasis toward the interrelation of things and objects.


The cybernetic epistemology makes an abiding link between stochastic systems (systems of probability) and biological systems. This position is re-enforced by a seminal paper which defined the debate on machines and organism in the post war era. A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity by Warren McCulloch and Warren Pitts (1943) argued that consciousness was synonymous with calculation.[28] McCulloch – a neurophysiologist who graduated in both psychology and neurology[29] – wanted to relate his findings on neural nets to the symbolic logic of Russell and Whitehead’s Prinicipia Mathematica.

A logical proposition is true or false. If stimulated, a nerve cell produces an electromagnetic discharge or it does not. It is an “all or none” proposition. Neurons fire on a chain and are linked in the same way logical propositions are linked. One could, therefore, view a nerve net as operating like a machine or computer.[30] Fundamentally, the McCulloch-Pitts Model provided a theoretical frame that allowed for the equivalence between mechanical and biological systems (specifically the brain)[31] allowing that both should be understood as encoding and decoding systems. Which is to say, biological organisms (including the brain) and servo-mechanisms constitute local negentropic systems.

The first, simple, cybernetic creatures – Claude Shannon’s Rat, Norbert Wiener’s Moth-Bedbug, Ross Ashby’s Homeostat, Grey Walter’s Tortoise[32] – displayed all the properties explained in Behaviour, Purpose and Teleology and accorded to the McCulloch-Pitts Model: they were self-organising, self-directing, adapting and orientated with their environment. Although their behaviour was complex – and went beyond the repertoire of stimulus and response modelled in behaviourism – it could nevertheless be located within a matrix of probability. Behaviour in both animal and machine is regulated by information flows through a circuit and both might be understood as performing computational actions (stochastic- probabilistic-statistical). As Norbert Wiener explained: “It is […] therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets such as ‘life’, ‘soul’, ‘vitalism’, and the like, and say merely in connection with machines that there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.” [33] The key notions briefly cited above –

(a) a new definition of purpose;
(b) a definition of negative entropy and its relation to information;
(c) the arbitrary division between an organism and its environment;
(d) the extension of biological ecology into a general (social-media) ecology

– allowed Gregory Bateson to develop a coherent cybernetic epistemology. Bateson’s mature works, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (StEM) and Mind and Nature, would be predicated on the notion of mind as co-extensive with an informational circuit of circular causality. Bateson found in cybernetic principles a means of giving a rigorous scientific base, and a general meta-theory, to his own earlier theoretical work.


This text describes a loop de loop. If we return to the beginning we already see, in Samuel Butler’s Notebooks and Evolution Old and New, a description of the function of negative entropy avant-cybernetics. Butler describes how the unconscious functions of the body and mind – as the organs form themselves through the course of evolution and as they function involuntarily – establish the conditions for conscious thought. Butler argues (in terms we would today recognise as cybernetic) that we recognise purpose at a relatively late stage in the process, and only at the point where it becomes conscious human purpose. Humans disallow the “habits” of this biological formation and fail to recognise the continuity between matter and mind, seeking instead to divide mind from the processes from which it emerges. Butler’s materialist conception of the continuity of mind was extended into the twentieth century – with an increasingly precise articulation – by the thinkers including Wiener, Korzybski, Craik, McCulloch, and Bateson. In The Fabulous Loop de Loop I will trace the passage from an energetic discourse toward a discourse of information.


  1. Bateson, Gregory, StEM. They are identified within the metalogues as Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson
  2. Norbert Wiener Cybernetics (1948
  3. Wiener in Harries-Jones EU&GB 108
  4. Wiener famously framed entropy and information in combative terms thus: "We are swimming upstream against a great torrent of disorganization, which tends to reduce everything to the heat-death of equilibrium and sameness described in the second law of thermodynamics. What Maxwell, Boltzmann, and Gibbs meant by this heat-death in physics has a counterpart in the ethics of Kierkegaard, who pointed out that we live in a chaotic moral universe. In this, our main obligation is to establish arbitrary enclaves of order and system. These enclaves will not remain there indefinitely by any momentum of their own after we have once established them. Like the Red Queen, we cannot stay where we are without running as fast as we can.
  5. Wiener HUoHB De Capo 1954 edition
  6. Norbert Wiener Human use of Human Beings 1950
  7. StEM, Why do things get in a muddle?
  8. Harries-Jones EU&GB p. 108
  9. Bateson StEM
  10. Bateson StEM
  11. Gregory Bateson StEM p502
  12. Bernard, C. (1974) Lectures on the phenomena common to animals and plants. Trans Hoff HE, Guillemin R, Guillemin L, Springfield (IL): Charles C Thomas
  13. See The Annotation for clarification of this term "cybernetic moment"
  14. Geof Bowker, How to be Universal: Some Cybernetic Strategies 1943-70 (1993
  15. N. K. Hayles, How We became Post Human; N. K. Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer
  16. F. Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800 /1900 (1990)
  17. P.Galison The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 228-266 University of Chicago Press(1994)
  18. Pickering, Andrew. Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer and Pask. Social Studies of Science Volume: 32 Issue 3, 2002: pp. 413-437
  19. Wiener's preferred term
  20. Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow, Behavior, Purpose and Teleology, Philosophy of Science 10 (January 1943)
  21. Heims the Cybernetic Group, 15
  22. Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow, Behavior, Purpose and Teleology, Philosophy of Science 10 (January 1943) p.19
  23. Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow, Behavior, Purpose and Teleology, Philosophy of Science 10 (January 1943) p.19
  24. Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow, Behavior, Purpose and Teleology, Philosophy of Science 10 p. 15
  25. S. Heims the Cybernetic Group, 16
  26. S Heims CG 16 and 32
  27. S.S. Heims the Cybernetic Group P?
  28. R. Barbrook Imaginary Futures
  29. McCulloch had studied brain activity through research on chimpanzees and monkeys, mapping the functional pathways in the cerebral cortex by administering electric shocks or strychnine to particular areas of the animals’ brains. See:Steve Joshua Heims, Constructing a Social Science for America: The Cybernetics Group, 1946- 1953 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991)
  30. Heims CG
  31. N. K. Hayles, New Media Reader, 145-148
  32. A. Pickering The Cybernetic Brain
  33. Wiener, in Lafontaine, Matrix of French Theory, 32