Second-Order Cybernetics

Second-order cybernetics, often referred to as the cybernetics of cybernetics, is a concept that shifts the focus from systems as observed entities to the inclusion of the observer within the system. This approach acknowledges that the observer’s interactions and interpretations are integral to the system’s behavior and understanding. Here’s a more detailed definition, incorporating ideas from Yuk Hui:

Inclusion of the Observer #

Second-order cybernetics emphasizes the role of the observer as part of the system. It recognizes that any observation or description of a system is influenced by the observer’s own perspective and actions. This stands in contrast to first-order cybernetics, which treats systems as objective entities external to the observer​ (e-flux)​.

Recursivity #

A key component of second-order cybernetics is the concept of recursivity, where systems are seen as self-referential and capable of influencing their own behavior through feedback loops. This recursive nature means that systems can adapt and evolve based on their interactions with observers and their own internal processes​ (PhilTech Net)​.

Historical Context and Philosophical Foundation #

Hui highlights that second-order cybernetics emerged as a response to the limitations of first-order cybernetics. By incorporating the observer into the system, second-order cybernetics aligns more closely with philosophical traditions that emphasize the interconnectedness of individuals and their environments. Hui’s work draws on the ideas of philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and more contemporary thinkers like Heidegger and Simondon​ (e-flux)​​ (PhilTech Net)​.

Application and Implications #

The application of second-order cybernetics extends beyond technical systems to include social, organizational, and ecological systems. It suggests a more holistic and participatory approach to understanding and designing systems, where the boundaries between observer and system are blurred. This perspective is crucial for addressing complex, adaptive challenges in various fields​ (e-flux)​.

Overall, second-order cybernetics represents a more nuanced and integrated approach to systems theory, emphasizing the importance of the observer’s role and the recursive nature of systems. This conceptual shift has profound implications for how we understand and interact with technological, social, and ecological systems in the 21st century.

More at:

Hui, Yuk (Editor). Cybernetics for the 21st Century: Vol. 1: Epistemological Reconstruction. Hanart Press (free e-book)