Messing up cybernetics, chaos, and complexity

Bojan Radej
3 min readJun 1, 2021

There is a very persistent view among followers of systems theory, arguing that systems can understand and resolve complex problems in science and communities and organisations. Everyone can affirm that successfully operating complex systems are everywhere, from transport and energy systems to information systems. Complex systems prove every day that they can effectively overcome the gap between individuals and the communal as well as between ordered and disordered features of our everyday lives. The ability of systems to control certain complex issues is therefore beyond doubt. Somje dominant schools in the field (such as complex adaptive systems) often deal with complexity as if it were a systemic concept.

One of the most influential responses to complexity relates to the emergence of cybernetics — a control theory aimed at incorporating uncertainty into the system or model. Cybernetics was developed for handling circularly causal systems (with feedbacks), first in engineering and living systems and later applied in social systems, such as in communication, where circular causality is also present. Cybernetic thinking is especially exacerbated by involving the observer (second-order cybernetics; SOC). It’s an insight that the observer actually is the creator of the observation, therefore is entangled (in circular causality) with their understanding of the situation (Benjamin Taylor, correspondence).

Feedbacks between the observer and the object of concern reveal indeterminacy (chaos) between them. The smartest feature of SOC is its ability to domesticate the chaotic component (uncertainty) of complex systems by identifying what affects what, in which direction, frequency, amplitude, and under which conditions. To domesticate the beast, the cybernetic constructivist needs only to identify major factors of uncertainty that come with complexity and invent a better design to deal with these factors, improve monitoring and risk management.

The constructivist shapes problems that involve uncertainty so that they become accessible to cybernetic treatment. In this self-fulfilling context, problems are first shaped as cybernetic, and then the cybernetic approach is ‘identified’ as the most relevant for managing them.

Cybernetics is simultaneously systemic and chaotic. This suggests that cybernetics is an appropriate approach for dealing with complex issues that are themselves situated between the systemic and chaotic organisation of things. However, cybernetics adapts and embeds chaos into systems, it does not treat them as equal. Complexity instead stands as a bridge between systemic and chaotic considerations with no aspiration to weigh between them or exert any control over them.

For instance, cybernetics aims to intermediate directly between the micro and macro level (between the individual and society) from the bottom-up, spontaneously, behind our backs, and hidden from direct observation. This is possible only with the assistance of a little magic, with a cybernetic version of deus ex machina. In ancient Greek theatre, playing with gods is neither safe nor should it be considered a decent undertaking. Horace wrote in Ars Poetica that poets should never resort to a ‘god from the machine’ to resolve their plots unless a difficulty worthy of a god’s unravelling should happen.

The specific constructivist feature of SOC is its reliance on black box methodology (Glanville). It allows for the interpretation of a change in a system (between its micro inputs and macro outputs) or in behaviour as if it were the result of the operation of an invisible mechanism, held within a box. Black box methodology enables one to operate while remaining essentially ignorant about how the micro and macro are connected. The black box approach only excuses one to play god when faced with own constraints: radical uncertainty, eternity, everything that is beyond our existential experience.

Instead of invoking gods to resolve the Earthly problems of mortals, we can choose to open the black box by employing the middle ground perspective of complex issues where order and disorder meet. Complex issues develop in a mesoscopic way between systems and chaos, which is one level of considerations higher than the rational preference of cybernetics for order despite disorder.

(Edited on 4/VI/2021)

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Bojan Radej

A methodologist in social research from Ljubljana; Evaluator. Slovenia. Author of "Social Complexity" Vernon Press, 2021.