Growing up, I used to think the word cybernetics was something to do with robots. According to Businessballs the definition goes like:

Cybernetics is the science of control and communications in animals, including humankind, and machines. The study of cybernetics has been used in various ways since ancient times to attempt to explain and understand and manage the effective workings of all manner of systems - social, organisational, animal, mechanical, electronic and others. As such, the cybernetics concept (notably 'the first law of cybernetics') is immensely relevant to the modern development of management, and one's own role and potential within systems of all kinds.


My background is in Electronic (Communications to be more precise) Engineering, and as such I am familiar with issues and concepts such as noise, filters, signal/noise ratio, feedback (positive and negative), and so on.

This old USAF training film also discusses some of these concepts: MAN AND SAFETY - COMMUNICATIONS - YouTube

As does this Wikipedia (I know, but it seems ok): Communication - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Barriers to successful communication include message overload (when a person receives too many messages at the same time), and message complexity.

Physical barriers: Physical barriers are often due to the nature of the environment. Thus, for example, the natural barrier which exists, if staff are located in different buildings or on different sites. Likewise, poor or outdated equipment, particularly the failure of management to introduce new technology, may also cause problems. Staff shortages are another factor which frequently causes communication difficulties for an organization. Whilst distractions like background noise, poor lighting or an environment which is too hot or cold can all affect people's morale and concentration, which in turn interfere with effective communication.

System design:
System design faults refer to problems with the structures or systems in place in an organization. Examples might include an organizational structure which is unclear and therefore makes it confusing to know who to communicate with. Other examples could be inefficient or inappropriate information systems, a lack of supervision or training, and a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities which can lead to staff being uncertain about what is expected of them.

Attitudinal barriers:
Attitudinal barriers come about as a result of problems with staff in an organization. These may be brought about, for example, by such factors as poor management, lack of consultation with employees, personality conflicts which can result in people delaying or refusing to communicate, the personal attitudes of individual employees which may be due to lack of motivation or dissatisfaction at work, brought about by insufficient training to enable them to carry out particular tasks, or just resistance to change due to entrenched attitudes and ideas.

Ambiguity of Words/Phrases:
Words sounding the same but having different meaning can convey a different meaning altogether. Hence the communicator must ensure that the receiver receives the same meaning. It would be better if such words can be avoided by using alternatives.

Individual linguistic ability
is also important. The use of difficult or inappropriate words in communication can prevent people from understanding the message. Poorly explained or misunderstood messages can also result in confusion. We can all think of situations where we have listened to something explained which we just could not grasp. Interestingly, however, research in communication has shown that confusion can lend legitimacy to research when persuasion fails.

Physiological barriers: may result from individuals' personal discomfort, caused—for example—by ill health, poor eyesight or hearing difficulties.

Presentation of information:
is also important to aid understanding. Simply put, the communicator must consider the audience before making the presentation itself and in cases where it is not possible the presenter can at least try to simplify his/her vocabulary so that majority can understand.

With respect to noise:

In any communication model, noise is interference with the decoding of messages sent over a channel by an encoder. There are many examples of noise:

Environmental Noise:
Noise that physically disrupts communication, such as standing next to loud speakers at a party, or the noise from a construction site next to a classroom making it difficult to hear the professor.

Physiological-Impairment Noise:
Physical maladies that prevent effective communication, such as actual deafness or blindness preventing messages from being received as they were intended.

Semantic Noise:
Different interpretations of the meanings of certain words. For example, the word "weed" can be interpreted as an undesirable plant in your yard, or as a euphemism for marijuana.

Syntactical Noise:
Mistakes in grammar can disrupt communication, such as abrupt changes in verb tense during a sentence.

Organizational Noise:
Poorly structured communication can prevent the receiver from accurate interpretation. For example, unclear and badly stated directions can make the receiver even more lost.

Cultural Noise:
Stereotypical assumptions can cause misunderstandings, such as unintentionally offending a non-Christian person by wishing them a "Merry Christmas".

Psychological Noise:
Certain attitudes can also make communication difficult. For instance, great anger or sadness may cause someone to lose focus on the present moment. Disorders such as Autism may also severely hamper effective communication.

Given that the First Law of Cybernetics states that The unit within the system with the most behavioural responses availible to it controls the system, does it mean that anyone with an impaired ability to understand others' responses and to control their own is disabled?

Also since everything comes down to perceptions, does this explain why bullshiters and ar$e kissers always seem to win promotions and get their ideas accepted? Their message is what the recipient wants to hear, therefore it appears to have a better S/N ratio than others, particularly when the message is what the recipient wants to hear (yes, it's a brilliant idea)?

How useful is this in understanding behaviour, either as an individual or as part of a group?
Absolutely fascinating, and very insightful of you. Actually, I'm lying. It says nothing that a reasonably intelligent person couldn't work out for themselves (assuming it carried on through the middle and the end as it had started, only my eyes had glazed over due to that being the visual equivalent of white noise).
Cyberneticss is pseudo-science psychobabble for people trying to sell books on waffle.

Watch Catch Me If You Can. It tells you everything you need to know about the benefits of intra-personal communication.

Admittedly my knowledge of cybernetics is rather patchy and limited to large bits of trivia, but it's far more than pseudoscience. In fact, modern communications as we know it was shaped by early cyberneticists, including Alan Turing, Jon von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Albert Beer, Norbert Weiner and many others.

Claude Shannon: Devised the Shannon Formula that enables us to measure the amount of information in an exchange, based on the definition of information as the degree of change from uncertainty to a state of certainty. This change can be quantified and measured in bits, even for social interactions, and this is ultimately how Internet traffic is encoded.

Alan Turing: After the war, he joined something called the 'Ratio Club' (some elitist group), where he did some study into the influence of Baynesian logic on peoples' beliefs.

Albert Beer: Commissioned by Allende to design cybernetic system (CyberSyn) for controlling the Chilean economy (or large parts of it). This system was to be a large telex network, plus a couple of mainframes, that enabled a central committee to regulate production across the country.

It's actually quite surprising how little information we actually communicate without realising it. For example, you could spend a good five minutes communicating just 6-bit information over a PRC 320 that could otherwise be sent in a single TCP/IP packet. Or you could spend an hour listening to a sermon in Church, and not receive even 1 bit of information.
Cybernetics is really a mix of other disciplines, including Physics and Engineering (particularly control/communications aspects), Computer Sciences, Psychology, and Neuroscience.

The communications concepts mentioned are the basics of Communications Engineering. The Shannon/Hartley formula was devised non for the use of Engineers and system planners. There are limits to the amount of information that a certain system can transmit/recieve/process, and these are fundamental to system design.

Did you know that Frequency Modulation was originally devised as an attempt to beat the limits? Today, different communications systems achieve certain levels of performance by trading S/N ratio and bandwidth. Where do you think spread spectrum systems came from? How do you get broadband via a twisted pair telephone cable? How does your GPS receiver work?

Likewise, every Electronics Engineer, particularly those involved in Communications, is well ware that one of the fundamental problems to contend with is Noise. This is of course a huge topic and effects system design, operation, etc, etc. Why do you think satellite dishes have a LNB attached? Why do old fashioned TV aerials (and other antennae) have amplifiers as near as possible to the antenna (look up Friss' (spelling?) noise equation). Where does the term white noise come from?

Then we have concepts like response time, feedback, open and closed loop systems, latency....

Naturally. some have wondered if these type of concepts apply to interpersonal communications, or to human/machine communications. Common sense shows that they do. Whilst a lot of this is common sense, the fact that it is also based on hard technical facts helps remind people to pay heed. The classic one is the need to verify information by checking with the source. The challenge and response techniques used in some situations is like two systems handshaking.

These principles offer insights into the problem of information overload, or not being able to access the right information promptly. Imagine the operations room (or CIC as the Americans would call it) of a warship in combat, or in near combat conditions? Or the operators in a chemical plant, or a nuclear power station? Or the driver of a vehicle?
Given that the First Law of Cybernetics states that The unit within the system with the most behavioural responses availible to it controls the system,
Hmm. Not convinced of that. I can envisage systems wherein an individual component can be very flexible, but the components it interacts with effectively filter out its responses.

Your reference states that the version of the first law is also known as 'the law of requisite variety'. I don't think the businessballs statement is a correct interpretation of the law of requisite variety, which (AFAICT) is more along the lines of for appropriate regulation the variety in the regulator must be equal to or greater than the variety in the system being regulated - ie, it's the whole control system response that counts not necessarily any individual element of that control system.

Latest Threads