Good morning, self-organizing systems!"
The cheerful speaker smiled with a polished ease and adjusted his tie.
"I am indeed very happy to find the Office of Naval Research joining
with the Armour Research Foundation in organizing this conference on
what I personally consider an exceedingly important topic, and at such a
It was a spring day in early May, 1959. Four hundred men from an
astoundingly diverse group of scientific backgrounds had gathered in
Chicago for what promised to be an electrifying meeting. Almost every
major branch of science was represented: psychology, linguistics,
engineering, embryology, physics, information theory, mathematics,
astronomy, and social sciences. No one could remember a conference
before this where so many top scientists in different fields were about
to spend two days talking about one thing. Certainly there had never
been a large meeting about this particular one thing.
It was a topic that only a young country flush with success and
confident of its role in the world would even think about:
self-organizing systems -- how organization bootstraps itself to life.
Bootstrapping! It was the American dream put into an equation.
"The choice of time is particularly significant in my personal life,
too," the speaker continued. "For the last nine months the Department of
Defense of the United States of America has been in the throes of an
organizational effort which shows reasonably clearly that we are still a
long way from understanding what makes a self-organizing system."
Hearty chuckles from the early morning crowd just settling into their
seats. At the podium Dr. Joachim Weyl, Research Director of the Office
of Naval Research, beamed and continued. "There are three basic elements
I'd like to call to your attention which can be studied best. From the
area of computers we will, in the long run, draw our essential
understanding of the element of memory that is absolutely and inevitably
present in what you might call in the future 'self-organizing systems.'
You might go so far, as I have done, as to say that a computer is
nothing but a means for a memory to get from one state to another.
"The second element biologists call differentiation. In any system that
will evolve it is quite clearly necessary that you have what the
geneticists have called mutations, essentially random events. Some
initial triggering mechanism is needed to push one group in one
direction, and another in another direction. In other words, environment
containing noise has to be relied on to furnish the triggering mechanism
on which the long-term selection rule will operate.
"The third basic element probably presents itself most purely and most
accessibly when we are dealing with large social organizations. Let me
call it, for the purpose here, subordination, or if you wish, the
There they were: signal noise, mutations, executive function,
self-organization. These words were spoken before the arrival of the DNA
model, before digital technology, before departments of information
management systems, and before complexity theory. It is difficult to
imagine how alien and innovative these ideas were at the time.
And how right. In one fell swoop 35 years ago, Dr. Weyl outlined my
whole 1994 book on the breaking science of adaptive, distributed systems
and the emergent phenomenon they engender.
While the prescience of the 1959 meeting is remarkable, I also see
something remarkable on the other side: how little our knowledge of
whole systems has advanced in 35 years. Despite the great progress made
recently and reported in this book, many of the basic questions about
self-organization, differentiation, and subordination of whole systems
still remain mysterious.
The all-star lineup who presented papers at the 1959 conference was a
public rendezvous of scientists who had been convening in smaller
meetings since 1942. These intimate, invitation-only gatherings were
organized by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, and became known as the
Macy Conferences. In the spirit of wartime urgency, the small gatherings
were interdisciplinary, elite, and emphasized thinking big. Among the
several dozen visionaries invited over the nine years of the conference
were Gregory Bateson, Norbert Wiener, Margaret Mead, Lawrence Frank,
John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch, and Arturo Rosenblueth. This stellar
congregation later became known as the cybernetic group for the
perspective they pioneered -- cybernetics, the art and science of
Some beginnings are inconspicuous; this one wasn't. From the very first
Macy Conference, the participants could imagine the alien vista they
were opening. Despite their veteran science background and natural
skepticism, they saw immediately that this new view would change their
life's work. Anthropologist Margaret Mead recalled she was so excited by
the ideas set loose in the first meeting that "I did not notice that I
had broken one of my teeth until the Conference was over."
The core group consisted of key thinkers in biology, social science, and
what we would now call computer science, although this group were only
beginning to invent the concept of computers at the time. Their chief
achievement was to articulate a language of control and design that
worked for biology, social sciences, and computers. Much of the
brilliance of these conferences came by the then unconventional approach
of rigorously considering living things as machines and machines as
living things. Von Neumann quantitatively compared the speed of brain
neurons and the speed of vacuum tubes, boldly implying the two could be
compared. Wiener reviewed the history of machine automata segueing into
human anatomy. Rosenblueth, the doctor, saw homeostatic circuits in the
body and in cells. In Steve Heims's history of this influential circle
of minds, The Cybernetics Group, he says of the Macy Conferences: "Even
such anthropocentric social scientists as Mead and Frank became
proponents for the mechanical level of understanding, wherein life is
described as an entropy-reducing device and humans characterized as
servomechanisms, their minds as computers, and social conflicts by
mathematical game theory."
In an age when popular science fiction had just hatched, and was not the
influential element it now is in modern science, the Macy Conference
participants often pushed the metaphors they were playing with to
extremes, much as science fiction writers do now. At one conference
McCulloch said, "I don't particularly like people, never have. Man to my
mind is about the nastiest, most destructive of all the animals. I don't
see any reason, if he can evolve machines that can have more fun that he
himself can, why they shouldn't take over, enslave us, quite happily.
They might have a lot more fun, invent better games than we ever did."
Humanists were horrified by such speculations, but under this
nightmarish, dehumanized scenario some very important concepts were
buried: that machines might evolve, that they might really be able to do
practical intellectual chores better than we could, and that we share
operating principles with very sophisticated machines. These are very
much metaphors of the next millennium.
As Mead wrote later of the Macy Conferences, "Out of the deliberations
of this (cybernetics) group came a whole series of fruitful developments
of a very high order." Specifically, the ideas of feedback control,
circular causality, homeostasis in machines, and political game theory
were born there and gradually entered the mainstream until they became
elemental, almost cliché, concepts today.
The cybernetic group did not find answers as much as they prepared an
agenda for questions. Decades later scientists studying chaos,
complexity, artificial life, subsumption architecture, artificial
evolution, simulations, ecosystems, and bionic machines would find a
framework for their questions in cybernetics. A short-hand synopsis of
Out of Control would be to say it is an update on the current state of
But therein lies a curious puzzle. If this book is really about
cybernetics, why is the word "cybernetics" so absent from it? Where are
the earlier practitioners of such cutting-edge science now? Why are the
old gurus and their fine ideas not at the center of this natural
extension of their work? What ever happened to cybernetics?
It was a mystery that perplexed me when I first started hanging out with
the young generation of systems pioneers. The better-read were certainly
aware of the early cybernetic work, but there was almost no one from a
cybernetic background working with them. It was as if there was an
entire lost generation, a hole in the transmission of knowledge.
There are three theories about why the cybernetic movement died:
Cybernetics was starved to death by the siphoning away of its funding to
the hot-shot-but stillborn-field of artificial intelligence. It was the
failure of AI to produce usefulness that did cybernetics in. AI was just
one facet of cybernetics, but while it got most of the government and
university money, the rest of cybernetics' vast agenda withered. The
grad students fled to AI, so the other fields dried up. Then, AI itself
Cybernetics was a victim of batch-mode computing. For all its great
ideas, cybernetics was mostly talk. The kind of experiments required to
test its notions demanded many cycles of a computer, at its full power,
in a completely exploratory mode. These were all the wrong things to ask
of the priesthood guarding the mainframe. Therefore, very little
cybernetic theory ever made it to experiment. When cheap personal
computers hit the world, universities were notoriously slow to adopt
them. So while high school kids had Apple IIs at home, the universities
were still using punch cards. Chris Langton started his first a-life
experiments on an Apple II. Doyne Farmer and friends discovered chaos
theory by making their own computer. Real-time command of a complete
universal computer was what traditional cybernetics needed but never
Cybernetics was strangled by "putting the observer inside the box." In
1960, Heinz von Foerster made the brilliant suggestion that a refreshing
view of social systems could be had by including the observer of the
system as part of a larger metasystem. He framed his observation as
Second Order Cybernetics, or the system of observing systems. The
insight was useful in such fields as family therapy where the therapist
had to include him- or herself in a theory of the family they were
treating. But "putting the observer into the system" fell into an
infinite regress when therapists video-taped patients and then
sociologists taped therapists watching the tape of the patients and then
taped themselves watching the therapists....By the 1980s the rolls of
the American Society of Cybernetics were filled with therapists,
sociologists, and political scientists primarily interested in the
effects of observing systems.
All three reasons conspired so that by the late 1970s cybernetics had
died of dry rot. Most of the work in cybernetics was at the level of the
book you are now reading: armchair attempts to weave a coherent big
picture together. Real researchers were bumping their heads in
frustration in AI labs, or working in obscure institutes in Russia,
where cybernetics did continue as a branch of mathematics. I don't
believe a single formal textbook on cybernetics was ever written in