Cybernetics: Intro to utility and scholarship

The cybernetics academic community is a rich and varied area of research, but in my opinion it is death to the academic career. The principles of cybernetics were developed and co-opted by what would later become computer scientists. In other disciplines the principles of command and control (which are only one aspect) further eroded the discipline. Much like cyberspace there are many definitions of cybernetics but much like cyberspace they exist as biased by the founding discipline of the viewer. The basic principle is that of feedback loops (which influenced Boyd’s OODA loop and most of decision sciences), and the human as systems (Man machine interface and much of computer science), and finally dynamics of systems (feedbacks, security, etc.).  

Cybernetics is referred to as a trans-disciplinary science. The perceived value of cybernetics is that it allows a larger umbrella of discussion than mere programming or computing. As an example computer security is a subset of information security, but you’d never get that idea reading a DISA security technical implementation guide. The focus is inherently on the hardware and software rather than the information that needs to be secured. There are three decades of information security professionals that think their entire discipline is about certification and accreditation of systems. That focus also explicitly ignores the human which results in a social issue of information technology professionals treating users poorly. This is a symptom of the tool being more important than the use of the tool. The entire policy and practice of computing is riddled by these inconsistencies and bitter ironies which are identified explicitly through cybernetics.

So there is utility and value in studying cybernetics.

There is another value and I’ll be honest I’m struggling with it myself. Cybernetics has strong roots in describing chaotic systems. Whether we believe in the concept or not there is an emerging environment called cyberspace. We describe cyberspace and then insert an analogy or metaphor. Since all analogies and metaphors are lossful this is problematic. We end up with logical leaps which create chaos such as mistaking the tools for the environment. When former DepSecDef Lynn said cyberspace was the first man made domain he couldn’t have been more wrong. He was thinking the Internet was cyberspace. The electronic warfare folks are invested in making it the electronic magnetic spectrum. These are all ways of saying the ocean is ships. Much of this in government circles I think is driven by rice-bowl politics. The NSA is heavily invested in making sure we think of cyberspace is the network where they can do signals. Which misses human to human transmission of data/information. The NSA would describe this as “out of band” communication. The CIA would pick it up as HUMINT but the result is a strategic seam where adversaries can operate.

Describing cyberspace requires a fine understanding of data which begets information which is systemic and results in effects. Data is not 1’s an 0s. it is data in many different forms. Claude Shannon said that data was made up of bits. I’m not sure I agree other than in very specific computational systems. Analog and chemical computers do not use the concept of 1‘s and 0‘s. Regardless even the concept of data is the analogy of cyberspaces constituent parts. If I asked you to describe the ocean your perspective would as an aviator would be significantly different than as a submariner. Diverse opinions should be expected based on the biases of the community. Port owners and ship owners have completely different views of the sea too.

I said that cybernetics is death to the academic career. Even though the principles have been absconded with by various disciplines the concept of cybernetics as a discipline has been eroded. There are no “tier 1” journals to publish within for the aspiring academic. There is an IEEE group the “Systems, Man, & Cybernetics Society” but even they are fairly varied. There is an American Society of Cybernetics but the names are not currently tied to conflict literature and would be lost on most (though not all) of us. There is an international conference. There are no grants for the aspiring research professor to seek. At a CISE (NSF computer science grant) meeting the mention of cybernetics can cause you grief. Common criticism would be the lack of focus or sustainability. Most cyberneticians operate in one domain explicitly and use the principles of cybernetics implicitly. Yes this is my personal bias and no offense is meant to those who would express themselves explicitly as cyberneticians.

The social and cognitive sciences have been strongly engaged in the second generation of cybernetics. Whether cognitive psychology, political science, or psychotherapy the concepts have been useful. Recently a young PhD student I know moved from an international relations program to a quantified political science program. In my opinion his efforts to quantify, evaluate, and assess the social process inputs and then derive epistemologically the outputs of those systems and various feedback loops are classic cybernetics with the human at the center. The era of big-data has generated an extensive collection of analysts and scientists. It will be interesting to see what happens as they dig into the literature deeper and find some of previous generations problems that required the kind of computing they have now. That will be very interesting to watch.

You didn’t ask, but I’d answer what is the utility of cybernetics?

As a former DoD civilian serving in a joint role I see the information operations doctrinal documents and look for authorities and planning matrixes. If I pulled up cyberspace operations doctrine I’d do the same. Grab the electronic warfare doctrinal and I use much the same process. Where do I operate, how do I operate, and where are my interfaces to that process? As a cyberneticist I take ALL of the documents I look at the technologies, the systems of systems, and the inputs/outputs and evaluate how they work with humans as the center. This is obviously not a trivial task and it has to be iterative. Why do I do this? I can find those disconnected processes and areas that are instrumental in exploitation. The ultimate hack (exploit) isn’t in breaking something but using a tool or process exactly as designed for a purpose nobody expected. This works with computing systems and it most assuredly works with human systems.

An output of my research and still unpublished is something I call black belt cyber. Using the approaches and techniques found in cybernetics I fused the OSI 7 Layer model into a complex information systems model for risk management designed by John McCumber and then utilized an operational risk management heuristic for evaluation. The principle is to identify systemic perturbations and seams in the planning process as feedbacks quickly while allowing for security or adversarial activity as outputs. While extensively more than a pipe dream (100k’s of observations) I’m not sure it will ever see much more than a poster as output. While definitively described by cybernetics literature and exceptionally new it has political baggage.

You will find very little cybernetics research in the area of conflict. The discipline eschews topics that could even be considered close to harmful to human actors. Much like the political correctness around renaming information operations and psychological operations to “military information support operations” we see cybernetics minimizing the concepts of command and control where humans are concerned. An academic mentor about 20 years ago … oh dang 30 years ago… I’m getting old… Told me that cybernetics was dead, dead, dead, shoot it in the head dead. Still I find value in the writings and research that allow me to describe, evaluate, and assess systems in a way that others can’t. When we discuss conflict in cyberspace the precepts of the discipline cybernetics is invaluable. When a telecommunications guy says they own cyberspace I think about using television. When an IO person talks about owning the message I think about degradation and disruption of the communication channel.

I think most of the negativity surrounding cybernetics and conflict ignores the golden age of cybernetics came out of World War 2. Norbert Wiener was advancing the cybernetic concept in anti-aircraft control systems. Claude Shannon and others were considering the systems of systems in command and control. The Norden Bombsight was a direct result as a piece of technology of these concepts. Currently there is much unreasoned debate over the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones). The proponents of drones castigate the detractors for unreasoning fears while the detractors respond that fears are not misplaced in push button warfare. Both camps don’t understand there are reasoned scientific discussions to be had about complex systems, command and control systemic decay rates, perceptual and cognitive losses in the use of autonomous weapons systems. Many of these issues are discussed in cybernetics literature extensively.  It should be noted that the Norden bombsight was an abject failure in combat.

Academic career in cybernetics? You didn’t ask but I got to add.

The only place in academia I found that I could engage in my interest in cybernetics was “cyber” (computer) forensics. In this area we are implicitly interested in the actor/entity activity between man and computational construct. Because this is an applied area in the College of Technology where we actually do stuff I am marginalized and stigmatized while teaching in one of the top engineering schools in the country. The only growth area for computer forensics currently is in tools for detection and investigation of child pornography. There is little to no money applied to white collar crime or large scale e-discovery. Child pornography is inherently a psycho/social/cognitive research area but less than a tenured academic might hope his career might be built upon subject wise.

This technology stigma is not unusual as I felt the same stigma applied when I worked in IRMC at NDU. There it was the NWC/ICAF actually fight wars and IRMC spends money stigma. In other times we might refer to the tail versus teeth problem. When they rebranded IRMC as the iCollege they actually hurt themselves with their core constituency by trivializing the role of information in fighting wars. What neither side realizes is that information technology isn’t the tail of the dragon it is the nervous system. Both sides ignore that information technology touches every point in the war fighting process. Unfortunately the leadership at IRMC never figured out that they should discover the business rules of fighting wars and apply the discipline of information technology to those rules rather than try and confirm themselves as also teeth. There is a growing movement in the information technology world called DevOps that has strong ties to these concepts. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody in government who understands DevOps.

An academic career is a job and not a path to self worth. Personally I don’t derive personal self worth from title or job. I’m all about the “do cool stuff” in life. My CV uncharacteristically for an academic shows that clearly. Mentioning in a meeting of computer science faculty how cybernetics described the system they were discussing got me sideways glances. I publish to rarely for a successful career in academia. I seek grants to fund grad students and S&E money so I can get the tools I need. I’m building the future not an empire and that decreases my chances of promotion. My goal is to bring students to my university to do cool stuff and infect them with the concepts of cybernetics. This is most assuredly not aligned with the university incentives for professors. There is great utility in the concepts but there is also much bias against practitioners and scholars of cybernetics.

Leave a Reply