T306 Block 1: Activity 38

Responding to the distinctions about the observer.

Find a way of expressing your emotional and rational responses to the material in Box 1 about the observer.

The “Box 1” material is reproduced below:

How the observer has come into focus

Cybernetics, although often applied to the control of machines, has long been one of the foundations of thought about human communication, its central notion being circularity. Cybernetics ‘arises when effectors, say a motor, an engine, our muscles, etc., are connected to a sensory organ which, in turn, acts with its signals upon the effectors. It is this circular organization which sets cybernetic systems apart from others that are not so organized’ (von Foerster, 1992). In first-order cybernetics it was the idea of feedback control which mainly occupied the practitioners, but in time the question ‘what controls the controller’ returned to view (Glanville 1995a,b) and the property of circularity became the focus of attention once again.

Second-order cybernetics is a theory of the observer rather than what is being observed. Heinz von Foerster’s phrase, ‘the cybernetics of cybernetics’ was apparently first used by him in the early 1960s as the title of Margaret Mead’s opening speech at the first meeting of the American Cybernetics Society when she had not provided written notes for the Proceedings. [The understandings which have arisen from second-order cybernetics…] requires a loosening of our grip on the supposedly certain knowledge that is acquired objectively, about a reality existing independently of us, and a willingness to consider the constructivist idea (see Mahoney, 1988) that we each construct our own version of reality in the course of our living together. The virtue of objectivity was that the properties of the observer should be separate from the description of what is being observed. This led to what von Foerster (1992) called the Pontius Pilate attitude of abrogating responsibility because the observer is an innocent bystander who can claim he or she had no choice. The alternative attitude, which seems to be less popular today, is to own a personal preference for one among various alternatives.’

(Fell and Russell, 2000)

I get the first paragraph. I’ve been a telecoms engineer in the past and feedback loops are at the heart of any radio system. I’ve also covered lots of control diagrams during my T214 studies and I understand how systems can control themselves using feedback from some output or other.

The second paragraph, however…

Clearly, we can all observe the same thing and come up with different ideas about what we’ve seen. I’ve played at plenty of brass band contests and it’s a rare day that everyone agrees with the awarding of the winning band. We might have heard the same notes but there’s always a subjective element to an observation, and this relates to our perspectives and worldviews. We see, read or hear something and our past colours the response.

I’m not entirely sure what this activity is trying to get to me. I agree that everyone’s objectivity is only totally valid to themselves. Millions of us may have very similar ideas about something but we all do have very slightly emotional responses to what we see due to our worldviews. This is an unconscious response and we need to know that it’s there so that we can work with it.

I think that science does at least try and factor this out from its results, although as scientists are all people with their individual subjective biases this is not always totally successful. The peer-review process should reveal a lot of these biases and make the work more “pure”.

I may need to revisit this exercise once I’ve read a bit further on.

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