Cybernetic Transdisciplinarity as Pedagogy



Cybernetics, Transdisciplinarity, Design, Pedagogy


A core characteristic of cybernetics is the construction of transdisciplinary theory through the creation of analogies between different situations in terms of feedback processes. Feedback, which can be understood as processes where the observed outcomes of action are taken as input for new action, is widespread across social, ecological, biological, and technological contexts, giving cybernetics its transdisciplinary character. Cybernetics is often abstract in character, seeking to understand principles that apply in many situations. For instance, Wiener characterized cybernetics as relevant to both “the animal and the machine”, Ashby saw it as concerned with “all possible machines”, and Mead understood it as form of language “sufficiently abstract to make it possible to cross disciplinary boundaries”. This abstraction affords cybernetics its extraordinarily broad scope, explanatory power, and transgressive character, with ideas able to move between contexts. However, this abstraction also brings limitations. First, it focuses attention on general principles at the expense of material embodiment and the specifics of a situation. Second, positioning cybernetics as explanatory tends to characterize its relation to practice in terms of a theory-application relationship that is, at least to some extent, at odds with cybernetics’ core ideas about circularity. Third, the ease with which cybernetics moves ideas between contexts risks uncritical deployments of its analogies as if they represent equivalencies, such as thinking of machines as if they are brains or vice versa.

In this paper, we present a way in which cybernetic analogies may be deployed in a manner which is embodied (rather than abstract) and methodological (rather than explanatory). The example we take is from our own teaching practices, focusing on a curriculum developed in the context of supporting postgraduate architecture and design students in understanding research. This is an area in which cybernetics has theory to offer, notably Glanville’s argument that research (including scientific research) is designed. By outlining the approach to teaching and learning developed in this curriculum, we describe how Glanville’s theoretical stance may be reformulated as a pedagogic process, where students reposition their growing expertise in design as expertise in (designing) research. We discuss the advantages of this in the context of education for design research, such as avoiding positioning research as something external to design and opening research to the sorts of critique that one may apply to other design outcomes. Reviewing the legacy of this curriculum in students’ subsequent project work, we conclude by speculating on the extent to which the pedagogic approach presented here may be taken up in other practical situations.