Norbert Wiener's Cybernetic Theory and Parental Control
University of Colorado at Boulder
Norbert Wienerís Cybernetic Theory
In 1948, Norbert Wiener published his book Cybernetics in which he develops a theory of communication and control. He coins the term "cybernetics" to elaborate on the existing theory of the transmission of messages by incorporating his idea that people send messages within a system in effort to control their surrounding environment (Wiener, 1954, p.15). In his theory, he compares humans to machines to illustrate how human communication is no different from the way machines function when given an order to complete a task. This is to say that when a human sends a message, they are only aware that it has been received once the recipient replies, either verbally or nonverbally. Additionally, he suggests that humans operate in a machine-like manner that is highly based on information processing and the constant desire to control our environment as well as the environment of those around us. In his article, Cybernetics In History, Wiener (1954) mentions his thesis from his previous publication on the Cybernetic theory:
Since the development of Wienerís thesis, machines have become a more prominent part of our modern world. Although his theory was first developed over half a century ago, the ideas he uncovered continue to be present in todayís society.
The basic function of communication, which Wiener defines in his theory as the processing of information, is to control the environment in which one lives. He explains, "information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it" (Wiener, 1954, p.16). This idea suggests that the goal of human communication is to become familiarized with a certain environment while simultaneously influencing aspects of it. With this, Wiener asserts that, "the purpose of Cybernetics to develop a language and techniques that will enable us indeed to attack the problem of control and communication in general, but also to find the proper repertory of ideas and techniques to classify their particular manifestations under certain concepts" (Wiener, 1954, p.16). Thus, he defines the problem with communication in terms of control and system malfunctions through the understanding of the Cybernetic theory.
One way that a system can malfunction within an environment is with the increase of entropy. Wiener (1954) introduces the idea of entropy into his theory as the extent to which a system is disorganized (p. 20). A system is not capable of organizing itself. Thus, if there are no means of control forcing a system to maintain structure, the system will become less organized and the level of entropy will increase (Wiener, 1954, p. 20). In order to counteract this natural tendency for entropy to increase within a system, Wiener (1954) argues that information is the tool necessary to maintain organization and structure within an environment (p. 20). This information, in being both sent and received, is a form of control and is the basis for Wienerís belief that information processing is exhibited by controlling an environment.
In comparing humans to machines, Wiener points out that there are two types of machines in his Theory of Cybernetics. Wiener (1954) refers to simple machines as closed, clockwork-based apparatuses that do not require any communication with the outside world (p. 21). They repeat their designated task in a pattern, regardless of any factors in their surrounding environment influencing them one way or another. For example, in most modern refrigerators, when a person opens the door, the light turns on. When he or she closes it, the light switches of. The person does not need to tell the refrigerator to light up; rather it has been built to function this way in order to preserve energy. Without being given any information, the refrigerator will illuminate each time it is opened, whether or not the person needs the light in order to see. In addition to these simple machines, a modern, or more complex machine relies on the processing of outside information in order to act in a certain way (Wiener, 1954, p.21). Wiener classifies these machines as cybernetic systems given that they are able to sense feedback from the environment and adapt their behavior accordingly in order to function within its system (Wiener, 1954, p.21). Human beings fall into this category because we constantly send and receive messages from our environment and alter our behavior in order to be socially accepted by our peers.
Another aspect of Wienerís theory is the incorporation of feedback within an environment. Wiener (1954) defines feedback as, "the control of a machine on the basis of its actual performance rather than its expected performance" (p. 23). Complex machines exemplify this incorporation of feedback. This can be easily applied when we go to the movies, as we know that it would be frowned upon to engage in conversation with those around us; however, when entering a party we are aware that it would be rude to sit quietly and we would receive feedback from others in the room that our behavior seemed odd at such a social event. According to de Rosney (1997), negative feedback maintains structure in an environment by counteracting any change that takes place within a system. Positive feedback does exactly the opposite by amplifying change in an environment, and can ultimately lead to the destruction of a system as the level of entropy accelerates to entirely diminish the function of the system in its environment.
Applying the Cybernetic Theory to a Communication Problem
Imagine Elise, a 15-year-old girl living with her parents. Family structure represents a hierarchal system composed so the function of her parents is to control her actions by sending her messages regarding what is permitted in their household. Her whole life, they have taught her what is right and what is wrong as well as how to function properly in society. Eliseís parents tell her that she should not drink alcohol because it is illegal. She receives the message and nods her head that, in theory, transmits a message back to her parents of her obedience. Now, suppose her parents go out of town for the weekend, leaving Elise home alone. Kids at her school convince her to throw a party and when her guests show up, they bring alcohol. Now, her peers have disrupted the communication system created between her and her parents. As they integrate "noise" into the system in the form of peer pressure, they are causing the system to breakdown.
Problems arise when the system becomes overloaded with peer pressure for Elise to do things that her parents would not permit. In this situation, there is a problem with control in the relationship between Elise and her parents. Wienerís theory of Cybernetics assumes that her parents have the ability to control her because they have transmitted a message and believe that she will comply, as she showed no objection to their rules in their face-to-face interaction. The problem suggested here deals with the paradox of control; it is impossible to assume complete control over the decisions someone makes without becoming more controlled, or more machine-like in our own actions. In this situation, Eliseís parents cannot control her because they left her alone with the house, opening up the opportunity for her to resist their control and become influenced by her peers.
Upon her parentsí return, they receive a phone call from the neighbors informing them that Elise threw a party while they were gone. This is an example of feedback within the system and her parents now react in terms of what actually happened instead of what they expected to happen had the system not been interrupted. Because Eliseís parents are aware that they can no longer trust her alone with the house, they must come up with a new approach to keep their daughter out of trouble. Now, her parents can use this feedback to come up with effective tactics to counteract the change in their environment such as setting a strict curfew, leaving her with a babysitter when they are out, or other approaches to control their daughterís behavior.
Overall, the Cybernetic theory would define this situation as problematic in regard to information processing within the system. Leaving Elise alone allows for a high amount of entropy to enter the system, as she had no guidance from her parents in her decision-making process. Even though Elise appears to have gotten the message when she nods in compliance to her parentsí rules, there is inefficient communication between them. Leaving her alone in the house leads to the systemís malfunctioning when the noise, or peer pressure, adds to the breakdown of the system by blocking Elise from fully receiving the message that her parents intended to transmit.
A Critique of Wienerís Cybernetics
Wienerís Cybernetic theory is useful in situations where there is a clearly understood hierarchy by all members of that system. At the workplace, the boss is expected to send messages to his employees and they are in turn expected to follow those orders. If an employee does not do as he is told, his employer can use negative feedback to stabilize the system and fire him. Feedback is a strong component of stabilizing the systems to which we belong. It is important to know when it is appropriate to act in certain ways, and when those behaviors would be frowned upon. Wienerís theory successfully incorporates this aspect of social acceptance and provides tools to help one more fully understand his or her relationship with others as they send and receive messages based on their actions and feelings.
Although Wiener sets up a concrete approach to understanding human communication by means of information processing, there are some apparent flaws that present themselves in analyzing his theory. Feedback can be used to increase the control of one person over another, leading to the assumption that one person is dominant in the relationship. Even in hierarchical situations, such as Eliseís, there is no such thing as absolute control over another, as they may exhibit resistance. This flaw is best demonstrated by Wienerís machine analogy in that his theory assumes that both parties within a relationship are built like machines. However, real-life situations often present themselves with a greater deal of emotion that hinders them from acting in a machine-like manner. In practice, Wienerís theory of Cybernetics sets up a paradox of control wherein the only way we can control others is by becoming more controlled ourselves. In a system that requires people to comply with the commands of others, nothing can be done when these rules are broken unless the dominant party enacts some sort of punishment for those who do not comply. Otherwise, people within the system will continually send and receive messages that are disregarded and the problem becomes ignored
One shortcoming of Wienerís theory is that it assumes that, since people are built like complex machines, we are capable of interpreting and processing feedback and making changes in order to fit in to an environment. The Cybernetic Theory was later studied in interaction between client-patient relationships. In studying why problems in relationships are difficult to change, Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson (1967) propose a more understandable approach to cybernetic systems; stating that, "interpersonal systems may be viewed as feedback loops, since the behavior of each person affects and is affected by the behavior of each other person" (p. 31). Watzlawick et al. (1967) then describe how the emergence of homeostasis in a relationship explains why relationships can be hard to change as they systematically resist change. This goes beyond Wienerís theory of Cybernetics to explain why problems in human relationships are not easily influenced by feedback. Instead, relationships become structured in a way that makes them nearly impossible to change. In combining the ideas of Wiener and Watzlawick et al., one could clearly interpret communication problems framed as control and system malfunctions, therefore better understand how to alter his or her behavior in opening up communication to solve the problems with which he or she is faced.
de Rosney, J. (1997, January 6). Feedback. Retrieved September 29, 2008, from http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/FEEDBACK.html
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J.H., & Jackson, D.D. (1967). Some tentative axioms of communication. In Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes (pp.48-71). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Wiener, N. (1954). Cybernetics in History. In The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society (pp.15-27). Boston: Houghton Mifflin