Cybernetics: An Analysis of Interpersonal Communication Problems Between Roommates
University of Colorado at Boulder
One cannot escape communication - it is an intrinsic characteristic of life. Due to differing communication styles and ideas, people naturally encounter a variety of communication problems. Human communication problems are multifaceted and can be examined through various communicative lenses, all of which frame the communication problem in a different way. When scrutinizing interpersonal communication problems between roommates, the cybernetic theory provides a unique way of analyzing the system in which communicative messages are sent and received via a linear transmission model of communication. Weiner’s theory of cybernetics is useful in analyzing how messages between roommates can be distorted when the natural flow of message translation is interrupted due to system malfunctions.
Explanation of the Theory
The cybernetic tradition views communication as the processing of information. Norbert Weiner (1954) defines cybernetics as the science of communication and control in machines and living organisms, and he emphasizes that machine, animal, and human communication are not essentially different from one another (Weiner, 1954). A person is aware only of the orders that have gone from the sender to the receiver and of the signal of compliance sent back by the receiver. Furthermore, Weiner describes two distinct types of machines: simple and complex. A simple machine is a machine that has no way to counteract change or disorganization within a system. Examples of simple machines include a music box or a battery-operated clock on a wall. A complex or cybernetic machine is able to use adaptive responses, or “sense organs,” to maintain control in the environment. Humans are examples of cybernetic machines (Craig, Lecture, Oct. 6, 2009). A key aspect of Weiner’s theory focuses on the issue of controlling these machines within communication systems. Weiner emphasizes that the basic purpose of communication is to control the environment in which we live. According to cybernetics, if people are able to control the environment of the communication system, then communication problems can be resolved.
Author Magnus Ramage (2009) agrees with Weiner’s theory of cybernetics and states, “the pervasiveness of information and the ease of its transmission are at the root of a large number of contemporary debates and crises” (p. 736). According to the cybernetic theory, the frequency of information that people process on a daily basis create communication problems due to control issues and system malfunctions or “noise.” Noise is defined as anything that can hinder the flow of information in the communication system. If the flow of information is somehow interrupted, then there is a loss of control in the environment, and an increase in entropy. Entropy is the amount of disorder or randomness in a system. Weiner (1954) explains, “just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization…it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy” (p. 4). Thus, Weiner suggests that more information given in a communication system facilitates greater stability and organization.
In order to maintain organization and control, a force must counteract the natural tendency for entropy to increase over time. Weiner explains that feedback involves sensory organs that process information about changes in the environment and is able to adjust the system’s organization in order to counteract or amplify certain changes (Weiner, 1954). Negative feedback is used to counteract change that is occurring, and often leads to a more organized and controlled environment. Positive feedback amplifies changes that occur and can ultimately destroy a system unless negative feedback is used to stabilize the environment (Craig, Lecture, Oct. 6, 2009). Several practical applications of Weiner’s theory of cybernetics can be applied to communication problems in relationships, as the following example will illustrate.
To apply the cybernetic tradition of communication theory to a practical problem, consider a house full of eight roommates who live together in a college town. Nicole, one of the roommates, is considered a motherly figure in the house because she is in charge of all monthly bill payments and communication between the residents of the house and the landlord. Nicole has also put herself in charge of making sure each roommate contributes to cleaning the house as well as purchasing necessary items such as dishwashing detergent and paper towels. Because each roommate has a different schedule, Nicole relies on Facebook messages and notes left around the house to relay information about monthly bill payments and maintenance. According to the cybernetic theory, communication between the roommates is a transfer of information primarily through written notes. These messages and written notes that Nicole sends to her roommates is a form of control that she employs to maintain order within the system so that the house will stay organized and bill payments for utilities and rent will be received on time. In other words, Nicole uses information through messages as a form of control to prevent an increase in entropy.
During the beginning weeks of the semester, the system runs smoothly. Nicole’s seven roommates write monthly checks so that bills and rent are paid on time, and everyone contributes to make sure the house is fully stocked with cleaning and kitchen supplies. Since the system appears to have no malfunctions, Nicole believes that her method of communication and control is working – the system appears to maintain a certain equilibrium. The accomplishment of writing checks on time and keeping up with the cleaning schedule sends a signal of compliance from the other roommates back to Nicole. As the semester continues, however, the roommates become busy with homework and other activities and entropy within the system begins to increase. Although Nicole continues her same techniques of communication, checks are not written on time, the other roommates begin to slack on cleaning duties, and household necessities begin to run low because nobody purchases them. This problem of increasing entropy will perpetually continue and possibly accelerate as long as Nicole consistently uses the same communication techniques over and over again (positive feedback).
The communication problem that Nicole and her roommates face is a lack of control due to noise in the system. Because Nicole is the same age as all of the other girls who live in the house, she is perceived as holding the same amount of power within the environment as each of her other roommates. Over time, this creates noise in the system because the rest of the girls begin to interpret Nicole’s messages as domineering and rude. Furthermore, because Nicole relies on communication through Facebook and written notes left around the house, some roommates might not effectively receive her messages, which would contribute to more noise in the system. These system malfunctions that are created overtime must be counteracted with negative feedback in order to regain equilibrium and uninterrupted flow of information.
To solve the problem of control within the environment, Nicole begins to set a time when all of the roommates are able to meet with each other in person every two weeks. During these meetings, Nicole sends messages via verbal communication to each of her roommates in order to reduce the current increase of entropy. These face-to-face interactions of information processing serve as negative feedback within the system because they are an attempt to counteract the disorganization that has recently occurred. Because all of the roommates are basically equal in terms of power relations in the house, Nicole must continue to use different forms of negative feedback within the system in order to control the amount of entropy and to avoid system malfunctions.
Through the lens of cybernetics, the problem between Nicole and her roommates arises from an interruption in the flow of the system. The roommates are aware of the household tasks that need to be done and are aware that the house needs to be cleaned on a regular basis. Thus, there is no error in the substance of the communication itself, but rather in the way that the receivers process the information.
Weiner’s cybernetic theory is a good way to analyze communication on a surface level of processing information between senders and receivers. It is especially useful when comparing humans to machines. Magnus Ramage (2009) comments on Weiner’s theory by stating, “the parallel between human and machine activities was particularly important to the development of digital computers…and subsequently influenced a wide range of disciplines, including computing, psychology and management” (p. 740). Weiner developed the cybernetic theory in 1954, which was long before the age of advanced technology. The ideas of sending and receiving messages, entropy, and feedback that Weiner presents in his theory are all applicable to the technological machines that are frequently used in communication processes today; yet other theories, such as the systems model discussed by Deetz (n.d.), may be more applicable when framing complex human communication problems.
Stanley Deetz critiques the cybernetic theory of communication by questioning how meaning arises and is used during a communicative process. Deetz suggests that a systems model is a useful way to evaluate the relationship between meaning and communication. He explains, “a systems perspective assumes that meanings arise between people as they communicate…the primary concern is with how meaning is created and how each participate in that creation rather than in meaning transmission” (n.d., p. 3). When analyzing the communication problem between Nicole and her roommates, one can see that there is more to the problem than the mere transmission of messages and the processing of information. While the cybernetic view is a good way to look at some of the issues associated with noise in the system, it fails to consider the meaning production (or lack thereof) that is occurring between the roommates.
Deetz also offers a critique of the idea of control in a communication system. According to the systems model, control or power creates an unequal opportunity to discuss options and create a shared meaning in the process of communication. When one person holds a power role and tries to control the communication, the environment “…may become skewed and systematically distorted in development which leads to more narrow goal accomplishment” (n.d., p. 5). The control that Nicole tries to assert over the other people in the house not only creates tension, it also prevents open discussion and meaning production by inhibiting participation by the other roommates.
The complexities of human communication make it difficult to explain the problems that arise through only one communicative lens. The cybernetic theory explains the phenomenon of communication as an abstract entity composed only of information channels rather than as an inherent quality attached to an individual. This separation of communication from the person makes cybernetics useful in explaining message transmission and information processing, yet fails to analyze deeper roots of communication problems. Weiner’s theory of communication as a linear transmission highlights the importance of the expansion of communication theories in order to help analyze communication problems and practices in the future. One theory on its own cannot explain the intricacy of communication problems. Thus, it is useful to study a combination of theories to frame problems in different and more useful ways in order to better understand communication problems in our society.
Craig, R. T. (2009). Lecture Notes, University of Colorado, October 6, 2009. Slides 1-15.
Deetz, S. (n.d.). Linear or systems models of communication. Communication 3210, University of Colorado at Boulder.
Ramage, M. (2009). Norbert and Gregory: Two strands of cybernetics. Information, communication & society, 12, 735-749).
Wiener, N. (1954). Cybernetics in history. In The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society (pp. 15-27). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.