Cybernetics in Classroom Communication
University of Colorado at Boulder
This paper applies Wiener's cybernetic theory to a problem in classroom communication and concludes with a critique of the theory.
Norbert Wiener defines Cybernetics as the science of communication and
control in both machines and living things. Cybernetics is the theory of how
information processing (Communication) is used to control different systems and
highlights machine-like aspects of communication. A major assumption of Wiener’s
theory is that machines, animals, and human communication are similar in nature
and therefore analogous systems. Francis Heylighen and Cliff Joslyn (2001) argue
that “what distinguishes cybernetics is its emphasis on control and
communication not only in engineered, artificial systems, but also in evolved,
natural systems such as organisms and societies, which set their own goals,
rather than being controlled by their creator” (p. 2).
Entropy and information feedback are the theory of Cybernetics’ major components. Entropy is often interpreted as a degree of disorder or randomness in the system. Cybernetics sees the world to be naturally disorganized so we communicate to avoid entropy- to maintain control over the system in order to keep it organized. As Wiener (1954) explains, “just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization” (p. 17). In other words, information can reduce entropy. Cybernetic systems process information through their “sense organs” that track changes in the environment, or feedback. This allows for adaptive responses that counteract entropy; the system can adjust its outputs so as to cancel out alterations through negative feedback or amplify changes in the environment through positive feedback. If there is too much positive feedback, the changes are perpetually amplified and the system can be altered in its essence, also known as a runaway process.
Consider the communication system in the Physical Anthropology lecture taught by Professor Loudon. The units involved in this system are the students and Professor Loudon. According to the Cybernetic theory, communication in this sense is the transferring of subject matter from Professor Loudon to the students- he is sending information about his knowledge on the subject of physical anthropology. He forms the messages and transmits the information through verbal explanation of power points slides. Through this communication, Professor Loudon is trying to control what the students learn throughout the semester and avoid entropy, or a chaotic classroom.
At the start of the semester the students are neutral to the subject- this is the baseline in the communication system. However, it doesn’t take long for the students to start partying and stop schoolwork and the classroom to become disorganized and out of control. In this case, the “sense organ,” or a gauge of the system's change, is the midterm exam. Unfortunately, the exams came back with a very low grade point average. The gauge signifies that the classroom system has changed from its neutral baseline to be more chaotic.
If the Physical Anthropology teacher got the test grades back, ignored the fact that everyone did poorly, and continued to communicate using the same methods then it would be evident that he was not processing feedback from the students. If the class had done very well on the test, then Professor Loudon would continue to send new information and amplify the positive change in the classroom. This would be an example of positive feedback; his teaching caused the situation to change and the class to become more controlled. Because the class did poorly, the professor goes back to resend the messages that the students have not received using different methods including classroom discussion groups and more examples. Professor Loudon’s actions to counteract the entropy are an example of negative feedback because he is trying to counteract the disorganization in the classroom system. This aspect of the communication system between the professor and the students illustrates a key point in the Cybernetic theory- feedback.
According to the Cybernetic theory, the problem in this classroom is that the students are not receiving the message; there is a system malfunction because the flow of information from the professor to the students is broken down. Perhaps there is noise in the communication channel such as the students are looking at Facebook instead of paying attention, the lawn mower outside is loud and distracting, or the PowerPoints are hard to see. The communication complications could be from information overload if Professor Loudon is trying to send too many messages to the students. Excess information can lead to the students deflecting some messages and getting overwhelmed with the information- causing them to retain less in the long run. Overall, the Cybernetic theory would identify this classroom’s problems as a result of control malfunctions. While Professor Loudon might seem to have control over the information that is sent to the students, he does not have adequate control over the information that the students process- the major function of communication.
It is important to note that the problem in the Anthropology class, according to Wiener’s theory, is not one of content confusion but of transmission errors. The fact that Cybernetics doesn’t address the meaning of messages and their implications on the system is something to be critical of. It would be beneficial for Cybernetics to look at the bad midterm grades as a result of the students not understanding the course material- that they are not grasping the concepts shared by Loudon. Perhaps, then, the Anthropology problem is not seen as one with the structure of the system or a breakdown in the flow of information but with the content that is not being learned.
Another critique of the Cybernetic theory is its assumption that one party is dominant in the communication system. Stanley Deetz would be critical of this asymmetrical power relationship as suggested by the seventh assumption of his Systems model; communication systems “may become skewed and systematically distorted in development which leads to more narrow goal accomplishment” (p. 5). Professor Loudon’s dominance in the communication system is ultimately hurting the message transfer and leading to system inefficiency. A less dynamic power hierarchy would lead to more open interaction and the professor would get more feedback that the students are not clearly receiving his messages.
Cybernetics thinks of all communication as analogous with machines; “When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person” (Wiener, 1954, p. 15). However, it must be pointed out that information processing between humans is more complex than message compliance and factors such as previous experience, feelings, and the relationship between the interacting units are influential to the system. In the classroom, the students and professor see midterm grades as different indications- the class average as a C to the students is a disappointment while a professor interprets a C average as acceptable and normal. These different notions of acceptable test grades come from previous experience, as explained in Deetz’s systems model and this is an aspect of communication that cannot be ignored.
It is important to recognize that all theories of communication are merely abstractions of a broader idea. Wiener created his theory in the 1950’s when technologies like personal computers and the internet were only a figment of the imagination but with the “explosive growth of information-based technologies, the need will again be felt for an encompassing conceptual framework, such as cybernetics” (Heylighen & Joslyn, 2001, p. 5). In conclusion, it is my belief that lots of problems can arise when analyzing human communication through the theory of Cybernetics but when examining technological communication Wiener’s theory is a beneficial framework.
Deetz, S. (n.d.). Linear or systems models of communication. Communication 3210, University of Colorado at Boulder.
Heylighen, F., & Joslyn, C. (2001). Cybernetics and second-order cybernetics. In R.S. Meyers (Ed), Encyclopedia of physical science and technology (3rd ed). New York, NY: Academic Press.
Wiener, N. (1954). Cybernetics in history. In The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society (pp. 15-27). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.