Articles

The relevance of cybernetics to design and AI systems

Knowledge of cybernetics is increasingly relevant to both what and how designers design.

Cybernetics is the science of feedback, information that travels from a system through its environment and back to the system. A feedback system is said to have a goal, such as maintaining the level of a variable (e.g., water volume, temperature, direction, speed, or blood glucose concentration). Feedback reports the difference between the current state and the goal, and the system acts to correct differences. This process helps ensure stability when disturbances threaten dynamic systems, such as machines, software, organisms, and organizations.

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Making sense in the data economy

We perpetually interact with our technologies. On the one hand they serve us, and on the other hand they control us.1 Computers, smartphones, and the infrastructure surrounding them now mediate much of our communications, affecting not only whom we can reach and who can reach us but also what we can say and what we can hear. Our communications tools free our language and our thinking and also govern them. Our technologies affect not only how we “make sense” but also what we mean by “making sense.”

The proliferation of sensors, smart-connected products (Internet of Things), the measurements they generate (big data), on-demand computing (the cloud), and pattern-finding software (AI) are changing how individuals and organizations interact. New distributed structures challenge established centralized organizations. Boundaries between inside and outside are blurring. And everywhere, more and more of what we do is recorded.

As we design with these new technologies, they offer new tools and new materials on which to work, but they also change the design process and the roles designers play in it.

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Connecting things: Broadening design to include systems, platforms, and product-service ecologies

Encountering Things book cover

Encountering Things: Design and Theories of Things, edited by Leslie Atzmon & Prasad Boradkar, Bloomsbury 2017.

 

Traditionally, design practice and design education have focused on giving form to physical things—apparel, buildings, messages, tools, and vehicles—the artifacts that constitute material culture. These artifacts are also the material of the traditional design disciplines—apparel design, architecture, graphic design, product design, and transportation design.

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Distinguishing between control and collaboration—and communication and conversation

In their paper “from Autonomous Systems to Sociotechnical Systems: Designing Effective Collaborations,” Kyle J. Behymer and John M. Flach remind us “the goal of design is a seamless integration of human and technological capabilities into a well-functioning socialtechnical system.”1 Recent trends—the sensor revolution, big data, machine learning, and intelligent agents, for example—make their reminder timely.

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Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action

Working for decades as both theorist and teacher, Ranulph Glanville came to believe that cybernetics and design are two sides of the same coin.

Working as both practitioners and teachers, the authors present their understanding of Glanville and the relationships between cybernetics and design.

We believe cybernetics offers a foundation for 21st-century design practice. We offer this rationale:

  • If design, then systems: Due in part to the rise of computing technology and its role in human communications, the domain of design has expanded from giving form to creating systems that support human interactions; thus, systems literacy becomes a necessary foundation for design.
  • If systems, then cybernetics: Interaction involves goals, feedback, and learning, the science of which is cybernetics.
  • If cybernetics, then second-order cybernetics: Framing wicked problems requires explicit values and viewpoints, accompanied by the responsibility to justify them with explicit arguments, thus incorporating subjectivity and the epistemology of second-order cybernetics.
  • If second-order cybernetics, then conversation: Design grounded in argumentation requires conversation so that participants may understand, agree, and collaborate on effective action. Second-order cybernetics frames design as conversation for learning together, and second-order design creates possibilities for others to have conversations, to learn, and to act.

— Hugh Dubberly[1] and Paul Pangaro[2]

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How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design

Cyber_Social_Graph

Written by Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro. Originally published by the Walker Art Center in the catalog for the exhibit Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.

“Man is always aiming to achieve some goal and he is always looking for new goals.”
— Gordon Pask[1]

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A Systems Literacy Manifesto

In 1968, West Churchman wrote, “…there is a good deal of turmoil about the manner in which our society is run. …the citizen has begun to suspect that the people who make major decisions that affect our lives don’t know what they are doing.”[1] Churchman was writing at a time of growing concern about war, civil rights, and the environment. Almost fifty years later, these concerns remain, and we have more reason than ever “to suspect that the people who make major decisions that affect our lives don’t know what they are doing.” Examples abound.

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VoteStream: Turning Elections Data into Open Data

Written for DMI magazine — Summer 2014.

US elections technology—the infrastructure on which democracy depends—is proprietary, locking up public data; unlocking that data is a design challenge on many levels.

— Hugh Dubberly

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Systemic and meta-systemic laws

With the publication of The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Humberto Maturana established himself as an important figure in the history of systems thinking. His essay “Metadesign” is a strong argument against technological determinism and points to our responsibility for the world we create; it should be required reading for all design students.

Over the past several years, Maturana (now 84) has collaborated with Ximena Dávila to produce a set of essays on “human biological-cultural living,” which have not been translated into English. At the heart of the book are 30 “laws” that summarize much of their thinking about biological and cultural systems. These laws provide insights for managers, designers, teachers, and students grappling with challenges in a world in which all forms of design (and especially software and service design) increasingly require systems thinking. Everyone interested in systems thinking should study these laws.

As Maturana and Dávila have noted, their “systemic and meta-systemic laws are not definitions, ontological assumptions, or a priori principles, they are abstractions of the operation of systems in the different sensory-operational-relational domains in which we distinguish them.”

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor

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The problem with transparency is that it’s not conspicuous enough

This article proposes a model of transparency, the idea that a good tool “disappears” in the hands of skilled users. The article then proposes a model of design as the management of a dynamic transparency. In use, we often want a tool to be transparent, but other times, in the show room or in front of guests for example, we may want the tool to call attention to itself. And finally, the article argues that design theory (and presumably design models) are best when they too are transparent.

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor

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