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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Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action

Design Cybernetics: Navigating the New
Thomas Fisher and Christiane M. Herr, Editors, Springer

This is an update (with changes) to an earlier version.

Abstract 
Ranulph Glanville came to believe that cybernetics and design are two sides of the same coin. The authors present their understanding of Glanville and the relationships they see between cybernetics and design. They argue that cybernetics is a necessary foundation for 21st century design practice: 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 making explicit one’s values and viewpoints, accompanied by the responsibility to justify them with explicit arguments; this incorporates subjectivity and the epistemology of second-order cybernetics. If second-order cybernetics, then conversation: Design grounded in argumentation requires conversations so that participants may understand, agree, and collaborate on effective action – that is, participants in a design conversation learn together in order to act together. The authors see cybernetics as a way of framing both the process of designing and the things being designed – both means and ends – not only design-as-conversation but also design-for-conversation. Second-order cybernetics frames design as conversation, and they explicitly frame “second-order design” as creating possibilities for others to have conversations.

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Designing Within Systems

The following is the introduction to Jorge Arango’s 2018 book Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places

Designing has roots in craft — in making “things,” in giving them form. And at one level, designing is concerned with “how things look,” their shape, color, and material. Yet, while “good form” is important, form is not the only concern in designing. Designers are coming to realize that “things” are enmeshed in networks — “gathered together” in systems — biological systems, systems of goods and trade, information systems, social systems, systems of technology, and more. And increasingly, designers are recognizing that we are designing within systems.

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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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