Was Granduncle Wiener Also Thinking About Governance…Not Just Cybernetics?

Actually it was my own grand-uncle, Norbert Wiener, who is the MIT professor Dr. Turnbull refers to in his paper (in the previous post)as the father of cybernetics, the core concepts upon which automated device and computers are based. Wiener thought cybernetics could also be applied in other areas, such as society in general. A key aspect of cybernetics was the stablizing or destablizing effect of feedback loops.

I do not agree with all of Dr. Turnbull's proposals. However, I have often thought, like Dr. Turnbull, that corporate governance theory needs to think about how to incorporate more effective negative feedback loops, and stable positive feedback loops, and mechanisms (in turn) to make each even more effective.

From Norbert Weiner, 1994-1964: http://www.isss.org/lumwiener.htm

The idea of cybernetics came to Wiener at the beginning of the forties, prompted by his work on anti-aircraft defence and by contacts with colleagues in Mexico (Behavior, purpose and teleology with A. Rosenblueth and J. Bigelow, Philos.Sci 1943). lt was made known to the world by the book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, published in l948 after contacts in l946 with M. Freymann of Hermann et Cie (Paris). Coined from the Greek kubernetike (the art of the steersman), cybernetics involves the theory of regulation and of signal transmission applied to technical devices, living beings and even societies. It may also concern the art of government, or cybernétique as Ampère conceived it in 1843, which Plato, using the already existent Greek word, compared to that of the captain of a ship. Two main ideas play a part in cybernetics: negative feedback with its stabilizing properties, and transmission of information, which helps to make a whole of the many parts of a complex system, whether living or not. The metaphor of the computer, with the role of Boolean logic, is also present in cybernetics. It is of interest to note that Wiener, remembering Leibniz's calculus ratiocinator and his construction, after Pascal, of a mechanical computer, considered him a patron saint of cybernetics, whereas Warren S. McCulloch favoured Descartes.

As noted in this MIT Centennial explanation, Wiener was fascinated by unstable feedback mechanisms:


As I understand it, positive feedback (correctly understood; not the psychological kind) is often inherently unstable. An example would be a noisy cocktail party, where people have to talk louder and louder just to make themselves heard. This of course just adds to the din and makes everyone have to speak even more loudly in order to be heard. Positive feedback tends to create an inherently unstable situation, leading to violent oscillations and even breakdown of the system.

This is just one example of an unstable feedback mechanism, but to me, this sort of positive feedback is a good analogy for what happens when groupthink undermines the objectivity of board members who have recently been receiving good news, or have not experienced new types or risks, or have not recently been faced with the consequences of risks. Good recent results canlead to more time spent on overlyoptimistic discussion, which becomes increasingly difficult to interrupt with concerns about risk. Conversely, whenraises concerns, negative feedback loops (which are stronger in times of optimism) tend to lower the volume by which he/she is permitted to speak. Colleagues feel like avoiding, or not wasting time with, the messenger of fears that are not presently occurring.

I think we would all agree (post facto) that some of the worst board decisions took place under conditions of unstable feedback mechanisms. to the extent Tepco's board ever discussed risk management policies, one can imagine that in a general sense the above paragraph probably descibes what took place (or rather, what did not take place.)

Here is a critique of Wiener's ideas as viewed from a human communications perspective:


I think it is fair to say that he had some brilliant ideas, but the devil is still in the details….and unfortunately, we still have to figure out those details.

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