The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics

The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics

The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics

The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics

Synopsis

Heinz von Foerster was the inventor of second-order cybernetics, which recognizes the investigator as part of the system he is investigating. The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name provides an accessible, nonmathematical, and comprehensive overview of von Foerster's cybernetic ideas and of the philosophy latent within them. It distills concepts scattered across the lifework of this scientific polymath and influential interdisciplinarian. At the same time, as a book-length interview, it does justice to von Foerster's elan as a speaker and improviser, his skill as a raconteur. Developed from a week-long conversation between the editors and von Foerster near the end of his life, this work playfully engages von Foerster in developing the difference his notion of second-order cybernetics makes for topics ranging from emergence, life, order, and thermodynamics to observation, recursion, cognition, perception, memory, and communication. The book gives an English-speakingaudience a new ease of access to the rich thought and generous spirit of this remarkable and protean thinker.

Excerpt

Heinz von Foerster is one of the most consequential cybernetic thinkers in the history of the field. He was born in 1911 in Vienna, Austria, into a progressive bourgeois family of architects, designers, artists, and activists. Hailing from a partially Jewish background, he weathered the Nazi era by moving with his wife from recognition in Vienna to obscurity in Berlin. His university studies in physics enabled him to secure employment in corporate research laboratories. After repatriation at the end of World War II, Foerster worked at a telephone company and as a commentator for a radio station operated by the American military. in 1949, he came to the United States seeking employment. He gained the attention of Warren McCulloch, who subsequently brought him into the later meetings of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics and assisted his securing an academic position in the Electrical Engineering department at the University of Illinois. in 1957 he established his own research program there, the Biological Computer Laboratory, and directed it until it closed and he retired in 1975. a series of seminal colleagues and collaborators came to the bcl, among them Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, Gotthard Günther, Lars Löfgren, John Lilly, and Humberto Maturana. After retirement and almost until his death in 2002, Foerster maintained an active round of conference attendance and professional speaking engagements.

In all that time, although he was the author or coauthor of nearly two hundred professional papers, and despite his growing renown and significance within a variety of fields, he never wrote a book. Nor—unlike, for instance, Gregory Bateson, who did so in Mind and Nature—did Foerster . . .

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