Stuart Umpleby: Role of Cybernetics in Intelligence — Extrapolation

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Stuart Umpleby
Stuart Umpleby

Downloadable Document:  2011 AAAS Security Policy & Cybernetics Dr. Stuart Umpleby

As I understand it, the fundamental problem with secret intelligence is too much self-reference and too little peer review.  Stated differently, any advice from a subordinate to a superior has two components — describing some observed system and wanting to please the boss.  Peer review also has the usual human flaws but works pretty well in the academic community.  Peer review, which requires openness/ transparency/ honesty, is a way of testing descriptions.  Too little peer review and the self-serving aspects of advice-giving can seriously distort advice and over time the conceptual frames used to interpret events.

Now add in covert operations, including white, gray, and black propaganda, well-developed methods of regime change, assassination, etc. and one has a very potent, largely unregulated bureaucracy within the govt.  Where is the oversight? To preserve secrecy the oversight must be internal, carried out by the honesty and patriotism of the participants and through political appointments.  But organizations, as well as individuals, develop their own views and may feel that oversight, or a change in policy from the top, is uninformed, naive, misguided.  The intelligence community may then decide to take matters into its own hands.  Does this description adequately explain the “Bay of Pigs” events?

Some secret intelligence will probably always be part of politics, but certainly the vast majority should be open and subject to peer review.  I think a “systems analysis” of intelligence operations would be helpful.  The attached memo provides some larger context.


By Stuart Umpleby

I am representing the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) in the AAAS Consortium of Affiliates for Security Policy (CASP).  I speak for myself, but as a past president of the Society and a member of the Board of Trustees for several years, I think my views are similar to those of other members of the ASC.  Before I address the questions that were posed to CASP members, let me first provide some history on the field of cybernetics.  A series of ten conferences on “circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems” was held in New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  When Norbert Wiener published his book Cybernetics:  or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, the conferees adopted “cybernetics” as a shorter title.  Although the early applications of cybernetics were in electrical engineering, computer science, and robotics, more recent applications have been in psychotherapy, management and the philosophy of science.  Current research at meetings of the American Society for Cybernetics usually focuses on second order information activities, e.g.,  studies of the process of design, the management of high performing research teams,  conceptions of how to regulate the global economy, and suggestions to improve science policy by studying the history of the development of ideas.

  1.   Is research in the U.S. moving from long range fundamental work towards shorter-term, more applied work? 

Yes.  In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s cybernetics attracted considerable attention in the U.S.  Indeed the field was largely created in the U.S. Key contributors were Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, John von Neumann, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, and Heinz von Foerster.  Currently cybernetics is not well known in the U.S., even though most professionals now spend several hours a day in “cyberspace.”  Whereas research in cybernetics in the U.S. is declining, activity is increasing in Europe and Asia. (Cho, et al., 2010) How can these trends be explained?  There are basically two reasons.

First, cybernetics, as discussed at meetings of the American Society for Cybernetics (, has changed greatly.  It has passed through four phases – engineering cybernetics, biological cybernetics, social cybernetics, and design cybernetics. (Umpleby, 2008) One example of current work is to redesign the philosophy of science so that it can more easily encompass the social sciences.  Although those who have heard the term “cybernetics” still associate it with computers and robotics,  I believe that cybernetics may one day be interpreted as the science underlying the social and design sciences, in somewhat the same way that physics underlies the engineering disciplines.  Whereas physics provides a general theory of matter and energy, cybernetics provides a general theory of information and regulation, whether these occur in individuals, groups, organizations, nations, or machines.

Second, there is a cultural difference in how Americans and Europeans establish meaning. (Tsay, et al., 2009) In order to interpret theoretical principles Americans look for examples or practical applications.  Europeans look for a larger context in terms of philosophical schools of thought.  Hence, Americans “reason down” to specifics.  Europeans “reason up” to place an idea within a larger whole.  The result is that Americans usually do not try to create more general theories.  Europeans do.

When the field of cybernetics was created in the years after World War II, quite a few European scientists, then living in the U.S., were involved.  Most of these scientists have now died, and the laboratories and institutes that they established have been closed.  Meanwhile interest in cybernetics in Europe and Asia has been increasing.  I think we need to ask ourselves whether we want this trend to continue.

  1.   Is DoD currently supporting emerging subfields or subdisciplines that may have great potential, and are there newly emerging areas that DoD is insufficiently aware of?

Yes, but in cybernetics the subfields are being supported but the main field is not.  Currently fundamental cybernetics research receives little support either from government agencies or from private foundations.  The disadvantage in not supporting fundamental cybernetics research is that important ideas need to be periodically reinvented.  A good example is the recent interest in complex adaptive systems.  Although this subfield has made noteworthy contributions, mostly of a technical nature, my feeling is that most of the practitioners are working to create a theory that already exists in the literature on self-organizing systems from the 1960s.  A second example is cognitive science.  Research on cognition in cybernetics in the 1960s and 1970s led to a new conception of knowledge and a reconsideration of epistemology.  The more recent work in cognitive science, although technically much more advanced, has stopped short of reconsidering theories of knowledge.

Work in cybernetics and systems science suffers from a lack of educational programs in universities.  The result is inefficient development of the multidisciplinary knowledge in the systems sciences.  There is no shortage of promising subdisciplines but focusing on subdisciplines, such as complexity theory, artificial intelligence, robotics, and cognitive science, has contributed to the neglect of the larger fields of cybernetics and systems science, which continue to make leading edge contributions to psychology, philosophy, economics, and management.  Of course, the recent work in social cybernetics may be of less interest to DoD than research in computers and robotics.  So, what opportunities are being missed? Here are a few examples:

  1. Cybernetics has made important contributions to psychotherapy and family therapy or “system therapy.”  As just one example, this work can be helpful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and in helping populations cope with the consequences of violence, e.g., in Iraq and Afganistan.
  2. Reflexivity theory, advocated by George Soros (1987), has not been widely accepted by economists, but it is quite compatible with contemporary cybernetics.  This theory can be helpful to government regulators who manage economic systems, a topic of current interest.  Having more people familiar with cybernetics would speed the development of practical applications of this theory. Reflexivity theory (interaction between ideas and society) would also help to inform the nation-building activities of DoD.
  3. Vladimir Lefebvre’s (1982) theory of reflexive control was used at the highest levels of the U.S. and USSR governments during the break-up of the Soviet Union.  It is a theory of two systems of ethical cognition, but it is also a theory of very deep-seated cultural differences.  Because this theory is rooted in mathematics, it is not well-known to social scientists.
  4. The field of management cybernetics, based primarily on the work of Stafford Beer and Russell Ackoff, has grown up outside the meetings and journals of the Academy of Management (AOM), the main academic society for U.S. management professors.  The result is a large gap in language and concerns with management cybernetics being well-grounded in theory and philosophy in addition to practice.  Because it is based on theories of information and regulation, management cybernetics is particularly suited to understanding and operating within a knowledge-based economy.
  5. The difficulties faced by the systems sciences since World War II (trying to survive in discipline-oriented universities) led John Warfield to propose “the Wandwaver Solution” (available through a web search).  He suggested that universities be thought of as having three colleges.  The Heritage College would contain the arts and sciences (knowledge from the past).  The Professional College would contain schools of business, law, and medicine (current practice).  The Horizons College would be design and policy oriented and the core curriculum would be systems science and cybernetics.  I believe experiments should be conducted with this design.
  6. There are now several versions of “science 2” being discussed (  Is there a disciplinary base for such discussions in universities?  A Horizons College would provide a suitable home.


Cho, Min, Mateo Ruggia and Stuart Umpleby.  “The Shift of Cybernetics from the U.S. to Europe.”  Proceedings of the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, Philadelphia, PA, June 24-26, 2010.

Lefebvre, Vladimir.  Algebra of Conscience:  A Comparative Analysis of Western and Soviet Ethical Systems. Reidel, 1982.

Soros, George: The Alchemy of Finance: Reading the Mind of the Market, Chichester: Wiley, 1987.

Tsay, Han-Huei , Mateo Ruggia and Stuart Umpleby, “Convergers and Divergers : A Dimension of Cultural Difference between the U.S. and Europe.”  Proceedings of the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, Paris, France, July 16-18, 2009.

Umpleby, Stuart.  “A Brief History of Cybernetics in the United States,” Oesterreichische Zeitschrift fuer Geschichtswissenschaften (Austrian Journal of Contemporary History), Vol. 19, No. 4, 2008, pp. 28-40.

(Papers can be found at

Prepared for the AAAS Consortium of Affiliates for Security Policy, February 2011.

Phi Beta Iota:  If an Open Source Agency (OSA) were to be established, cybernetics should be a huge part of its strategic methodology.

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