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An Introduction to Cybernetics Paperback – January 25, 2015
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Really, Cybernetics is so amazing that probably will be the reason that someone will save the world. Probably a few politicians should read this.
Since I'm not in the US i have trouble returning the item to Amazon. So just leaving this comment for everyone else to be aware.
To elaborate let me say that one of the goals of any introductory text is to provide a general overview of the subject matter in as clear and concise of manner as possible. Dr. Ashby does one better. Not only does he accomplish this aim, but while doing so he manages to develop a theoretical and technical foundation of understanding that goes right to the bedrock of eternity itself.
For instance one of the most primitive but arcane concepts in all physics is entropy. I personally spent decades trying to reduce entropy to a simple understanding but was always confounded by the "entropy is a measure related to heat engines, but also related to disorder," rhetoric. After all, pragmatically what do heat engines and scrambled eggs have in common? I sure wasn't able to connect the dots in any kind of intelligent way. Moreover it seemed no one else could either. After reading dozens of various books on the matter the explanations of the authors always fell short of offering the simple enlightenment I sought. However, in "Intro to Cybernetics" Dr. Ashby not only explores entropy in a way that is drop-dead simple (the entropy factor is overshadowed by a general principle which governs more than a reservoir of heat energy), but he goes on to show how information and control principles are the flip-side of the entropy principle. Tersely, the entropy principle is abstractly about variety or choice (reflected in Boltzmann's S=kLogW), while information and control is about selection and constraint.
Everyone has experience with this model. Consider that laundry taken from a dryer and cast on a bed can potentially fall into a multiplicity of different arrangements. But it is only after a cybernetic mechanism uses certain rules of selection to apply some measure of constraint that the state of the laundry converges to an orderly stack. Also consider that a car moving along a roadway literally has innumerable trajectories it can follow at any point along the path. However cars typically arrive safely at their destinations thanks to a control mechanism which uses sophisticated selection rules to apply constraint to the vehicle so as to avoid disastrous outcomes. Moreover, The unique selections of genes and genetic activity in the metabolisms of various organisms act to constrain the ordering of raw matter to the specific types of structures and behaviors these things possess. This too is an example of how information and control mechanisms limit the possible arrangements of matter to a very narrow subset, i.e. a dog, a cat, etc.
In fact, Dr. Ashby is able to show how this abstract model of variety vs. constraint literally expands so as to overshadow everything going on under the sun, from the very simple to the highly sophisticated. Nobody explains this model better than W. Ross Ashby. In fact, I don't know of anyone who's talked about the subject in this manner. For this, I think Dr. Ashby was a true visionary, and surely one of the great minds of science in the twentieth century.
An Introduction to Cybernetics is clearly a classic work equivalent to Newton's Principia Mathematica. Everyone with an interest in science and engineering should read it. Some formal training in science and engineering is probably a necessary prerequisite for getting the most from it.
The impact of those revelations affected my abilities enough that in graduate school cybernetics was made part of the curriculum and later in a business environment the company's middle-management was required to take a course on the subject.
Cybernetics (I prefer Informational Mechanics) is a math similar to geometry except that instead of dealing with shapes and space it deals with change, complex change.
One particularly important aspect of that subject might be labeled the mechanics of human communication. In a nutshell Ashby shows how concepts from Shannon's Information Theory are applicable to human reasoning and communication. Again understanding those concepts is a life altering experience, but not easy.
Learning informational mechanics is a little like learning algebra. You have to understand the fundamentals for it to be useful.
I first read the book in 1957. Fifty-five years later I still refer to it.
There are a number of copycat books that in essence parrot Ashby's vocabulary. They are relatively useless.
This out-of-print book is considered so important by the people of the Principia Cybernetica Project that they want this book to reach as an wide audience as possible. As their website indicates: "W. Ross Ashby is one of the founding fathers of both cybernetics and systems theory. He developed such fundamental ideas as the homeostat, the law of requisite variety, the principle of self-organization, and the principle of regulatory models."
Of course, nothing goes above getting your hand on a *real* copy of this book, but the next best solution is getting the free e-book version which the Principia Cybernetica Project published on their web site with the agreement of the Ashby estate (the copyright holders). Just search for Principia Cybernetica on the web, and surf from there...
co-author of "7 Steps to Emotional Intelligence"