20 Pages

The political uses of scientific models: the cybernetic model of government in Soviet social science

Each of these claims is implicit in cybernetics itself. Cyberneticians have asserted that their theories of control and communication are, in principle, applicable in the study of social systems. W. Ross Ashby, for example, has written that ‘. . . cybernetics is likely to reveal a great number of interesting and suggestive parallelisms between machine and brain and society’ (Ashby 1956:16). Wiener coined the term ‘cybernetics’ for the whole field of control and communication theory, in order to emphasize its essential unity. He was concerned primarily with control and communication in biological and engineer­ ing systems and thought the social sciences a poor proving ground for the ideas of cybernetics. He did nevertheless assert that \ . . society can only be understood through a study of the messages and communication facilities which belong to it’ (Wiener 1954:16). It has been argued that his achievement was not so much that he solved certain complex mathematical problems, but rather that he saw the possibilities opened up by the synthesis of a number of exist­ ing theories into a framework, in terms of which the processes of control might be examined in systems of different materiality. How­ ever, there is much disagreement about the extent to which cyber­ netics has been successful in creating such a unified framework. Nevertheless, cybernetics does employ a series of concepts and theories that can be applied, in principle, in the study of control in biological, engineering, and social systems. Chief among them are the concepts of information, message, and channel capacity as defined in information theory; the concepts of control and feedback drawn from the theory of servomechanisms; and the concepts o f system, equili­ brium, and adaptability from systems theory. It is impossible here to characterize or define cybernetics. But for the purposes of this paper it is important to note the central place of the relationship between control and communication: control can be effected only when there is feedback about the effects of the controlling activity.