Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine." In the 21st century, the term is often used in a rather loose way to imply "control of any system using technology." In other words, it is the scientific study of how humans, animals and machines control and communicate with each other.
Cybernetics is applicable when a system being analyzed incorporates a closed signaling loop—originally referred to as a "circular causal" relationship—that is, where action by the system generates some change in its environment and that change is reflected in the system in some manner (feedback) that triggers a system change. Cybernetics is relevant to, for example, mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, and social systems. The essential goal of the broad field of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. Cybernetics includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organizations including self-organization.
The word cybernetics comes from Greek κυβερνητική (kybernētikḗ), meaning "governance", i.e., all that are pertinent to κυβερνάω (kybernáō), the latter meaning "to steer, navigate or govern", hence κυβέρνησις (kybérnēsis), meaning "government", is the government while κυβερνήτης (kybernḗtēs) is the governor or "helmperson" of the "ship". Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, and psychology in the 1940s, often attributed to the Macy Conferences. During the second half of the 20th century cybernetics evolved in ways that distinguish first-order cybernetics (about observed systems) from second-order cybernetics (about observing systems). More recently there is talk about a third-order cybernetics (doing in ways that embraces first and second-order).
Cybernetics has been defined in a variety of ways, by a variety of people, from a variety of disciplines.
Cybernetician Stuart Umpleby reports some notable definitions:
"Science concerned with the study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control."—A. N. Kolmogorov
"'The art of steersmanship': deals with all forms of behavior in so far as they are regular, or determinate, or reproducible: stands to the real machine -- electronic, mechanical, neural, or economic -- much as geometry stands to real object in our terrestrial space; offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored."—W. Ross Ashby
"A branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information, focuses on forms and the patterns that connect."—Gregory Bateson
"The art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors" (with relevance to constructivist epistemology. The author later extended the definition to include information flows "in all media", from stars to brains.)—Gordon Pask