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July, 1998

No. 021 Contact Felix Geyer at:, after October 15: SISWO (Netherlands Universities' Center for Coordination of Research in Social Science) Amsterdam, The Netherlands


This Paper was presented in WG01 Session 16,Friday, July 31, 20.30-22.30 14th World Congress of Sociology, Montreal, July 26- August 1, 1998


The dialectics of alienation theory and sociocyberneticscan be both a personal problem, if one is afflicted with it, and certainly also a societal problem, simply because so many people are afflicted with it, often for structural reasons. In this respect, I am reminded of the words of an American visiting professor during my student days: a good sociologist should preferably have a more or less severe personal problem, and should direct his efforts to solve it in such a way that he also contributes to the solution of a societal problem. This certainly is one possible and interesting interpretation of the micro-macro link in sociology.

Writing an article on alienation should have a de-alienating effect on three levels: in doing so, one should at least try to get rid of some of one's personal alienation, or at least get it off one's chest for the time being; moreover, those in the audience should gain some new insights which are useful for their own personal dealienation; and being social scientists, they should be able to apply these insights to research that ultimately leads to de-alienating strategies in several areas.the early 1970s, my own intellectual interests crystallized in two apparently quite dissimilar if not opposed directions: more or less touchie-feelie alienation theory and, certainly at the time, rather mechanistic General Systems Theory/cybernetics1).

My interest in alienation theory was largely caused by a feeling of profound personal alienation on several levels, as a result of early-life "programmimg" experiences. As the saying goes: "one cannot be careful enough in choosing one's parents" - though they are not to blame as they, in turn, could not choose their parents. My fascination with GST/cybernetics can in retrospect be conceptualized as a search for de-alienating strategies - using cybernetics rather than the bread crumbs Humpty Dumpty threw behind him to find his way back out of the forest - and thus as a search for the relatively unalienated degree of involvement that comes with mastering the dialectics between an ongoing process of individuation that is not hampered by ongoing socialization is my experience that social scientists indeed often do research in fields that are somehow connected to their personal background, problematique or position in life.

And, as the professor quoted above suggested: there is no objection whatsoever to that, that is how it should be--it is part of the general tendency towards increasing self-reference, leading the accelerated lives we live under conditions of postmodernity. The Talmud neatly summarizes this micro-macro link: "If I am not for myself, who shall be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now, when?" Thus, I assume that many of those engaged in alienation research have some personal connection with the subject.

My doctoral thesis, written in the mid seventies and defended in 1980 continued this dual fascination with alienation and systems theory. It was entitled "Alienation Theories: A General Systems Approach"2), and presented a reconceptualization of existing alienation theories in a cybernetic framework, viewing alienation as a generic term for different kinds of information processing problems of individuals. While certainly not being close to an autobiography in any concrete sense - it was not even theoretical so much as meta-theoretical - a perceptive friend at the time suggested the title should be different, namely: "Me, Myself and I", with the subtitle "The Story of My Life Written at the Taxpayer's Expense".

So far for personal involvement in one's subject matter, and the luxury of being able to write about it.those days, my fascination with both alienation theory and cybernetics (I use the term interchangeably with GST) has continued, if not increased. To a large extent this is due to the fact that both have grown, and changed for the better. In retrospect, one might say that both alienation theory and cybernetics were still relatively primitive in the 1970s. am happy to see my dual fascination with these apparently unrelated - if not opposed - areas of research reflected in the composition of the present audience in this joint session, and hope that the present paper will help you to link them as they have been linked for me for a long time. For starters, since both the alienists and the cyberneticians present here may be relatively unaware of each other's fields of expertise, I will give a short overview of the developments in both areas, and hope to demonstrate that they have been increasingly interpenetrating and co-evolving over the last quarter century..

The emergence of new alienation theory to cope with new forms of alienation:, as a concept, can be retraced at least 2000 years to the Romans and the Gnostics. In modern times, the concept surfaced again in the nineteenth century and owes its resurgence largely to Marx and Freud, although the latter did not deal with it explicitly. After World War II, when societal complexity started its increasingly accelerated rate of change, and the first signals of postmodernity were perceived by the intellectual elite, alienation slowly became part of the intellectual scene. Srole was one of the first in the 1950s to develop an alienation scale to measure degrees and varieties of alienation.

Following the 1968 student revolutions in the United States and Europe, alienation studies proliferated, at least in the Western world.Eastern Europe, however, even the possibility of alienation was denied; theoretically, it could not exist since offically the laborers owned the means of production. However, the existence of alienation in the "decadent, bourgeois" societies of the West was gleefully confirmed, as it heralded the impending demise of late capitalism.the Western world, and especially the United States, empirical social psychological research on alienation rapidly developed: several alienation scales were developed and administered to college students (even national samples) and especially to different disadvantaged minory groups which, not surprisingly, tended to score high on all these scales.

On the other hand, much of the theoretical work was of a Marxist persuasion and largely consisted of an exegesis of the young Marx's writings and their potential applicability to all kinds of negatively evaluated situations in Western society: the alienation of labor under capitalism, political alienation and apathy, suppression of ethnic, sexual, or other minority groups, and so forth. , the 1970s were characterized by a great divide: on the one hand, the empirical researchers—often, though not exclusively, non-Marxist—administered their scales and charted the degree of alienation among several subgroups; on the other hand, the (generally neo-Marxist) theoreticians, rarely engaged in empirical research at all.the 1980s interest in alienation subsided: the postwar baby boomers grew older, and perhaps more disillusioned, and willy-nilly entered the rat race.

The concept definitely—and luckily!—became less fashionable, although our Research Committee continued to study the subject in all its ramifications, since the problems denoted by alienation were certainly far from solved—to the contrary, relative seclusion, this core group, the Research Committee on Alienation of the International Sociological Association (ISA), managed to narrow the hitherto existing gap between empirical and theoretical approaches and between Marxist and non-Marxist ones. The empiricists basically knew by now who were the alienated and why, and they realized the near-tautology inherent in discovering that the (objectively or subjectively) disadvantaged are alienated. Moreover, many Marxist theoreticians had exhaustively discussed what Marx had to say on alienation, commodity fetishism, and false consciousness and were ready to engage in empirical research along Marxist in the work going on in alienation research during the past few years that two developments converge: while "classical" alienation research is still continuing, the stress is now, on the one hand, on describing new forms of alienation under the "decisional overload" conditions of postmodernity, and on the other hand on the reduction of increasingly pervasive ethnic alienation and conflict.

Summarizing, one could say that attention has shifted increasingly to theory-driven and hypothesis-testing empirical research and to attempts at discovering often very pragmatic strategies for dealienation, as manifested by research on Yugoslav self-management and Israeli kibbutzim. the start of the 1990s, there has again been an upsurge of interest in alienation research, which was caused by different developments:of all, the fall of the Soviet empire gave a tremendous boost to alienation research in Eastern Europe, for two reasons:

(1) the population as a whole was finally free to express its long-repressed ethnic and political alienation, which had accumulated under Soviet rule, while

(2) the existence of alienation was no longer denied and instead became a respectable object of study.

In the 1970s only a few researchers in relatively strong social positions, could permit themselves to point to the existence of alienation under communism3)., though processes of globalization and internationalization tended to monopolize people's attention during the last few decades, the hundred-odd local wars fought since the end of World War II, which were increasingly covered live on worldwide TV, claimed attention for the opposing trend of regionalization and brought ethnic conflicts to the fore.4)

This certainly is also evident in the case of the former Soviet Union, where the end of the Pax Sovietica unleashed dormant ethnic tensions. It almost seems that if one cannot "keep up with the Joneses" and "globalize," one has nothing left but to "regionalize." A Dutch satirical television program, describing the blessings of the Internet, drove this home recently: "The Internet furthers international contacts among people of different persuasions and cultures, thus leading to international understanding and mutual feelings of solidarity and brotherhood. This is clearly proven by the fact that in nations with relatively few Internet connections—such as, for example, Bosnia and Rwanda—people have nothing better to do than bash each other's skulls."

Postmodernism emerged as an important paradigm to explain the individual's reactions to the increasingly rapid complexification and growing interdependence of international society. Many of the phenomena labeled as characteristic for postmodernity squarely fall under the rubric of alienation; in particular, the world of simulacra and virtual reality tends to be an alienated world, for reasons that Marx and Freud could not possibly have foreseen.oversimplify, one might say that a new determinant of alienation has emerged, in the course of this century, which is not the result of an insufferable lack of freedom but of an overdose of "freedom," or rather, unmanageable environmental complexity.

Of course, the freedom-inhibiting classical forms of alienation certainly have not yet been eradicated, and they are still highly relevant for the majority of the world's population. Freud and Marx will continue to be important as long as individuals are drawn into freedom-inhibiting interaction patterns with their interpersonal micro- or societal macro-environment.

However, at least for the postmodern intellectual elite, starting perhaps already with Sartre's wartime development of existentialist philosophy, it is the manifold consequences of the knowledge- and technology-driven explosion of societal complexity and worldwide interdependence that need to be explained.this started out as a luxury problem of a few well-paid intellectuals and is totally irrelevant even now for the majority of the world's inhabitants, as it is, certainly, under the near-slavery conditions still existing in many parts of the Third World.

Nevertheless, in much of the Western world, the average person is increasingly confronted, on a daily basis, with an often bewildering and overly complex environment, which promotes attitudes of apathy and withdrawal from wider social involvements.philosophy has largely been an effort at explaining the effects of this increased complexity on the individual so far, but while it is largely a philosophy about the fragmentation of postmodern life, it often seems a bit fragmented itself. What else can one expect perhaps, given Marx's insight that the economic and organizational substructure tends to influence the ideological superstructure? However, while postmodern philosophy certainly draws attention to a few important aspects of postmodern living, it will be argued in the following that modern second-order cybernetics can offer a much more holistic picture of societal development over the past few decades5). than postmodernism does.

Changes in cybernetic theory

Since the 1970's: cybernetics, it is customary to distinguish first- and second-order cybernetics. We will keep to this usage to prevent misunderstanding, although classical vs. modern cybernetics or first-generation vs. second-generation cybernetics might be a preferable terminology. The issue here is that second-order cybernetics originated in reaction to what were seen as the deficiencies of first-order cybernetics, and has the tendency - as often happens - to create its own niche by overstressing the differences with first-order cybernetics. In order to clarify the differences between the two, we will do the same, with the caveat that they are largely a matter of relative stress, and that much of what is now known as second-order cybernetics was already adhered to by first-order cyberneticians. 

First-order cybernetics originated in the 1940's 6), and indeed tried to steer observer-external systems. Although it had an interdisciplinary orientation, it might be called an engineering approach, and focussed on studying feedback loops and control systems, and on constructing intelligent machines7)    Among the first to work the field we can begin with Norbert Wiener8), often considered the father of cybernetics, Wiener was engaged in automating the operation of anti-aircraft batteries, which led to the construction of ILLIAC, the world's first computer. Shannon and Weaver9), working at Bell labs in the late 1940s, were confronted with the problem how to reduce noise in telephone lines, and developed information theory. MIT's Marvin Minsky10) constructed, amongst others, M. Speculatrix, a small robot that could find its way out of a dark room, dexterously moving around objects towards the light; he initiated the now flourishing field of Artificial Intelligence, or AI as it is known for short. its stress on efforts to steer especially technological devices, and developing all kinds of control systems.

It is not amazing that first-order cybernetics was especially interested in negative feedback loops, rather than positive ones. When a negative feedback loop either naturally occurs, or is constructed, the performance or output of a system is compared with a preset goal, and corrective action is taken whenever there is a deviation from that goal. The thermostat of a central heating system may serve as an example: there is a feedback loop from the thermostat to the heater, whenever room temperature rises above a certain maximum, or falls below a certain minimum. It is noteworthy that even in this simple example, although it clearly is a control system, there is no specific controlling agent; control is dispersed through the system, and any part of it could be said to control the rest of the system.

Aa result of the above, first-order cybernetics—with its engineering approach and the corresponding stress on constructing control systems, and with its predilection for negative rather than positive feedback phenomena—was interested primarily in homeostasis or equilibrium-maintenance, or at least in restoring a system's equilibrium whenever it was disturbed by external influences impinging on that system.

As is still the case in much of science, environment mastery was an implicit goal, based on the Newtonian conception of an in principle orderly universe: admittedly complex, but knowable by means of a continuing and cumulative effort to discover its basic laws. Positive feedback loops, which cause morphogenesis rather than homeostasis,  are the motor behind change. These creative feedback loops were paid much less attention to.  A simple example of a positive feedback loop is cumulative interest, or to put it more esoterically: "the devil shits on the big heap", recently formulated in economics11) as the law of increasing returns.

Efforts to apply this homeostasis-oriented type of first-order cybernetics or systems theory to the field of the social sciences, as for example those of Parsons12), met with the resistance of a social science community which by then had turned overwhelmingly liberal, and considered the systems or cybernetic approach to be not only conservative, but also too simplistic, mechanistic and linear to be really applicable to the world of human interaction. in the middle for the moment to what extent this left-wing or liberal criticism is generally correct, one can certainly say that some applications of first-order cybernetics like system dynamics -a simulation procedure originally developed by Forrester and Meadows13) to simulate the behavior of systems with several feedback loops - have made remarkable inroads in the general scientific community.

One need only think of the enormous popularity of the Club of Rome Report, even among laymen14), where systems modeling was applied to an extremely complicated problem area, with many interacting variables.liberal criticism is understandable - the stress of first-order cybernetics was indeed largely, though not exclusively on constructing mechanical control systems - but not quite correct. In the Club of Rome report, for example, positive feedbacks were certainly important, and the same goes for many other technological systems: one of the world's perhaps most impressive technological achievements, the atom bomb, would be unthinkable without positive feedbacks. As Van der Zouwen15) put it succinctly: without negative feedback loops the organism cannot maintain itself in its environment, and without positive feedback loops it has no chance to survive as a species in view of environmental changes to which it has to adapt by setting new goals.

Second-order cybernetics originated some thirty years later than first-order cybernetics, in the early 1970s. The term was coined by Heinz von Foerster16) in a paper for the 1970 meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics, entitled "Cybernetics of cybernetics". He defined first-order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observed systems, and second-order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observing systems.

One of the main differences with first-order cybernetics is that second-order cybernetics explicitly includes the observer(s) in the systems to be studied. Moreover, it generally deals with living systems, and not with developing control systems for inanimate technological devices. These living systems range from simple cells all the way up the evolutionary scale to human beings; while the observers themselves are obviously also human beings. Thus, in contrast to the engineering approach of first-order cybernetics, most of second-order cybernetics could be said to have a mainly biological approach, or at the very least a biological basis.

Umpleby17) has enumerated at least six important consequences of this difference:

1 ) Living systems, no matter how primitive, have a "will" of their own. They exhibit what Maturana and Varela have termed autopoiesis or self-production: they not only reproduce, but also produce their own "spare parts" whenever necessary, generally utilizing elements from their environment. Living systems thus are organizationally closed, but informationally open.

2 ) As a result, living systems are inherently more difficult to steer; their interactions with their environment are more difficult if not impossible to forecast more than a few moves ahead. Thus, second-order cybernetics has become realistic about the possibilities for steering, and has concentrated more on understanding the evolution of biological and social complexity than on controlling it.

3) Given this, it is understandable that second-order cybernetics is more interested in morphogenesis and positive feedback loops, than in homeostasis and negative feedback loops.

4 ) Although first-order cybernetics certainly also included important biologists - like Von Bertalanffy18

5), one of the founders of General System Theory - the impetus for second-order cybernetics came largely from biology and neurophysiology, and in a later stage also from epistemology. This is not to say that biology does not profitably use first-order cybernetic concepts: homeostasis, for example, remains an important concept in biology to explain different processes like hormonal balance, maintenance of temperature, etc. However, many biological phenomena that have to do with growth, change and emergence demand an explanation in terms of second-order cybernetics. Maturana, for example, considers knowledge to be a biological phenomenon.19) Attention was thus focused on the observer, and the biological basis of perception and knowledge acquisition processes. In epistemology, second-order cyberneticians became interested in the nature of knowledge, language, cognition and communication.

6) It was thus logical that the concept of self-reference was developed and stressed, especially biological and linguistic self-reference, A satisfying theory of biology should account for the existence of theories of biology; likewise, an adequate theory of cognition should give an understanding of understanding. The view of language changed from language as a string of symbols representing external "reality" to language as actions for coordinating actions. Umpleby17 gives the example of "performative utterances" like "I now pronounce you husband and wife", where the social status of two people is tranformed, while this transformation is described at the same time.

Summing up: In second-order cybernetics, the system - whether an individual or a group - is defined as having the ability to reflect on its own operations on the environment, and even on itself. These operations generate variety in the environment, or in itself, which can reflexively be recognized as being due to systemic variation, which makes them recursive: observations can be observed, communications can be communicated, etc.from von Foerster, several other authors haven given concise definitions of the differences between first-order and second-order cybernetics. These differences refer to, respectively, the purpose of a model vs. the purpose of the modeler (Pask), controlled systems vs. autonomous systems (Varela), the interaction among variables in a system vs. interaction between the observer and the system observed (Umpleby), and theories of social systems vs. theories of the interaction between ideas and society (Umpleby).

The latter difference seems to reflect the respective approaches of Parsons as a first-order systems theorist interested in system stability and system maintenance, and Luhmann as a second-order cybernetician interested more in change and morphogenesis..

The confluence of alienation theory and cybernetics:should be clear from the above that over the last quarter century alienation theory and cybernetics have indeed moved closer together - one is almost tempted to say that cybernetics have moved from the left as well as the right towards a common middle ground which is more suited for the complexities of the modern world, where concepts like left and right have already lost their original meanings.

Admittedly Marxist and Freudian situations of powerlessness and other forms of alienation still abound, and the struggle against these should certainly continue, it has become evident that one is inevitably alienated from lots of things—alienation here being defined as an subjectively undesirable separation from something outside oneself (the means of production, God, money, status, power, the majority group to which one does not belong, etc.) or even inside oneself (one's "real" inner feelings, drives or desires, as in the concept of self-alienation).

Schacht,20) argued already in 1989 that in modern, complex and highly differentiated multi-group societies the struggle against alienation should be concentrated on evitable alienations. According to Schacht, one cannot possibly be involved with "society" like one can with "community", but only with some of the social formations within it: i.e., specific processes and institutions, that definitely cannot be considered to stand as parts to a whole. Such involvement is necessarily selective and limited, and depends on individual preferences, character, possibilities, sometimes even on a random and unique series of accidents. Schacht's recipe for unalienated living in what he calls post-Hegelian society departs from Nietzsche's idea of enhanced spirituality, but without its implication of a kind of extraordinary quasi-artistic development of which only the exceptionally gifted are capable.

Schacht wants to add the egalitarian spirit of Marx, but without his emphasis upon each person's cultivation of the totality of human powers, although a certain breadth in the range of one's involvements and pursuits is desirable to prevent stunted growth.then maintains that modern, liberal society is still the best possible one for self-realization along these lines, owing to the proliferation of structured contexts into which selective entry is possible - in spite of the limited access to some of these contexts for often large parts of the population.sober appraisal contrasts with the often highly normative and evaluative character of earlier alienation studies, the Marxist ones castigating the evils of late capitalism, and the psychoanalytic ones deploring the effects of early-life neuroticizing influences.

While admittedly, a century after Marx and Freud, Marxist and Freudian types of alienation are still prevalent in much of the world and should certainly be combated, new types of alienation have entered the scene that are caused by the increasingly accelerating complexification of modern societies. They can only be hinted at here, but have to do with phenomena like the increased need for developing adequate selection and scanning mechanisms in order to find goal-relevant information, the problems of information overload as well as decisional overload, the need to be aware in advance of the latent and unintended consequences of one's actions and therefore the need to often engage in counterintuitive rather than spontaneous behavior.modern forms of alienation have the "disadvantage" that they are nobody's fault.

No one, not even late capitalism or insensitive parents, can be blamed for the fact that the world is becoming more complex and interdependent, that consequently causal chains stretch further geographically and timewise, and that - if one wants to reckon with their effects - one has more than ever to "think before one acts", and even to engage in spontaneity-reducing and therefore alienating forms of internal simulation. The process of complexification is not only nobody's fault, but it is also irreversible, and cannot be turned back in spite of proclamations that "small is beautiful". One tends to loose a sense of mastery over one's increasingly complex environment, but it is different from the sense of mastery the alienated laborer of Marxist studies is supposed to gain if only he owned the means of production, or the psychoanalysts's patient if his neurotic tendencies would evaporate after looking at his doctor's diploma on the ceiling for half a decade while reliving early or not so early traumas. result of the emergence of these modern forms of alienation is that alienation studies, at least to the extent they are dealing with these modern forms, are becoming more value-neutral (a dirty word for the last three decades), less normative, moralistic and value-laden.

Once more: we are not implying here that moral indignation and corrective action based on that indignation are not called for as long as millions of people are exploited and subjugated, or even tortured, killed in the countless small wars that have replaced the relatively benign Cold War. We do maintain that modern forms of alienation which neither Freud nor Marx reckoned with, or could even reckon with, are emerging and will affect increasing numbers of people, at least in the developed world, and soon also in the developing world.

Several authors have hinted at this development for the last two decades. Lachs21) already spoke of a "mediated world", where the natural cycle of planning an action, executing it, and being confronted with its positive or negative consequences is broken, and where one is less and less in command of more and more of the things that impinge on one's life, without being able to impute blame on anyone of anything. Etzioni likewise saw alienation as resulting from non-responsive social systems that do not cater to basic human needs22). Toffler vividly described how change is happening not only faster around us, but even through us23).

Gone are the days that one could blame one's woes on the dirty capitalist or the nasty parents, even though that was an obvious oversimplification. The common points in all these descriptions of the modern forms of alienation is that they are the result of the increasing complexification of modern world society. The aggregated individual and group reactions to this complexification speeds up the process even more, and it is clearly irreversible, so one just has to find ways of adapting to it. After all, one cannot "undo" the products, processes and institutions that have emerged over the last half century.

One cannot function adequately or participate fully in a world characterized by information overload without developing efficient selection mechanisms to quickly select what may be useful from the often unwanted information deposited at one's doorstep, and without developing effective scanning mechanisms to scan the environment for information one needs to further one's goals. And if one tries to keep an open mind, the chance that one changes one's goals before having had the time to realize them is greater than ever before in history. Our civilization is correct in stressing the importance of learning; but is has not yet sufficiently stressed the importance of unlearning, as Toffler has stressed; the "halving time" of knowledge is far shorter than that of uranium. individual living in a world saturated with communication media is offered the possibility to really thoroughly identify with a large number of alternative life scenarios, and at least in much of the Western world many of these scenarios can be realized if one is willing to pay the inevitable price. But a lifetime is limited, and so are the scenarios one can choose and try to realize.

One of the consequences of this media-driven conscious awareness of alternative life scenarios—coupled with the freedom but also the lack of time to realize them all—is that the percentage of unrealized individual possibilities is greater than ever before, and this certainly contributes to a diffuse sense of alienation: "I'm living this life, but could have lived so many other ones". Unlike Abraham, one cannot anymore die "one's days fulfilled"course, it can be maintained this is a spoilt-child syndrome, induced by the infantilizing influence of the media: phantasies are stimulated without parents telling the ever more insecure child "this is impossible".

Here we come back to Schacht, stressing the need to be content with limited and selective involvement with the world; one cannot be involved with society as one could with community. modern forms of alienation come indeed very close to the subject matter which modern cybernetics is dealing with: irreversible phenomena of increasing complexification, stimulated by the actions of individuals which can be compared with the elements in a neural network, and leading to the emergence of new and higher levels of complexity in inherently unstable systems, where small differences in initial states can lead to what Prigogine has called "dissipative structures".

Scientists, often still thinking in terms of linear causality, would be well-advised to really study Prigogine's theoretical approach and try out the explanatory powers of his conceptual vocabulary on the phenomena they study: fluctuations, feedback amplification, disssipative structures, bifurcations, (ir)reversibility, auto-and cross-catalysis, self-organization, etc. This holds true as well for the concepts and methods of second-order cybernetics in general, as discussed in the foregoing.

However, it is already quite difficult to apply first-order cybernetics - which also fully recognizes non-linearities - to social science data sets, and it may seem virtually impossible to do the same with second-order cybernetics; we will come back later on the reasons why this is the case. But indeed, second-order cybernetics is a paradigm that does more justice to the constantly emerging novel complexities of ongoing human interaction, and does not postulate simplistic assumptions about the constancy of human behavior. name one gives to this paradigm, or rather this convergence of paradigms over the last two decades, is a matter of secondary importance.

What is reassuring in this novel and therefore risky field of research is that there seems to be indeed a convergence of paradigms: as Waldrop24) has stated, all the blind men seem to have their hands on the same elephant. We have generally called this field here second-order cybernetics; but it might also be designated by other names like cognitive science, general systems theory, artificial intelligence, artificial life, or perhaps indeed most aptly the science of complexity.

Its main points were neatly summarized by Waldrop, and should be clear by now:

1) Complexity is in the software, not in the hardware; it is in the structure rather than in the elements making up the structure, in the way simple building blocks are organized as a result of simple laws, and not in the building blocks themselves. It is indeed the vastly more complex forms of human organization, and the increased interdependence of human organizations, rather than the increased complexity of human individuals themselves that has promoted the modern forms of alienation.

2 ) The emergence of complexity is a bottom-up process, without any central controller leading it, rather than a top-down one; it is a matter of local units, acting according to local laws, producing new levels of complexity by interacting.

It is indeed difficult to maintain that the complexity of the modern world is somehow ordained from above; while interaction may sometimes result in hierarchization, these hierarchies are again local units when engaging in a wider process of globalization. The interesting new field of AI (Artifical Life)25) demonstrates these points by means of computer simulation. The flocking behavior of birds, for example, has been simulated with amazing accuracy by computer "boids" following three simple rules:

1) maintain minimum distance from other "boids",

2) match velocities with other boids,

3) move towards the center of the mass of boids.

Artificial life is the opposite of conventional biology: it tries to understand life by means of synthesis rather than analysis. It assumes, as stated above, that life is not a property of matter, but of organization of matter. Living systems are viewed as machines, with one difference from other machines: that they are constructed from the bottom up. Complex behavior does not need to have complex roots.

On the contrary, top-down systems are forever running into combinations of events they do not know how to handle. Lindenmayer26) simulated leafs of totally different plants by only slightly changing the bottom-up rules for their construction. There is no ghost in the machine: a population of simple elements following equally simple rules of interaction can behave in always surprising ways. The AI people are convinced that life is not like a computation, but that it is a computation.) What can easily be demonstrated in computer simulations of neural networks goes for human networks as well: the more densely they are interconnected, the less likely they are to cycle through a limited number of states, or to ever repeat the same state.

The more interdependence grows, the less likely it becomes that history will ever repeat itself, and can therefore be more or less extrapolated on the basis of previous experience. Growing interdependence certainly is one of the driving forces behind the complexification process that leads to the modern forms of alienation; and they are indeed new, and not a repetition of previous history. Unfortunately one canot learn lessons from the future, but the saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it is not entirely true anymore either.

Growing interdependence implies increasing communication. As Leydesdorff27) has stated, "Communication systems change by communicating information to related communication systems; co-variation among systems, if repeated over time, can lead to co-evolution (rather than evolution per se). Conditions for stabilization of higher-order systems are specifiable: segmentation, stratification, differentiation, reflection, and self-organization can be distinguished in terms of developmental stages of increasingly complex networks."

Departing from Luhmann's conception of society as consisting of communications, rather than actions of participating actors, and commenting on Giddens's structuration theory, Leydesdorff28) cogently argues that the mutually conditioning relationship between structure and action can best be empirically studied by using the model of parallel distributed processing as employed in Artificial Intelligence. "The network networks, and the actor acts", i.e., the network performs its own self-referential loops, independent of the specific actors involved.

It should be clear by now that we have not been talking merely about complex systems in isolation - which probably do not even exist - but about complex adaptive systems, interacting with an environment. They are everywhere one cares to look: brains, immune systems, ecologies, cells, developing embryos, but also sociocultural systems like political parties, economic systems, and even scientific communities.

Holland,29) who was one of the first to simulate neuronal networks in 1951, mentions the following characteristics (see Waldrop24)) that certainly seem to hold for modern societies as well:

1) They have many agents acting in parallel, and their control is highly dispersed, with any coherent behavior resulting from competition and cooperation amoong the agents themselves.

2) They have many levels of organization, with agents at one level serving as building blocks for the agents at the next higher level.

3) These building blocks are constantly rearranged as a result of what one might call either learning, experience, evolution, or adaptation.

4) They all anticipate the future to some degree, making "predictions" on the basis of "mental" models of their environment that act like computer subroutines under certain triggering conditions and then execute certain behaviors - no matter how simple, as in the case of bacteria.

5) They all have many niches they can exploit, whereby filling one niche often opens up new ones that can be filled; complex adaptive systems, in other words, always create new opportunities.

6) As a consequence, it is meaningless to talk about complex adaptive systems being in equilibrium: they can never get there, but are always in transition. If they would get there, they would be dead.

7) Likewise, the agents in complex adaptive systems cannot optimize their fitness, utility, etc.: the space of possibilities is simply too vast in an environment which is also complex and rapidly changing; they can at best improve on some dimensions, but never optimize.

Thus, alienation will always be there, but at least alienation theory can help to discover what one can do about the evitable alienations..

Alienation and sociocybernetics in the next century: marriage or divorce?

The answer to the above theme should be clear from the above: I forecast a marriage, and even a happy one. The best marriages are often those where both partners are not head over heels in love, or jump unpremeditated in a doomed affair, and do not even particularly like one another in the beginning, but have had plenty of time to sniff out each other. Even panda bears in captivity do mate after such a waiting and sniffing period. The relationship between alienation theory and cybernetics was most certainly not one of love at first bite. However, both fields have moved from their originally more extreme positions to a common middle ground where a fertile dialogue has become possible, while researchers in both fields have lost their mutually negative stereotypes, that anyhow were indeed sterotypes and did not reflect realities:

Cybernetics and systems theory are certainly not anymore instruments in the hands of a right-wing power elite to suppress the insurrection of the disadvantaged and exploited masses, although in the early days the CIA and similar institutions worldwide have been understandably charmed by the potential for control of the engineering-type first-order cybernetics. On the contrary, and certainly nowadays, cybernetics is more concerned with morphogenesis than with homeostasis, more with disorder and chaos than with order and stability. Certainly since the advent of second-order cybernetics, cybernetics is increasingly dealing with social science problems - one might say often even more so than the social sciences themselves. In doing so, it admittedly poses as yet unsolved problems for itself and for sociology: when accepting the reality of concepts like autopoiesis, self-organization and self-reference, and trying to incorporate these in realistic research designs, it becomes extremely difficult methodologically to engage in solid empirical research.

Alienation theory has lost, on the one hand, its rather value-neutral stress on social-psychological survey research which largely demonstrated that several disadvantaged were indeed alienated, and on the other hand its value-laden theoretical Marxist exegesis, with its often defiantly anti-establishment overtones and sometimes self-righteous preaching on behalf of the oppressed.

Since the early 1970s, there has been a development of high-quality Marxist empirical research, while generally alienation research has become increasingly theory-driven. Moreover, many recent studies of alienation under postmodern conditions seem to concentrate increasingly on what I have described here as the modern forms of alienation, concentrating more on the side-effects of processes of complexification that lead to alienation than on specific perpetrators that cause alienation in others.

Both alienation theory and GST/cybernetics developed considerably since the early 1970s, as described in rough outline in this paper: alienation studies used to be limited largely to either administration of alienation scales to several subgroups of the population, or exegesis of Marxist theory, and later developed increasingly in the direction of theory-driven and hypothesis-testing empirical research.


Von Foerster's seminal 1970 article (ref. 16) gave the impetus for the development of second-order cybernetics. . Felix Geyer, "Theories of Alienation: A General Systems Approach". Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1980. .For example Adam Schaff in Poland, Agnes Heller in Hungary, and Zagorka Golubovi_ and Mihailo Markovi_ in Yugoslavia. . The International Sociological Association (ISA) devoted a special book to this issue on the occasion of the 12th World Congress of Sociology: Globalization, Knowledge, and Society, ed. M. Albrow. London: Sage, 1990.. See also the following articles of the author in this respect: "Political alienation and environmental complexity reduction", Kybernetes, 19(2):11-31, 1990. "Modern forms of alienation in high-complexity environments: a systems approach", Kybernetes 20(2):10-28, 1991. "Alienation in community and society: effects of increasing environmental complexity", Kybernetes, 21(2):33-49, 1992. "Alienation, Participation, and Increasing Societal Complexity", Kybernetes, 23(2):10-34, 1994. "The Challenge of Sociocybernetics", Kybernetes, 24(4): 6-32, 1995.. Rosenblueth, Arturo, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow, "Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology", Philosophy of Science, vol. 10, pp. 18-24, 1943; reprinted in Modern Systems Theory for the Behavioral Scientist (W. Buckley, ed.). New York: Aldine, 1968. and also: McCullough, Warren, and Walter Pitts, "A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity", Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, vol. 5, pp. 115-133, 1943.. Ashby, W. Ross, Design for a Brain - The Origin of Adaptive Behavior. New York: Wiley and London: Chapman and Hall, 1952.. Wiener, Norbert, The Human Use of Human Beings - Cybernetics and Society. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.. Shannon, Claude E., and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (5th ed.). Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1963.. 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