Origins of “cybernetics”

Monday 25th March, 2024 - Bruce Sterling

*This is a very strange, extensive, quirky memoir. I don’t know what to do with it except to put an excerpt in this blog.


That was in the academic year 1943-1944, and was followed from 1946 on by the ten Macy meetings on circular causal and feedback systems. I had a fairly free hand and excellent advisors in gathering the group.

Frank Fremont-Smith and I agreed that it should never exceed 25 regular members including guests, and that we should always have at least two of each kind: two mathematicians, two neurophysiologists, two neuroanatomists, two psychologists, two engineers, two neuropsychiatnsts, etc. Every speaker knew there was at least one in the audience who knew his jargon.

I agreed to chair, provided Frank would sit next to me and kick my stupid shins. I could count on Margaret Mead’s keeping a flowsheet of the discussion in her head and on Walter Pitts’ understanding everybody.

Even so, working in our shirt sleeves, for days on end at every meeting, morning, lunch, afternoon, cocktails, supper and evening, we were unable to behave in a familiar friendly or even civil manner. The first five meetings were intolerable. Some participants left in tears, never to return.

We tried some sessions with and some without recording, but nothing was printable. The smoke, the noise, the smell of battle are not printable. Of our first meeting Norbert wrote that “it was largely devoted to didactic papers by those of us who had been present at the Princeton meeting, and to a general assessment of the importance of the field by all present.” In fact it was, characteristically, without any papers, and everyone who tried to speak was challenged again and again for his obscurity.

I can still remember Norbert in a loud voice pleading or commanding: “May I finish my sentence?” and hearing his noisy antagonist, who was pointing at me or at Frank, shouting: “Don’t stop me when I am interrupting.”

Margaret Mead records that in the heat of battle she broke a tooth and did not even notice it until after the meeting.

We finally learned that every scientist is a layman outside his discipline and that he must be addressed as such.

The sixth through the tenth meetings went more calmly and were edited by Hans Lukas Teuber, Margaret Mead and Heinz von Foerster, and published by the Josiah Macy Foundation, so I need not describe them.

I would like to express my perennial gratitude to Frank Fremont-Smith and all the unrepentant interrupters for my education in the circular causal and feedback difficulties, which taught me to tolerate other peoples’ and even my own follies or foibles. Since then I have wept at more than one interdisciplinary meeting, but never departed on that or any other score. I had learned to listen to others and even to myself.