What is cybernetics?#
Cybernetics is the study of dynamic, complex systems that comprise people, technology, and environments. It is the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things.
The term ‘’cybernetics’’ was coined in 1948 by American mathematician Norbert Wiener from the Greek, kybernetes, meaning to steer, or pilot. The field’s influence has left us with the prefix ‘cyber’ but it spans vast fields beyond technology, including social dynamics, climate studies and creative projects.
It rose to prominence in a time when computers were novel but rapidly advancing and it tapped into widespread concern about the consequences of the coming age of digitisation. As a field, it fused math, engineering, and philosophy with biology, psychology, anthropology, and many others. Over the last 75 years, it has helped shape everything from Artificial Intelligence (AI) to critical systems theory, computer-driven art and music, design thinking, and even the internet.
Cybernetics continues to offer inspiration to think about the technologies we build, deploy, and decommission as a component of larger systems that include human systems and ecological systems. It is a way of imagining a future where technology is always considered in supportive relationship to humans and the environment, and provides a toolkit to get us there.
The School of Cybernetics at the Australian National University was established in 2021 to help safely, sustainably, and responsibly design, build, manage, regulate, and decommission systems with computation at their core.
Cybernetics offers a language and a set of methods for situating technologies within dynamic, changing contexts that also include humans and environments, anticipating and course correcting for unexpected consequences. Cybernetics offers a multi-disciplinary field that integrates insights from broad disciplines including computer science, systems theory, psychology, anthropology, the law and more.
Cybernetics provides a set of principals that bring together multiple perspectives, skills and ways of thinking to shape how we design, develop, adopt and regulate autonomous systems. Cybernetics is an approach to technology necessary to centre our thinking about what we build in the 21st Century.
Read about why we need a cybernetic future. Visit our blog.
For us, cybernetics is not just the study of systems. We are developing tools and methodologies to transform those systems for the better – to make them safe, sustainable, and responsible. Sometimes this means steering them better, sometimes this means radically altering them, and sometimes this means decommissioning them altogether.
Cybernetics is an approach to emerging technological capability that prioritises the relationships between people, technologies, and environments. It enables understanding of the components, connections, and dynamics to shape and steer systems.
Our cybernetics offers a way of seeing the world within a framework and set of methods for better decision-making that informs a commitment to developing safe, sustainable, and responsible approaches to new systems.
Because it acknowledges how systems interact and shape one another, the practice helps to mitigate risks and prevents the unintended consequences of emerging technologies on people and the environment.
We believe cybernetics is the set of ideas and tools to bring together multiple perspectives, skills and ways of thinking to shape how we design, develop, adopt and regulate new technologies.
Our cybernetics is an important tool for navigating major societal transformations through capability building, policy development, and creating new approaches to new systems. In our work, we focus on the past, present, and future of systems with computing at their core. We are interested in what we can learn from now defunct systems, as well as those that have yet to be built.
ANU School of Cybernetics is committed to working with organisations where difficult decisions are made every day on designing, deploying and decommissioning technology: in workplaces, in governments, in industries and in academia.
We have used this co-creation approach to find new ways to engage with everything from Generative AI to drone-human interaction to data-driven policymaking, metaverse development and the future of leadership.
Organisations that have contributed over $10,000 to the School since January 2021, when the School was established, are noted below.
- Microsoft Australia
- KPMG Australia
- National Library of Australia
- Menzies Foundation
- Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI)
- Department of Defence (support for Master of Applied Cybernetics)
- Commonwealth Bank of Australia1 (support for Master of Applied Cybernetics)
- Paul Ramsay Foundation
- Defence Science & Technology Group (grant)
- Meta Australia
Examples of our collaborative partner work are below.
Re/telling stories of the Overland Telegraph Line
Ann Moyal Memorial Lecture delivered by Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell 8 May, National Library of Australia
What is cybernetics? A crash course in cybernetics and why it matters
Cybernetics is helping to create a safe and sustainable future in our digital world. But what exactly is it?
After the pandemic: Cybernetic systems and an approach to the future
Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell’s 2021 Garran Oration
The New Cybernetics: Systems Thinking for the 21st Century
Our director Genevieve Bell spoke with the Coller Venture Review about the new cybernetics.
We have published a report in partnership with National Library of Australia exploring how artificial intelligence will transform libraries. With the Menzies Foundation we established a set of cybernetic principles for leadership. As a founding partner in the ANU Institute of Water Futures, alongside CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, we are researching uses of advanced technology in water governance and sustainability. For Meta we have used a cybernetic approach to better inform metaverse design.
Dive further into our thinking on cybernetics and its potential by reading some of our publications, submissions and research projects.
New water governance research sheds light on the need for cybernetic approaches as basins become AI-enabled
Water management and governance is undergoing rapid transformation as cyber-physical systems are deployed across the water sector.
AI and libraries series: the not-so distant future of AI personas
Digitized memories and digitized artefacts now form the technological basis for bringing history to life.
AI and libraries series: the age of artificially intelligent search
Libraries themselves are well-positioned to conceive, implement, and use new systems for the production of knowledge.
AI and libraries series: the view from 1950’s Hollywood
From microfilm and electric checkout to pneumatic tube systems and computerized catalogues, libraries have long been sites of innovation for new tech.
More about us#
Our beginnings: the 3A Institute
The 3A Institute had a mission to create a new generation of practitioners with the skills and knowledge we need to safely, sustainably and responsibly take AI-powered cyber-physcial systems to scale, and this work continues to informs the School of Cybernetics.
Meet our Director Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell
Genevieve Bell is a cultural anthropologist, technologist and futurist best known for her work at the intersection of cultural practice and technology development.
The School of Cybernetics is located in the College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. Send us an email or give us a call on +61 2 6125 8121.
Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell is a non-executive director on the board of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (2019-present). Professor Bell has no role in negotiating the commercial arrangements between CBA and ANU, and does not personally benefit from this arrangement. ↩