Why We Need to Know Cybernetics // Part I
Introduction & Examples, from Personal Health to Product Design
Consider your body right now as you read this post. Are you keeping track of all of the processes in it that keep your heart beating and your temperature at around 98.6F/37C?
When we live our lives, play with kids, go to work, exercise, and go about our daily activities, we rarely think about them at all. This is because our entire body self-regulates, with systems and subsystems that rarely veer out of a normal range. It’s incredible when you think about it. When our body goes even slightly out of its usual parameters, we risk certain death.
There are so many systems like this, in our bodies and all around us, that keep things going without our overt attention. We only notice them when they fail.
I’ve spent an increasing amount of time thinking how we might better understand the processes that comprise our world. How can we map them out to better anticipate disasters in the future? How can we better prepare for new situations that we have never seen before?
Part of the answer, I believe, is inspired by a curiously-named discipline that’s at least 75 years old, called cybernetics.
Cybernetics is the study of unseen processes that keep everything in homeostasis and harmony; it is the understanding and design of complex, self-regulating systems and their relationship to functions we control. Cybernetics helps us see how even small disruptions of processes can lead to unexpected outcomes.
And the study is broadly applicable. Cybernetics can tell us much about, for example, last year’s cryptocurrency crash, and give us insight into the changing prices of food, customer needs, and disruptions to the supply chain.
Coined by MIT mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener in a 1948 book of the same name, cybernetics draws from insights he developed while creating automated systems for anti-aircraft weapons during World War II. The new coinage was his way to distinguish the discipline from related studies:
We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek κυβερνήτης or steersman.
The term may seem daunting, so consider a couple very concrete example of cybernetics:
Cybernetics and supply chain disruptions
During the COVID pandemic, store shelves suddenly started to become empty, no longer carrying an unexpected amalgam of various items. This shortfall was generally blamed on “the supply chain”, but that doesn’t quite capture the problem.
Cybernetics teaches us to see beyond the supply chain per se, to the entire system which serves customers. It’s designed around a model of demand which assumes a range of retail items that need to be available for purchase on any given day. (Flour, pasta, diapers, etc.)
But unprecedented perturbations set in motion by a global pandemic presented a huge distortion in the retail process. The demand side totally changed; the delicately balanced system, optimal for a relatively steady state supply/demand environment, was no longer in harmony.
We all saw the outcome in the form of empty shelves. It even took many months to restore the “natural” supply chain balance, illustrating just how fragile the whole just-in-time system we rely on as modern humans really is.
Understanding cybernetics can help us understand and prepare for global pandemics — or even something as personal as an annual sickness.
Cybernetics and health
I used to get a sinus infection around the same time every year. Sometimes the infection took months to recover, as I was often traveling and didn’t have time understand or care for it.
This year, I thought about it from a cybernetic perspective. Instead of suffering through the affliction, I tried to zoom out and see it as a systemic issue.
I knew that the illness happened annually at around the same time every year, so I looked for variables in my life that changed within that period. The only thing I could pinpoint was my infections occurred when it got colder outside.
The sinus system responds to continuous dry air by overproducing mucus, which can lead to an overcompensating buildup in the nasal passageway. The resulting sinus pressure can become an uncomfortable headache, and, if not cleared, a debilitating head cold.
From a cybernetics perspective, the sinus system is disrupted because it has detected a new state change (dry air), and in response, created a whole glut of material to compensate. Exposing it to even more dry air, along with uncomfortable pressure from being inside an airplane while traveling, further aggravated the sinus system, making it produce even more mucus.
The solution? I made sure to compensate for the dry inside air before the sinus system kicked into defensive action. Once I introduced a humidifier into the process — a technique my mom also used when I was a kid, as she told me later — I was able to speed through the infection very quickly. My nasal passageways remained clear, and I ended up having the illness for 3 days instead of 2 months. And next year I’ll be sure to start doing this three days beforehand!
One recent version of this approach to health is called the Quantified Self, and it’s a great introduction to looking at one’s own processes over time. The QS community is interested in self-sovereign and community-level ways to see processes of one’s personal data to change behavior, solve problems, and learn new things.
There are many other ways we can apply systemic understanding to the human body, studying how subtle variables, such as stress, can disrupt its internal harmony, leading to serious health issues. Through this knowledge we’ve come to elevate the use of yoga, meditation, and other stress-reducing techniques, as a first line of defense. (Rather than waiting for the situation to become so acute, intensive medicine or even surgery may be required.)
Cybernetics and product design
There are so many complex systems in our lives that we’ve taken for granted for so long, that when we build new processes, we forget to consider how they integrate — or don’t, even to the point of grating on each other. When we forget to design and build from first principles, we risk making non-maintainable processes that can easily break.
Having a framework that allows people to think through processes when creating new products and services is crucial, but many people creating new technologies don’t have a process, let alone think through a system’s failure states.
I’ve worked with and consulted for dozens of startups that wave away safety concerns because it involves a “negative mindset”. Startups are supposed to be overwhelmingly positive; even Twitter failing is met by some engineers with a giggle, instead of concern. But when these failures endanger customers, the smartest apps aren’t so smart anymore. When a safety consideration is sidelined at a planning meeting with a “don’t harsh our startup vibes” response, it can lead to alarmingly bad press, or even a lawsuit.
My favorite example — in the sense of perfectly illustrating just how much mapping out failure could have prevented very stressful outcomes — happened in 2016 with PetNet, an automated/remote pet care startup with some $15 million in venture funding.
PetNet promised to feed and water pets when their humans were not around. But they didn’t think through all of the edge cases or provide contingency plans for when their server went down.
PetNet failed one day, and it failed hard. Thousands of PetNet’s customers, away from their homes, were suddenly unable to use the service to remotely feed their pets.
PetNet’s failure points cascaded into each other: The feeding schedule was not stored locally, the server handling remote feeding schedules went down, and the server itself was owned by a third party. This led to a lot of stressed, exasperated customers — all of whom thankfully were able to get to their pets in time, but the situation could have been much worse.
Despite continual issues, PetNet clung to business for several years before finally closing in an equally dramatic way — shutting down the servers completely — and bricking the devices entirely.
I am extremely critical of PetNet and have often lambasted it in my talks on Calm Technology. This very well-funded startup created processes with failure modes that threatened cherished living creatures, yet didn’t create backups that might have prevented this. Additionally, they did not hold themselves accountable, or change their corporate behavior.
As a user, it’s easy to think through how upset you might be if your dog or cat isn’t fed, and you’d assume the creator of a pet care service might consider that as well. But oftentimes, in the rush to create a product, these useful planning processes go missing.
What is overarchingly missing in startup culture is a process that teams can go through, mapping out their product to mechanical processes that someone would consider when, for example, designing an airplane wing or a medical product. In absence of such a process, hundreds of well-meaning startups will grow, encounter avoidable issues which harm others or cause chaos, and then go out of business.
In the next part of this series, we’ll go deeply into PetNet’s design process and how it could have used cybernetics and control systems theory to map out potential failures, and create an elegant, long-lasting product that people (and pets) could trust and love for generations.
Thanks to Michael Zargham for reading drafts of this series.