Since 1974, when Heinz von Foerster made the distinction between “the cybernetics of observed systems” as first-order cybernetics (1oC) and “the cybernetics of observing systems” as second-order cybernetics (2oC), cybernetics has been dominated by this observer-centric paradigm that he claimed cannot be extended meaningfully to a third order. Rather than attempting to extend his paradigm, we derive an alternative, model-centric cybernetics paradigm from the first principles of regulation, which naturally extends to three orders, where the third order is ethical regulation. We thus consider a type of regulator that requires a third model and a third observer: if the third model is a model of acceptable (ethical) situations, then a third observer is a necessary element of the system’s “conscience” that prevents any violations of the model of ethical situations. In this paradigm, the cybernetics of systems that are designed to exhibit ethical behaviour can be characterized as third-order cybernetics (3oC). By being able to extend the paradigm to include ethical systems, the model-centric paradigm brings clarity and utility that is not possible using the observer-centric paradigm and its under-specified (abstract) observers. Finally, new definitions for cybernetics are proposed that clearly differentiate between the science of cybernetics and the philosophy of cybernetics.
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