The Next Macy Conference: A New Interdisciplinary Synthesis

By on June 29th, 2017 in Magazine Articles

The postwar period was one of intense interdisciplinary ferment, nowhere more so than at the famous Macy conferences on circular causal and feedback mechanisms held in New York between 1946 and 1953. Interdisciplinarity is back in vogue and many recall the Macys wistfully. But there are different kinds of interdisciplinarity. We usually think of adding up existing disciplinary perspectives: economists, social scientists, and engineers, say, need to get together to address this problem or that. The Macys were more radical. The disciplines gathered there under the aegis of cybernetics as the common project and currency of exchange, and cybernetics was widely understood as a new paradigm, importantly different from the classical sciences. At the Macy meetings, engineers, anthropologists, and mathematicians understood themselves as doing the same sort of thing as each other, while, at the same time, their shared paradigm set them apart from their mainstream colleagues.

Cybernetics was a universal language in which all the other sciences could be subsumed.

The descendants of cybernetics are doing well today under other names, in fields ranging from robotics and complexity theory to architecture and design, psychiatry and the arts. But they have lost touch with one another and it is important to ask why. What held the Macy attendees together, what gave them a sense of common purpose, was not the details of individual projects. It was an over-arching conception of what the world is like, how we should understand it, and how we should act in it. This worldview or ontology is what marked cybernetics out as a new paradigm. That worldview has since faded, and its loss has been at the heart of the disintegration of Macy-style interdisciplinary synthesis. This is what we need to understand.

What was the cybernetic worldview; how did it differ from that of the classical sciences? In fact, several different versions of the story flourished and generated great excitement, sometimes independently, sometimes together. Cybernetics was a universal language in which all the other sciences could be subsumed; or it was the science of feedback and control; or the science of information flows; or the science of systems that include the observer. Cybernetics was all of these, I suppose, but these stories have lost their urgency since the 1970s. They no longer function to bind together ground-level technical practices across the disciplines.

Phrases like “fiddling while Rome burns” come to mind.

My argument is, then, that we need something new to talk about — a new articulation of the cybernetic worldview — if we want to revive its intense and integrative interdisciplinarity, and if we want to foreground its paradigmatic otherness. As I explained in my book, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, my money is on restarting the conversation around a vision of the world built out of what the cybernetician Stafford Beer called “exceedingly complex systems” — systems that we can never hope to understand fully, not least because they are always evolving and becoming something new. The guiding theme would be a vision of the world as unknowable in just this sense, integrally coupled with a concern for practical ways of continually exploring the unknown and adapting to it.

It is not hard to comprehend the cybernetics of the Macys and its descendants under this banner of unknowability, and it marks very clearly a fundamental, even shocking, divergence from the assumption of knowability built into modern science and engineering. Of course, admitting one is traveling in a different direction from Newton, Bohr, and Einstein is perhaps not a great career move in the 21st century, and this might explain why neo-cyberneticians are reluctant to look up from their lab benches and laptops to see what the others are up to. But phrases like “fiddling while Rome burns” come to mind. Maybe we need to think about why we might need a different sort of worldview.

Two is better than one. The aim of the Macys was not to exterminate modern science but to set alongside it another way of understanding the world, one centered on unknowability instead of knowability. If we could reproduce this doubling of perspectives, we could come at this problem or that from two angles rather than our usual one. And, very importantly, different patterns of action hang together with different patterns of understanding. If the world is knowable, command and control follow. We can and should bend the natural and social worlds to our will. Sometimes this works; increasingly, it seems to me, it doesn’t. The refractoriness of the environment (think of global warming) and other people (the wars and insurgencies across the Islamic world that also haunt the West) become more evident every day. So then, to have available some alternative way of grasping and acting in the world might be prudent. And this is what a reinvigorated cybernetics would promise: to bring the surprising liveliness of the world into focus, and to exemplify concrete ways of finding out what it has to offer us and how we might latch onto it. Under this banner, a new Macy conference might bring together practitioners of adaptive environmental management, bio-roboticists, radical psychiatrists, constructors of dynamic and interactive artworks and, well, scholars like me. Together, we could engage in the shared pursuit of alternatives to fragile and perilous attempts at domination.

Grace vs coercion. That is my idea. It might not be a great career move for any of us, but I would like to reconvene the Macy conferences with unknowability as the over-arching bridge. Intellectually, socially, politically, we need to explore this conception and the real-world projects it brings into alignment. Career patterns can change too.


This article is based on a Keynote address delivered at the IEEE 2014 Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (21CW) in Boston, MA, June 24–26, 2014.


Andrew Pickering is Professor of Sociology and Philosophy, University of Exeter, Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter EX4 4RJ U.K. Email: Website: