All Communication Systems Go!

One down, six to go!

So we’ve talked a bit about the socio-psychological tradition and how it guides communication theory. Now we’re going to take a closer look at the cybernetic tradition – which, like I said before, has nothing to do with robots…unfortunately.

Under the cybernetic tradition, the keyword is network. Remember that. Network. Network. Network. That’s important. Communication is seen as a network of information processing. See? There’s that word again.

This tradition is characterised by viewing communication as a complex system in which interacting elements influence once another. Each part of the system is interdependent on the other(s), so parts are affected in a chain reaction kind of way.


The communication system thrives on input, in response to which it creates output that is put back into the environment. In addition, the system functions not only through the interdependence responsible for how it is organised, but also through self-regulation and self-control. That’s just a fancy way of saying that communication systems monitor, regulate and control their own outputs in order to achieve their goals.

The focus here, then, is on the study of information processing, feedback and control in communication systems. (This all sounds very technological, doesn’t it?). The cybernetic tradition questions how exactly the communication system works, how it is affected by change, and how we as communicators could possibly improve the system by eliminating ‘bugs’ like noise (anything that hinders communication).

There are a few variations of this theory, namely:

  1. Basic System Theory – in which systems are viewed as structures which can be analysed from the outside, and liable to be manipulated through tampering with the inputs.
  2. Cybernetics – in which systems maintain control and balance not in a linear fashion, but in a more circular way; specifically how feedback loops maintain balance and create change.
  3. Information Theory – this variation was originally devised by Claude Shannon, and speaks to the transmission of signals from one part of a system to others though networks; it examines uncertainty in messages and calculates what is necessary to reduce noise and make accurate message flow possible
  4. General System Theory – devised by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, this theory takes a broad, multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge, by showing how fields are similar to one another on the basis of shared system principles; essentially, it susses out the commonalities among apparently vastly different systems.
  5. Second-Order Cybernetics – this is a particularly interesting take on the cybernetic tradition because unlike the other purely scientific variations, it incorporates an aspect of humanistic theory; it posits that an observer can never see how a system works by standing outside of it because he himself is a part of it – that is, the know-er cannot be separated from the known. One affects and is affected by a system one observes.

It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?

The basic idea here is that communication is a network of interdependent, self-controlling, self-regulating parts which thrives on input so it can react with output which achieves its communication goals. The focal point of this tradition is to assess precisely how it works and how to make it better.

Cyndi, the Traditionalist
(who sort of still thinks this is has a little to do with robotics)


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