The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with IT consultant and author Jeff Sussna. The focus of our conversation was cybernetics, an important subject that was popular in the 1940s-60s and is on the cusp of a renaissance after a long hiatus.
In the course of our conversation, Jeff gives one of the clearest and most accessible introductions I’ve heard to the subject of cybernetics. He spells out why it’s relevant to the work of implementing digital technologies, and also calls out its relevance to design:
there’s an idea that as designers, you have a responsibility to design systems that don’t cause harm. The problem is that what you’re trying to design are very, very complex systems and on some level, while it’s important to think in terms of doing good and not doing harm, I think you also need to confront the inevitability that you will do harm on some level that there will be unintended consequences.
And what’s more interesting and to me where the cybernetic approach comes in is you could say that doing harm is is a very compelling version of there being a gap between actual and desired, right? We wanted to build a system that would help people collaborate better and instead we built a system that’s starting to help people dislike each other more.
Let’s assume that’s going to happen and let’s look for it and let’s design for it in a much more continuous way.
Our conversation took several interesting turns; at one point we explored the connection between cybernetic thinking and Eastern philosophy. (Especially Buddhism.) I loved talking with Jeff about these subjects — I hope you enjoy the results.