Cybernetics and Semantics

1966 essay with 2017 foreword

By William Wetherall

California Engineer
Vol. 44, No. 4, January 1966, pages 12-17

Cybernetics and Semantics Contents of January 1966 California Engineer
Yosha Bunko scan
Cybernetics and Semantics Member of California Engineer "Staff"
Yosha Bunko scan
Cybernetics and Semantics "Far-East Correspondent" for California Engineer
Yosha Bunko scan

Foreword: Half a century ago

In the fall of 1965, except for the fact that I was in the Army, I was a very happy trooper. What shall we do with Andromeda?, my first magazine article and the cover story of the March 1965 issue of The California Engineer, had been published, It caused a bit of a stir for a magazine not known for its interest in the social consequences of technology, and the editorial of the October 1965 edition credited my article with inspiring "three more views on the relation of contemporary technology to man and environment" in that isuse.

While still serving in the U.S. Army, working at Fort Ord as a laboratory technician at the Ft. Ord U.S. Army Hospital, I proposed an article on "Cybernetics and Semantics" and was encouraged to write it. The editors had decided to make "Communications in the Modern World" the focus of its January 1966 issue, and my article, which was all about communications, would fit right in.

I had already started compiling notes and writing paragraphs on the Smith-Corona portable typewriter I packed around everywhere. I worked in the bay of the barracks I shared with a couple of dozen other hospital personnel. I bummed a number of books from the Ft. Ord Library, where I had once worked part-time reshelving books and attending the checkout desk. And I bought a few older and newer titles at bookstores in Monterey.

Then orders came down for me to report to the 106th General Hospital at Fort Bliss in El Paso. The war in Vietnam was heating up. The 106th, I was told when reporting for duty, was gearing up to be sent somewhere in Asia to support the war. The ambulance company I had formerly been with at Fort Ord before being transferred to Fort Baker for training as a lab tech was already in Vietnam, as were the medical battalion and the evacuation hospital it had been associated with.

The 106th General Hospital was a field hospital and was prepared to set up and operate in tents. At the time we had no idea where we were going -- probably not Vietnam, but a neighboring country to which the wounded who survived their treatment in evacuation and MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) hospitals in Vietnam could be airlifted. While at Fort Bliss, the 106th was a component of the William Beaumont General Hospital, where the 106th's medical personnel worked in order to maintain their technical skills.

However, newly assigned personnel like yours truly would bide their time in the barracks, to do chores around the company area or elsewhere on the base, for the few weeks before the unit received its orders to move out. I used my time to continue writing, but not for long. Lab techs were in short supply, and I got seconded to the lab at the new McAfee Army Hospital at White Sands Missile Range. Though I had less time to write during the day, I had no other duties, and so feverishly wrote in the evenings and on weekends.

I was at Ft. Bliss for about 2 months from mid October to mid December, and all but the first and last weeks of this period I spent at White Sands. As I recall, my California Engineer deadline was the end of November, and I mailed my manuscript out, with a few hand corrections, just in time.

There was no email in those days. All my communication with the CE staff was by what today is called "snail mail". I never personally met any of the staff. I never once spoke to any of the staff on the phone. By the time I returned o Berkeley in 1967, the magazine had stopped publishing. I would like to think it was not because of my articles.

In the fall of 1965, I was also more than a little full of myself. Reading the articles I wrote then, for the California Engineer, but especially "Cybernetics and Semantics", I shake my head in utter awe at the magnitude of my "attitude" -- for that's what it must have been. It's still there, I assure you. But in the intervening decades, I've worked very hard at suppressing it, or hiding it behind a veil of clearer writing that even I can understand.

What amazes me, though, is how Richard Sullivan, the editor of the California Engineer, justified including, much less leading with, my article. Was it to get the worst over with? Or to scare readers away from the rest of the issue?

Sullivan even listed me as "Staff" on the masthead and called me "our Far-East Correspondent" on the "About the Authors" page. This was the first and last time that I would ever have such a title.

One thing I will say about my writing then -- after quiting my engineering studies, and before embarking on my language and literature studies -- is that I really knew how to pile it higher and deeper. When I read today what I wrote then, I have to reread some phrases to parse their seamless practically comma-free streams of pretentious thought.

I can generally still figure out what it was I was trying to say. And I can generally sort the wheat from the chaff. From my vantage point half a century later, there was mostly chaff.

Someday, when I have time, I may try to rewrite the essay in clearer and simpler terms that an editor today might agree is good prose. The sentences will be half as long and say twice as much. And I wouldn't have to look up my own words in a dictionary and discover that they're not there.

Alternatively, I could compile a glossary of neologisms and outright Wetherallisms to aide reading, and markup each word in the glossary to display a pop-up annotation on mouseover.

William Wetherall
30 March 2017, Hakusan, Abiko

Cybernetics and Semantics

By William Wetherall

Somewhere within the confines of an industrial labyrinth statisticians will compile reams of broadly established data from which theorists will derive specific criteria for application in the design of a device, mechanism, or system. Consequently many conceptual models and feasibility studies will sift through several echelons of executive sieves until finally, all crucial decisions arrived at, a team of project engineers will be designated to "build it" and a high-voltage marketing group will be elected to "sell it." The progress flow diagram will indicate: cyberneticist to engineer to semanticist.

Probably the division of technology that has most profoundly influenced the course of contemporary civilization is that of cybernetics. Embodied in this single term [Note 1] are concepts without which the accomplishments of modern technology might never have been realized, and without which the ambitions of modern technology might be utterly incapable of realization. These are the concepts of communication and control in machines and living organisms.

As comprehensive and permeative as cybernetics in its entanglement with human affairs is semantics. This social science seeks to understand the origins, uses, and meanings of communicative symbols in language, art, music, and other media of human expression and intercourse. Semantics is actually so universal a study that it is frequently indistinguishable from the interdependent disciplines of psychology and sociology.

Cybernetics and semantics, then, are closely related topics in that both reckon with the management and interplay of communicative symbols. In fact cybernetics, because in practice it largely relates human behavior with machine behavior via symbolic languages and programs, is often referred to as machine semantics. As normally construed, human factors engineering is a branch of cybernetics, as for example when human factors are utilized as criteria in the design of a device, mechanism, or system. The terminology assumes quite another meaning, however, as jargon in the employment of advertising and sales specialists. In the former usage a device, mechanism, or system is conceived commensurate with human capacities, whereas in the latter application the object is to knead a human audience into palatable form for appetites of perhaps a corporate body.

It may appear a conflict of interests that within the same organization department A endeavors to systematize several categories of discrete human factors data into sets of specifications designed to meet general consumer needs, while department C strives to convince a potential consumer that its particular needs would be satisfied were it to contract the organization's services. Conflict though it may on occasion be, it is precisely this situation with which engineers in department B will have to contend as they receive directives from, and submit reports to, and otherwise communicate with their industrial neighbors, the cyberneticists of department A and the semanticists of department C.

The union of parental gametes, the consequence of an emotionally aroused corporeal communication, begins an exchange of genetic messages which serve to control the embrionic (sic = embryonic), fetal, and postnatal development of the progeny. Hence the very circumstance and outcome of even so primary a physiologic enterprise as special reproduction revolves about the circumstances and outcomes of many communicative processes.

It can be generally said with negligible risk of incurring inaccuracy that there occurs not a single incident perceivable or conceivable by man which does not in some manner involve communication. This observation is as much a periphrasis as it is a truism, however, since acts of perception and conception are themselves acts of communication. Beyond the safety of such a verbal fortress only with difficulty can one assert that all universal occurences (sic = occurrences) per se in some manner involve communication, for he can too easily become entrapped in that metaphysical quagmire which coquettishly beckons every Socratic vagabond to wonder, among other things: if it is anywhere, where is the universe and if it has limits, what lies beyond them? If anything came first, was it something or nothing? and relative to this exposition, what transpired in the cosmos immediately preceding the initial communicative act? To remain philosophically safe while generalizing about communications it is apparent that one must not tread upon humanly imperceivable and inconceivable fields but must contain his interests within humanly cognizable boundaries.

In Biblical days communication was a cuneiform inscription in clay, the gait of a dromedarian camel, and the call of a tribal herald. Today communication is a graphic display in a magazine, the Mach number of a supersonic aircraft, and the parabolic dish of a microwave relay station.

Technologically there is marked contrast between ancient and modern communications, but otherwise the two are remarkably similar, if only because of their essential involvement with human affairs. During all periods of history, man ability to communicate has been uniquely responsible for the organic cooperation without which human society would be quite unable to function, while man's inability to communicate has been notoriously liable for the sociologic vicissitudes without which the character of human civilization might be much less inclined than presently toward pathos.

Caesar depended as completely upon highways and wheels as upon written and spoken words to keep his empire intact, and it was partly due to the expansion of the imperial borders beyond the cohesive capabilities of contemporary communicative methodology that the grandeur of Rome declined and fell. That many ancient colosseums, roads, and aqueducts were built with such ingenuity and quality as to be still usable today is adequate testimony, however, to the importance and esteem conferred upon these and other communicative edifices by early social architects.

Were it not for the inventions of certain communicative aids, American frontiersmen could not have conquered the Western plains, deserts, and mountains as swiftly and thoroughly as they did. Because geographic barriers tend to separate rulers as well as peoples, were it not for the timely appearances of the steamboat, railway, and telegraph the West might very well have remained independent of the East, and somewhere between San Francisco and New York there might this very day stretch an armistice meridian along which patrols, in straddled opposition, armed sentries from Western and Eastern United States.

A culture is acquired by learning and transmitted from one generation to the next by numerous and complex communicative processes. In fact acculturation is wholly dependent upon a multitude of communicative motivations, symbols, and media.

Communicative motivations are responsible for such familiar communicative incidents as talking, gesturing, dancing, dreaming, mating, writing books, painting pictures, playing music, riding streetcars, saving lives, and fighting wars. It is only but for his communicative motivations that man is able at all to be a social animal, one which seeks and derives satisfaction from intraflock relations; but for his variety of appetites it is unlikely that man would have become so reputed a schizophrenic, dubiously distinguished from all other earth-organisms as being both the most creative and most destructive.

Were it not for the communicative powers of carnal passions, Cleopatra and Anthony might never have collaborated as they did, Christianity might never have found a moral vacuum on which to feed, and the vestiges of the Empire might have ushered into the Middle Ages something other than a papal dominion. Osiris, god of the Egyptian underworld and of the dead, might never have been the brother and husband of Isis, goddess of motherhood and fertility, were it not believed by the Pharaoh-priests that communication between beings of a species was as essential to the spirits of spirits as to the spirits of men.

The need and ability to communicate are not entirely human features. Worker bees, after discovering a source of nectar, must and do communicate news of their findings to other foragers in the bee society. Even machines require communicative faculties, without which they would certainly be useless to their human creators.

Because man wishes to augment the aptitudes of his sensory organs, much significant research is being accomplished in determining cybernetic analogs of several organic communicative processes, two familiar ones being the ophthalmology of the amphibious frog and the otology of the mammalian bat. Knowledge gained of these and other physiologic curiosities has already enabled the construction of devices, mechanisms, and systems superior in many practical respects to corresponding human structures. In fact today the microphone, loudspeaker, photocell, cathode-ray-tube, ion-chamber, coulombmeter, and other electromechanical transducers are being integrated with elementary components into devices, mechanisms, and systems which are communicatively becoming so anthropomorphic that there remain very few human communicative acts insusceptible of machine duplication.

It is not without reason that communicative motivations have taken man to the threshold of being able to electromechanically simulate his communicative attributes; evidently numerous organic communicative processes involve the biologic cooperation of logical elements which, fittingly enough for man in his euthenic pursuit of knowledge, leisure, and happiness, lend with differing degrees of ease to representation by modular inorganic circuitry. Neither is it without reason today that no sooner has a new branch of science been defined that an association is formed, and a professional journal established, in its name. Without an exchange of descriptive literature between technologists it is highly improbable that technology could sustain its present rather fantastic rate of progress.

With social evolution came such a degree of general ethnic diversification that even before the appearance of the written word the principal problem of communication was a semantic one. In fact so acute was this diversification that to this day ethnic heterogenosity remains the chief etiologic agent in the incidence of communicative barriers in human interactions.

Regional ideosyncrasies (sic = idiosyncrasies) in prehistory established precedents tor complex semantic divergences that have manifested through the milleniums (sic = millenniums, millennia)in such manners as to render human society an almost incomprehensible, and certainly an enigmatic blend of philologic, religious, political, and economic orders. Finding human society such an amalgam of distinct personalities it is not unusual, then, to discover the resonance or dissonance of a human interaction decided by the connotation of one deceivingly simple verbal remark or somantic [Note 2] gesture, by the connotation of a single communicative symbol.

When a cultural or technological innovation appears in a social climate, certain longstanding communicative symbols may become obsolete (in which case they may be discarded) while the meanings of others may be slightly or radically modified to fit impinging conditions, and a number of new symbols may be fashioned, and their meanings specified, according to the unique communicative requirements established by the innovation. Hence a symbol in classical or medieval literature cannot usually be translated in a modern context but must be evaluated relative to its historically proper semantic background.

Like members of the Plant Kingdom, symbols occur in great variety, and like a botanical dichotomy a classification of symbols is necessarily complicated, indefinite, and subject to modification. In so brief and disjointed an account as the one at hand it is possible to examine in passing the characters of but a few samplings from the almost depthless repertoire of communicative symbols.

As communicative symbols, smiles, frowns, and other facial contortions serve to supplement the meanings and enliven the perspectives of spoken and pantomimic communications: of these values stage performers are keenly aware. The handshake is both a communicative symbol and medium; its execution symbolizes an observance of protocol, while through it are often exchanged quite ineffable feelings.

Traditionally flags are focal points for public and esoteric rituals, and as such symbolize pursuits of human causes worthy and otherwise. To the average citizen his national flag is definitely more than a bedsheet, at least during warm summers and prosperous winters, while to true chauvinists a small scrap of fabric, because its fate was to be woven in national colors rather than an Indian breechcloth, is something sacred not to be desecrated under any condition except for want of war.

The cross has probably stimulated the precipitation of more hatred, the slaughter of more men, the disruption of more tranquilities, and paradoxically the entertainment of more human aspirations, than has any other emotive symbol. The Cross of Saint George adorned the shields of the Christian Crusaders who sought recovery of the Holy Lands from the Moslems during the 11th through 13th Centuries. Symbolizing German nationalism and Aryan racism, the swastika impassioned the Nazis to the bloodiest fervor ever chronicled in human annals.

The Latin Cross, in masonry relief on a monasterial gables, symbolizes a scholarly devotion to Bibliology, whereas were it borne in an Easter drama, it might inspire one observer to genuflect in respectful recollection of the crucifixion procession, while to another observer it might signify an enslavement of the bearer to Christian dogma. When two timbers wrapped with oily rags the Latin Cross becomes the flaming consummation of a Ku Klux Klan rally, a symbolization of man's ability to endorse total folly, a circumstance where man inability to communicate is submerged in fluid compassion.

With few exceptions modern communicative media having origins in antiquity serve man today in essentially the same manners they served him milleniums (sic = millenniums, millennia) ago. Even so expressly a modern communicative medium as radio seems indistinguishable from the ageless one of smoke by terms other than those making some reference to form (as of symbols) or degree (as of efficiency). For illustrative purposes, however, most communicative media, whether of ancient or modern origin, may be separated under two extensive and overlapping categories as to their being cybernetic or semantic.

Comparing the ancient with the modern in the plight of one cybernetic communicative medium, it is observed that the gross physical makeup of an abacus is notably different from that of an electronic calculator. Yet in functional purpose and operational principle these mechanisms are actually quite closely related species of the same cybernetic genus, the factor ultimately distinguishing them being the speed at which each is able to carry out its calculations rather than the mode in which each communicates with its programmer.

Taking for example another cybernetic medium: whereas the god-propitiating belligerents of Homer's Trojan Wars did battle from gilded wooden chariots drawn by spans of indefatigable and inviolable equini, God-forsaking armies of the Twentieth Century clash with armor-plated aluminum vehicles powered by fallible combustion engines. The functional purpose of the older transporting mechanism survives as that of the newer, namely to carry warriors overland, while to both mechanisms the operational principles involving such concepts (mythological ones withstanding) as wheels, levers, hydraulics, fuel consumption, waste expulsion, and friction remain basic.

A similar chronologic continuity persists with semantic communicative media, as in the use of rhetoric by politicians of both classic and contemporary fame. The faculty of speech serves the campaign efforts of Space Age office-seekers as it served the ambitions of Roman magistrates. That the staging of a modem auditorium is embellished with TV cameras rather than rostra, and that the presidential podium hosts microphones rather than fasces, are causes for little semantic distinction between the old forum and the new. Modern public address aids effect essentially an amplification of the message enabling its delivery to a greater listenership at a greater speed with greater immunity from "back-fence" escalation than was possible two thousand years ago. As when earlier politicians mounted their platforms, still orators strive to solicit popular support from their audiences, and still speeches reek of reverent references to power and glory.

The principle difference between cybernetic and semantic communicative media lies in their relative susceptibilities to mathematical analysis. Whereas most cybernetic media can be reduced to objective mathematical models, semantic media usually are so subjective as to preclude their strict delineation by mathematics. Indeed from this difference follows the reason why cybernetics is mainly a physical science and semantics a social one.

Outstanding examples of possibly forbidding difficulties encountered when the attempt is made to fit a purely semantic medium to a purely cybernetic one can be observed in the continual efforts by linguists to mathematize grammar, orthography, phonetics, and semantics (in the philologic sense) so as to permit the design of a machine capable of transliterating and translating a verbal expression from one dialect form to another without introducing semantic distortion. Semantic distortion in verbal communication is analagous (sic = analogous) to waveform distortion in electronic communication in that both may be undesirable and difficult to eliminate and may arise from apparently random and unpredictable nonlinearities. Semantic and cybernetic distortions are not altogether analagous (sic = analogous), however, as cybernetic distortions are related to physical discontinuities, whereas semantic distortions are related to social discontinuities. Actually the whole problem of practically transforming a semantic expression into a cybernetic one centers about the insusceptibility of social discontinuities to the analytical techniques of engineering cybernetics.

If an American patriot were to speed through the neighborhoods of Berkeley in his Volkswagen shouting, "The Red Chinese are coming! The Red Chinese are coming!", it is doubtful that he would command more than police, press, and psychiatric attention. Delivered via a local broadcasting network, however, the same message might compel listening citizens to have a sandbag brigade in operation by nightfall.

During the American revolutionary period, to communicate effectively was to discharge news informally astride a galloping stallion. Then Boston's town drunk could have warned the countryside that the British were coming and the people of Massachusetts would have responded no less spectacularly than they did to the legendary midnight ride of the silversmith Paul Revere. In modern society, however, there prevails, especially in metropolitan districts, an almost subservient reliance upon mass media sources for information. Hence to alarm the Berkeley community of an impending attack from a fleet of junks might require today a relatively more formal mouthpiece than would have been needed only two centuries ago.

While semantic symbols assume new values in changing social climates, and while the techniques of conveying meaningful symbols become increasingly sophisticated, the semantic linkages through which individuals and organizations engage and contend with communicative symbols become notably cybernetic in character. That is to say, as collective man intensifies his capability and willingness to create and become ecologically dependent upon devices, mechanisms, and systems, individual man asymptotically approaches being a social device, a manipulated component of a social mechanism which approximates a cybernetic system.

In a cybernetic society stratified officialdoms prevail from whose cerebral cavities corruptly crawl coercive tenacles (sic = tentacles) contrived to claw from nonconformists compliancies. In such a society all collective activities from church potlucks to Halloween festivities are planned by megalomaniacs who privately if not publicly deem common men cybernetic gadgets, supply items subject to rigid codifications, inventories, and periodic maintenance inspections.

One current sociologic diagnosis rather emphatically contends that the jet-set, in-crowd, and new-breed environments rampant today are conducive to the proliferation of cybernetic man at the expense of free man. The accompanying prognosis anticipates in unspecified years the complete transformation of all freely-motivated human societies into welfare socialisms wherein compulsion will have displaced volition.

An engineer learns well how to communicate with a machine; in fact typically he will learn to do this so well that he will be unable to communicate with anything but a machine. He will have learned his information theory and servomechanisms commendably but have little command of the Good King's English. He will be quite able to transmit cybernetic messages to an electronic computer but miserably incapable to expressing himself verbally with semantic clarity. But what is semantic clarity and how does an engineer, how does anyone, learn to achieve it in verbal communication?

In answering an assignment question a student will often compose a metaphorical expression through which the principle of the question can be related to a dissimilar but more familiar situation. The situation is normally one which is more familiar to the student, but may be so unfamiliar to the grader (because his academic specialty may differ from that of the student) that he is unable to gather the meaning the student intended his metaphor to convey. In this eventuality, guess whose grade may suffer!

Unfortunately because of communicative failures far more than grades suffer. Cybernetic blunders result in circuit overloads, typographical errors, and vehicular accidents; because of semantic turbidities processes of law are impeded, marriages collapse, and continents are torn with violence.

Stubborn ignorances are characteristically the underpinnings of overbearing political, religious, and racial biases the many by-products of which are the communicative turbulences which leave semantic expressions turbid. Semantic clarity, or communicative excellence, requires that these communicative turbulences be calmed.

Semantic scrutiny is weighing the value of a word both independent of and in context with the sentence, paragraph, and chapter in which it is to be included, paying particular attention to its denotative and connotative possibilities but being careful not to overlook onomatopoeic and euphonic contributions to its assortment of meanings. Semantic clarity, then, is being explicit when implicity would permit an inference differing from an intended one.

Probably the paramount prerequisite for attaining semantic clarity is having vigilance; before one can enjoy semantic clarity one must be aware. One must be able, in philosophical yet practical terms, to comprehend himself and his environment, and one must have cognizance of both the conspicuous and the subtle sociologic forces that abound throughout human civilization.

Hence the person who wishes ability to express himself with meaning must progress through life with an alert viewpoint, must observe carefully the human panorama that dynamically surrounds him, and must take a profound interest in this panorama and contemplate seriously of its purpose and destiny.


1. Cybernetics derives from the Greek kubenetes, or steersman, from a Latin version of which descends the English gubernator, or governor.

2. This is somantic, and not a corruption of semantic.


Rather than to discuss at length the principles of cybernetics and semantics, it has been the purpose of this article to survey the manners in which these scientific disciplines have shaped the character of human civilization, and to suggest reasons why it is important that one be familiar with the sociologic and philosophic implications of cybernetic and semantic principles and speculations. For the reader who wishes to pursue these interesting matters in their more enlightening details the following bibliography is offered:

Hayakawa, S. I. (ed.). The Use and Misuse of Language. New York: Fawcett, 1962. (Paperback)

Hayakawa, S. I. Language in Thought and Action, 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 1964.

Henle, Paul (ed.). Language, Thought, & Culture. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1958.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity; an introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics. Lakeville, Conn.: Library Publishing Co., Institute of General Semantics, 1933.

Philbrick, F. A. Understanding English; an introduction to semantics. New York : The Macmillan Company, 1942.

Pierce, John R. Symbols, Signals and Noise; the nature and process of communication. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics; or, control and communication in the animal and the machine, 2nd ed. MIT Press and Wiley, 1961

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings; Cybernetics and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954

Wiener, Norbert. God and Golem, Inc.; a comment on certain points where cybernetics impinges on religion. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1964.

California Engineer

"The California Journal of Technology first appeared in February, 1903 as a medium of communication for students in engineering. It was the first college magazine in the west to specialize in the area of science and technology. The magazine was discontinued in February, 1914, but was revived by the Student Engineers Council as the California Engineer in January, 1923. By the mid-1960s, the magazine was sponsored by the Associated Students and maintained a circulation of about 1,500 copies per month." (