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Cyberspace, cybernetics and cyber-physical systems

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 18 december 2013

Ben van Lier
The term cybernetics, introduced in the middle of the last century by Norbert Wiener, still forms the basis for attributing significance to developments arising from new technology. The term cyberspace was introduced in the 1980s, and now mankind stands at the cusp of the development and design of cyber-physical systems. The influence on our daily lives and work of cybernetics as a science thus continues to increase.


In 1982 William Gibson published a short story in Omni magazine, entitled Burning Chrome. Slowly but surely this story would have sunk into obscurity had it not been for the fact that the term ‘cyberspace’ appeared in it for the first time. At the start of the story Gibson wrote: “I knew every chip in Bobby’s simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the Cyberspace VII [1]. For Gibson, cyberspace was an amalgamation of cybernetics as a science, with space as a new and still unknown dimension for mankind, which could only be entered and explored with new technology in the shape of rockets and spaceships. This embodied a challenge on the one hand, and fear of the unknown on the other. 

Following the appearance of Gibson’s story, the term cyberspace became an increasingly more natural one, partly under the influence of the development of the internet. Cyberspace has also increasingly become a synonym for the digital space around us, which we enter with our technological applications, and the information we share and exchange with each other in this space.


The term cybernetics was introduced in 1948 by the American mathematician Norbert Wiener. His book is still considered to be one of the pillars of what we understand to this day about, for instance, telecommunications, ICT or ‘embedded systems’. For Wiener the development of cybernetics into an overarching science created the direction in which to seek answers to fundamental issues current at that time within research fields such as automation and control and communication. He thus suggests in his book: “We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics [2] (1948:19). Now, more than fifty years on and many revolutions in telecommunications and ICT further, humanity is poised again at the cusp of a new upheaval, which brings with it new fundamental issues. In this new evolution, as mankind we will develop and design new autonomous objects, which will be able to communicate and interact both between themselves and with people in cyberspace. Once again we are on the threshold of a new cyberspace, which we will share with (autonomous) objects and which we will again enter and explore. Once again there are challenges on one hand and on the other, concerns about what this might mean for us as mankind.

Cyber-physical systems

Through these developments, in the years ahead we humans will increasingly need to share our everyday world and cyberspace with so-called cyber-physical systems. These cyber-physical systems are described by Baheti and Gill as: “Systems that integrate the cyber world with the physical world [3]. The computational and physical components of such systems are highly interconnected and coordinated to work effectively together. Sometimes with humans in the loop [4]. In the development of cyber-physical systems, the combination of cybernetics with physical objects in our environment plays a fundamental role. The combination will lead, it is suggested, to a new and better physical system or whole as an object, where the properties of the whole will be more than the sum of the individual parts or components. The new combination of people and objects which share the same physical ‘space’ and cyberspace communally, will naturally also become more than the sum of the individual parts. Not only will our perception of our everyday living world change with the arrival of these cyber-physical systems in the form of robots or autonomous vehicles in our living environment. With their arrival there will also be a change in the nature and scope of the information which will be shared and exchanged by people and the cyber-physical systems in this new and combined cyberspace.

Industry 4.0 | Industrial Internet

The possibility of producing cyber-physical systems which have both physical and cyber properties and which can function in random networks, demands a new industrial revolution. This new industrial revolution must enable the design, production or creation of such cyber-physical systems on a major scale. The new industrial revolution is also called The Industrial Internet (USA) or Industry 4.0 (Germany).
In both countries people are working towards maintaining the existing industrial capacity or capacities at the current level, and/or increasing them. In the agreement signed between political parties in Germany last week, considerable attention is devoted to these developments and their consequences for German industry. Through the development and design of strategic innovation politics and coalitions being entered into between industry, trades unions, science and education, people hope to create the conditions to be able to create these all-embracing changes.


In the three decades which have passed since the Ono Sendai VII computer appeared in our world, our living environment has changed fundamentally through developments in telecommunications and ICT. In this ongoing evolution, the next step is the development of a world which we share with cyber-physical systems. This will once more change our world. In this change we will need to accept that these new and apparently traditional objects are no longer the same as we have perceived them to be in recent decades. With the arrival of the new cyber-physical systems we will create a new communal cyberspace because these objects have new (information) capabilities which we can no longer immediately discern. In this sense we are on the brink of a ‘phenomenological gap’ arising from a new form of ‘material invisibility’ or as Robert Frodemann calls it, ‘the material invisibility of objects beneath the possibility of lived or phenomenal experience [5]. It is time that we also consider the question of what type of people we want to and can be, and how we will design our part of this cyberspace.

  • [1] William Gibson (1982) Burning Chrome. Omni
  • [2] Wiener N. (1948) Cybernetics Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • [3] Here I assume that cyberworld and cyberspace are the same (digital) space.
  • [4] Baheti R. and Gill H. (2011) Cyber-Physical Systems. From: The impact of control technology, T. Samad and A.M. Annaswarmy (eds.), available at www.ieeecss.org
  • [5] Robert Frodemann (2004) Nanotechnology: the visible and the invisible. Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies, University of Texas

Ben van Lier works at Centric as an account director and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.

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