Aikido is a Cybernetic activity. In short, this means that in performing Aikido, one makes on-the-fly, real-time corrections or adjustments based on how the application of the technique is or isn't working out. The ability to make such mid-course corrections shows that the person enacting them is cybernetic.
Cybernetics is the science of systems that can take corrective action in order to maintain some sort of control in their environment. People are cybernetic, and so are bean sprouts. People use their cybernetic abilities in things like riding a bike, making constant micro-shifts in balance and position to stay upright on the bike and to travel in the right direction. Bean sprouts show off their cybernetic abilities in bending around obstacles to present their leaves to the sun.
To be cybernetic a system/organism only needs the following components.
- A perceptual function to monitor changes in the relevant environment
- A goal state of affairs that the system wants to maintain
- A computer to measure if there is a difference between the goal state and the aggregate environmental conditions the system perceives at any instant
- A capacity for behavior in the form of corrective action, just in case the computer returns an difference big enough to be important.
Tie all the components together in a circular information circuit, program a goal state, and then set the thing in constant cycling motion. Voila: a cybernetic system. People and bean sprouts all have the parts wired up the right way for them to do cybernetics.
It may seem a trivial point to say that Aikido is cybernetic. Well, of course it is; Aikido is an activity aimed at correcting a violent exchange by restoring peace.
It's important to note that Aikido is not a response to the attack; this is a kind of thinking that we inherited from behaviorist psychologists that caught hold in popular thinking. Rather, Aikido is an action taken to restore things to a goal state, that of peace. This is not just a minor difference of words, but an important distinction with pragmatic consequences either way. A good resource for exploring this distinction and other aspects of cybernetics is the work of William Powers.
Even though people have the necessary and sufficient components and wiring to behave cybernetically, we sometimes elect not to do so. I have posted here about doing Aikido without paying attention to uke or the unfolding technique, but just plowing through the motions, regardless of how much force is necessary to drive someone to the mat.
One of the aspects of Aikido that make it beautiful to watch is the expression in motion of the cybernetic connection fully maintained. Years ago I had the good luck to see an Aikido exercise performed in which two partners moved constantly to uproot the other. The centers of gravity and balance of both were changing constantly as each one moved with the other's energy and momentum, looking for some small vulnerability. Back and forth the exercise flowed like waves moving up and back on a beach. You could feel the single-pointed focus of each partner on the other and the unfolding dynamics of the exercise. Push-hands in Tai Chi is another demonstration of this kind of cybernetically live exchange.
As it turns out, social science researchers such as Chris Argyris have used this same cybernetic model to explain how and how we cause trouble in everyday speaking and listening despite our best intentions. He and his colleagues have developed cybernetic exercises and practices aimed at helping people speak and communicate more effectively in everyday life to achieve the goals we espouse.
In Part 3 we'll begin to explore how Argyris's cybernetic theory of effective communication may show promise and avoid some common pitfalls of many leadership and conflict management methods. Additionally, we'll look at some possible short-comings of Argyris's method that could be corrected by widening the bandwidth of communication to include assessments about mood. Finally, somewhere down the road, I want to try to show how the Action Learning methodology, of which Argyris is an key architect, can be usefully seen as a kind of Aikido in speaking and listening.