Second-order Cybernetics, the Cybernetics of Cybernetics ... was given form between approximately 1968 and 1975, at a strange stage in the history of Cybernetics. Mead’s (1968) originating paper (“The Cybernetics of Cybernetics”) was presented as the inaugural keynote address at the founding meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC)...in 1968, at a point in the history of Cybernetics that can be seen, in retrospect, to have been a turning point, marking both the end of the subject, and its resurrection.
First Order Cybernetics is the Cybernetics of observed systems Second Order Cybernetics is the Cybernetics of observing systems.
One of the key proto-statements of modern times was the paper “Behaviour, Purpose and Teleology” by Rosenblueth et al. (1943), as discussed in Stewart (1959/2000)
What is critical here is the separation (in the observations made) of the goal from the system so that it remains desirable, that is, the system is seen by the observer to have a purpose. Using a spatial metaphor, the goal is observed to be outside the system, and even though the two may come together, they retain this separation.
What happens in second-order cybernetics? The distinction between the first- and second-order cybernetics depends [on the observer being] both within the system being described and affected by it. That is to say, the boundary of what is being observed is no longer the same. Where there was, in the case of first order cybernetics, a crucial boundary between the observer and the system-and-goal (in the terminology used here), in the case of second-order cybernetics there is no such boundary. This means that there is no longer the separation of the goal and system from the observer ... which was deemed essential to the determination by the observer that there is a goal
Thus, the determination that there is a goal (and hence purpose), which was determined to be constructed through the separation of the observer from the system and goal, may be attributed to the (first-order) view of the observer as external, detached and untouched: whereas in the second-order cybernetic view the observer is not external, and so the necessary criteria for the determination of the goal do not exist...Goal and purpose are, then, characteristics of first-order rather than second-order cybernetic systems. This discovery is surprising and unnerving, for cybernetics has often been regarded as the study of purposive, goal-directed systems, which cannot be assumed in the case of second-order cybernetics.
It may turn out that the cybernetics of cybernetics requires us to radically rethink the meaning of goal and purpose so that systems become ineffable.