Marshall McLuhan’s Foreword to Cybernetics Simplified by Arthur Porter (1969)


  • From Porter, A. (1969). Cybernetics simplified. Barnes & Noble Inc. pp. v-vi


This is a much needed book. It helps to build a bridge between The Two Cultures whose separation plagues C.P. Snow and many others. The very word “cybernetics” is a useful clue to the central meaning of the electronic revolution. The speed-up of information movement creates an environment of “information overload” that demands pattern recognition for human survival. It was natural therefore, for the first explorers of this field to use a term from navigation. In economics it has become natural to speak of the decision-making of tomorrow as taking place in a world economy. Instant access to and retrieval of information creates entirely new economic and political situations. The new information environment created by the new electronic technologies is quite imperceptible and can only be discovered by special inventories of changing trends and changing human responses to the new environment.

In his new book, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker devotes much of his discussion to the changing relation of the executive to time as a resource. The electric speed-up tends to reduce both distance and time so that both acquire new values. Drucker devotes special attention to the effects of the computer on management. “Critical path” programs provide advance planning of each part of a work. Each part has to be ready on time in order for the whole program to be workable. Much flexibility of on-the-spot decisions is thus sacrificed. “In its place there are high-risk decisions” (page 163). Speed up of information necessarily entails a great increase of awareness of other operations. Nothing can be treated as merely isolated and separate any more. The total human response to any innovation becomes part of the operation that must be anticipated.

In his essay “The Impacts of Science on Public Policy”, Emmanuel G. Mesthene points to the changes in banking that result from the elimination of transaction time by the introduction of computers. For example, large bank balances are no longer needed.
“Bankers originally saw computers as faster and more efficient mechanical clerks that could improve old procedures. But, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, they are taking over and changing the very nature of the banking business. Even the physical plant is being changed. A new bank building in Chicago has been designed around the need for powerful antennas at the skyline of the city to facilitate wireless communication.
This is an important lesson to learn from our experience with science and technology in the last quarter century. To turn to science as a means is to take the first step toward changing one’s ends.
((page 101)

Earlier Mesthene had pointed out that science changes the ground-rules of our physical environment:
Our newfound ability to change the physical world within the same time spectrum required by social or political changes has affected our attitudes and policies in ways that enhance our use and the effects of science still further. We support much more science than ever before – an order of magnitude more than a quarter century ago. (page 98)

We would do well to consider the effect of the new satellite environment around the planet as altering our very concept of Nature. “Nature” is now content, as it were, in a man-made environment. One of the unexpected effects of the new feelings toward nature has been the programming of invention itself. There has come a need to put invention on a systematic basis so that we can invent whatever we need to invent. But more important is the need to anticipate the effects of these inventions.

It is here that Professor Porter’s discussion of homeostasis has great relevance to the social and political climate of our age. The same pattern appears in the educational sector where the trend is towards learning as discovery rather than learning as instruction.

Professor Porter’s book will be of the utmost service in promoting an understanding of the need for the wedding of science and technology and of politics and the arts.

Marshall McLuhan

On Dr. Arthur Porter see on this blog see Dr. Arthur Porter (1910-2010), Acting Director for the Centre for Culture & Technology, University of Toronto (1967-68) at

Dr. Arthur Porter

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