Comment on Mary Catherine Bateson’s note of thanks (and warning) to the ASC – 2011 ASC Conference on Listening

Mary Catherine Bateson, at receiving the Norbert Wiener medal, writes about whole systems, and the approach to cybernetics as listening.

“To my colleagues at the American Society for Cybernetics” | Mary Catherine Bateson | Aug. 2011 | at

I write to express my regret at not being present to receive the Norbert Wiener medal with which you are honoring me, to express my gratitude, and to convey briefly what I would be saying if I were present, emphasizing the contribution that I believe the ASC can and should make.

Many of you will have read the essay by my father, Gregory Bateson, called “From Versailles to Cybernetics,”*in which he traces much of the madness of the 20th century, still ongoing, to violations of communication. He ends by declaring that there is “…latent within cybernetics the means of achieving a new and perhaps more human outlook, a means of changing our philosophy of control and a means of seeing our own follies in wider perspective.” This hope rests on the potential offered by cybernetics for thinking in terms of whole systems rather than in terms of separate and competing interests and specializations, a potential that must be explored and expressed.


I applaud your experiments with new formats for integrative discussion at this conference. It may be that the intellectual structure of cybernetics requires a new kind of communication that will make a new kind of listening possible, listening that carries the awareness of being part of a larger whole. If so, it must go beyond this small community. My hope is that all of us will resolve to carry our study of systems and cybernetics into our engagement with society, speaking out and strengthening exchanges with other fields and with the public, learning to think and then act to achieve the shared understanding and shared willingness to change so urgently needed. We need to be vocal and political. Somehow we must transform our shared understandings into a new kind of common sense.

Mary Catherine Bateson