Happy 105th Birthday, Heinz!


Mai and Heinz von Foerster in Pangaro’s 1970 Citroën DS21 in Pescadero, California, in the early 2000s (Photograph: Paul Pangaro)

Heinz von Foerster was born 105 years ago today. He was a major figure in the beginnings of cybernetics from the middle of the 20th century, and through to its flowering as second-order cybernetics. His ideas can be magical and one of his papers is still a favorite and voted the favorite of students in cybernetics + design courses year upon year.  His wife, Mai, also magical in her clarity as well as succinctness (a trait not shared by Heinz), once said to me, “Heinz has a mind like a crystal.” He demonstrates this so well in his “Ethical Imperative”, a cybernetic koan worthy of contemplation and action:

“I always try to act so as to increase the number of choices.” He means “choices” in the sense of viable and appropriate alternatives for the current context, not just proliferation of arbitrary options. Designers may find direction and ethics within his words. (See references and more examples here.)

In celebration of his birthday today, the Heinz von Foerster Archive at the University of Vienna has distributed this audio recording one of his lectures. It has all the rigor we expect from a trained physicist and all the magic we want from a cybernetician. Happy Birthday, Dear Heinz!