One captain or many rowers?

A cybernetic metaphor.

Anyone who has encountered cybernetics will have, almost without fail, come across one metaphor in particular which captures the general orientation of the subject. That is, the metaphor of the captain in control of the ship, wherein cybernetics is concerned with the complex relationship between the sea, the ship's wheel, and the captain. This metaphor has its roots so deeply in the history of cybernetics that it is embedded within its very etymology. According to the online etymology dictionary, cybernetics originates from:

Latinized form of Greek kybernetes "steersman" (metaphorically "guide, governor"),  from kybernan "to steer or pilot a ship, direct as a pilot," figuratively "to guide, govern," 

The metaphor of the captain is a good fit when it comes to understanding the cybernetic view of the world. The vessel, disrupted by the influence of the waves, is steered through the unpredictability of its world by the captain. While the vessel's direction may be perturbed by tidal waves and stormy winds, the captain responds accordingly to keep the ship on track. He directs the vessel against the wind, negating the influence of the sea and sky. Importantly, the cybernetic system itself is neither the ship nor its captain alone, but the dynamic relationship between the captain, his crew, the ship, and the environment through which they navigate. Despite being only a part of the system, the best captain retains masterful control over the vessel, sustaining a resonant rapport with not only his crew but equally with the ocean and the ship which sails it.

The metaphor of the steersman has undoubtedly stood the test of time as the archetypal image of cybernetics since it encapsulates many of its most deep-rooted tendencies. It is also, like any metaphor, a product of its historical particularity and consequently it carries residues of its ideational past. The captain is a notably masculine archetype, he is “a leader, chief, one who stands at the head of others”. He is also undoubtedly a militaristic figure, being an “officer who commands a man-of-war”, later understood to be a master or commander of a vessel of any kind”. He masters the ship's movements, keeping her on an even keel. He is the central controller of this cybernetic system, being its eyes and hands; communicating with the internal mechanisms of the vessel to turn the rudder against the wind and commanding his crew in turn.

Taking an approach to cybernetics which bears a dramatically different focus from these associative aspects of the metaphor of the captain, we can propose an alternative exemplary metaphor of cybernetics: not the captain's control over his ship, but communicative control between rowers. Rowing, at least etymologically, doesn't bear the same militaristic and gendered associations, simply meaning to “go by water” or to “propel with oars”. Rowing is more often associated with leisure and fishing than it is with war. Unlike the captain's wheel, the oars are not an internal mechanism embedded within the vessel, but rather a tool, possessed equally by each rower, which directly facilitates the interaction between the ocean and the steerers.

While a captain is always the captain, the rower is not bound to such singularity. There may be one rower or many (though more often the latter), they may have one or two oars, and they may work with or without the assistance of a coxswain. The coxswain is interestingly opposed to the captain. Although both figures are masculinised, the coxswain is the “boy, servant” of the vessel, in sharp contrast with the ‘mastery’ of the captain. They are often the physically smallest member of the team since their role is an entirely communicative one. The coxswain's obligations are to maintain safety, steering, and clear communication between the team, they do not intervene directly. Whether or not a coxswain is present, the control of the vessel is manifested through each rower’s eyes, hands, and voice. Control over the vessel is distributed between them. None of them have mastery over the vessel, their communicative control emerges out of their synchronised responsivity.

This metaphor is not more “correct” than its alternative but is more appropriate for our pursuits in cybernetics, and perhaps also for those with common interests. The intention here is simply to propose rowers as emblematic of a particular idea of cybernetics, and to suggest that it may be a helpful heuristic in inquiries that are resonant with the synchronous activity they depict.