Basic Notions - Disturbance or Perturbation

In Equilibrium

Adding to the complexity of the example depicted above, should forces change their directions or magnitudes in a way that the total sum is not zero, the system will experience disturbance (or perturbation) and moves out of its original equilibrium state. In our example, let’s assume the addition of another force, say, a toxic workplace or being bullied by a colleague (figure below). In this case, the individual cannot maintain the initial equilibrium and loses control: The situation is “out of control” and “out of equilibrium.”

Equilibrium Disturbed

When the sum of all forces is not zero (i.e., they are not cancelling each other out), they will push a stable system (i.e., a system in equilibrium) out of its equilibrium state. This is another interpretation of Newton’s first law of motion, which William Ross Ashby[1] explains as “disturbance” to be “simply that which displaces, that which moves a system from one state to another.” (p. 77).

Knowing about the previous Cybernetics concepts, we can predict that the disturbed system in figure above, which is now out of its initial equilibrium state, will seek to find another equilibrium state, and the individual’s control functions will lead them to seek and find something to balance the forces that have assailed it. To find stability and equilibrium, they will actively seek counteracting forces that can balance their system, be it a supporting family, venting out with friends, looking forward to a promotion on the horizon, reducing the work performance or quality, or even drugs or alcohol[2].

Now let’s assume the addition of a counteracting force, having a supporting and loving family, for example, as depicted below. The forces are now, once more, cancelling each other out, and therefore, the person finds the new equilibrium (i.e., stable) state.

Equilibrium Maintained

The diagrams above are clearly vastly oversimplified to demonstrate the basic cybernetic notions of equilibrium, control, disturbance, and forces that may impact a person in a given environment. The real-life dynamics are much more complex and considerably more obscure. People living and working in large cities experience manifold perturbation in a variety of forms, with different magnitudes and incomparable impacts: Colleagues’ behaviours, boss’s attitudes, work difficulties, competition, traffic, and air pollution, amongst many others.



[1] Ashby, W. R. (1956, October). An Introduction to Cybernetics (Vol. 37). London: Chapman & Hall.


[2] These are effective tools in numbing the pain and reducing the impact of the control function. The individual out of equilibrium will sense the urge to seek and balance the perceived forces; they will feel increasingly uncomfortable until they can find an equilibrium. Besides finding a solution (i.e., another force to counteract), one way to overcome this urge is by numbing the sense of discomfort, and by doing so, erasing the question rather than finding a solution.

Don’t Stop Here!

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