The Human Use of Human Beings
When I turned on the computer this morning my intention was to write a post about a brilliant tv series freshly available on Netflix, titled Black Mirror. It’s a British Science-Fiction series where each episode it its own 45 minute exploration. In making the online rounds, though, Mark’s Happy New Year to my reading friends post got me thinking about a book I haven’t looked at in years on Cybernetics and Society, titled The Human Use of Human Beings, by Norbert Wiener.
Wiener was born in 1894. Here’s a bit from the afterword for context:
The man who wrote this book was an extraordinary human being: son of a self-made Russian-born professor of SLavic languages at Harvard University, child prodigy, Harvard Ph.D. at 18, mathematician of great originality and distinction, creator of the cybernetic synthesis, author of a technology-imbued novel and several science fiction stories as well. During his later years Wiener’s multi-faceted career was haunted by his deeply felt concern for how man could and would relate to the newly emerging and proliferating technologies. His hope was that Cybernetics would provide a common approach to the study of communication and control processes in machines, organism and societies, and that this approach would enhance human dignity rather than defile it.
I got this book years ago from a linguistics professor who was suspended from teaching at UM after he lost it in class and went on an incoherent anti-war rant. Dennis Holt was his name, and from what I heard about his behavior that day, and from what I saw subsequently, UM actually made the right choice.
It’s fitting that I bought this book from Holt. Norbert Wiener is a name that has been obscured for reasons that include non-compliance with corporate/military exploitation of his work. I plugged in his name in the old search engine and found an Atlantic article from last year (2014) about efforts to reclaim his reputation. From the link:
Wiener was 69 when he died of a heart attack in 1964. He’s come to mind recently because a conference dedicated to reclaiming his reputation is scheduled in Boston later this month. Sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century will feature a series of papers and panels demonstrating not only that Wiener was ahead of his time, but that now his time has finally come. Indeed, engineers who are well grounded in cybernetic theory will tell you technology is just catching up with ideas Wiener proposed more than half a century ago.
It might seem odd that Wiener’s reputation would need reclaiming, considering the immense impact he achieved in his lifetime. As a child he was widely acclaimed (and sometimes ridiculed) as a prodigy; he earned his undergraduate degree from Tufts at the age of 14, and his doctorate from Harvard when he was 18. As an adult he became one of the most famous scientists in the world. His books were best sellers, his opinions regularly featured in national magazines. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his wife, Margaret Mead, were among those enthralled by Wiener’s presentations at the intellectual all-star games known as the Macy Conferences. “I think that cybernetics is the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the past 2,000 years,” Bateson declared, according to Wiener’s biographers Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman.
Yet, much sooner and more thoroughly than could have been expected, memory of Wiener and of his contributions faded. Several reasons account for his eclipse. One is that during the height of his career, Wiener refused, for ethical reasons, to accept research contracts from the military or from corporations seeking to exploit his ideas. Since the military and corporations were the main sources of research support, Wiener’s defiance hindered his progress during a period of unprecedented technological advance. Besides nuclear weapons, Wiener was perhaps most worried about the technology he was most directly responsible for developing: automation. Sooner than most, he recognized how businesses could use it at the expense of labor, and how eager they were to do so. “Those who suffer from a power complex,” he wrote in 1950, “find the mechanization of man a simple way to realize their ambitions.”
So Norbert Wiener had some principles that he held himself to. No wonder his name has been relegated to the gaping American memory hole. Here’s more from the link:
I’ve been preoccupied lately with thoughts of marauding broomsticks, genies in bottles, and monkey’s paws.
All are literary images the scientist Norbert Wiener used to make the point that we fool ourselves if we think we have our technologies firmly under control. That Wiener was instrumental in creating the technologies he warned about demonstrates the insistent obstinance of his peculiar genius.
The images came from, respectively, Goethe’s poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the “Fisherman and the Genie” fable in One Thousand and One Nights, and W.W. Jacobs’ short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which a magical talisman gives an elderly couple more magic than they bargained for. The common theme is unexpected consequences, specifically the often tragic ones that can overtake us when we seek to exploit mechanisms of superhuman power. “The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence,” Wiener wrote in 1964, “not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”
This is the second time in less than 24 hours that I’ve come across a reference to Goethe’s poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Last night it was a Moon of Alabama post about Ukraine where b actually quotes Goethe:
Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice marshaled the spirits to help clean the house. But he could not control them:
O, you ugly child of Hades!
The entire house will drown!
Everywhere I look, I see
water, water, running down.
Be you damned, old broom,
why won’t you obey?
Be a stick once more,
please, I beg you, stay!
b references Goethe in the context of the extreme right wing forces the US unleashed in Ukraine, forces Oliver Stone will explore in his documentary soon to be released.
Going back to the original impetus for this post, the second episode of Black Mirror, titled ‘Fifteen Million Merits’: The Rebellion Show, offers a disturbing glimpse of a fictional future where advertising, reality tv and virtual reality so encapsulates the daily lives of the human automatons that when rebellion emerges, it is quickly transformed into a control mechanism. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler.
In case it didn’t sink in the first time, I’m going to repeat Wiener’s prescient prediction:
the world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence.
The struggle continues.