The Human Use of Human Beings

by lizard

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.


  1. Best comment @ Zero.

    “Yeh sure. Whenever I want unbiased information I always go first to the documentaries of Oliver Stoned and Michael Moore.”

    • Related and cross-commented at Mark’s.

      “The left cannot make history come out the way that it wants to, but it can always lie about it. Its myths of the past are tawdry attempts at refusing to learn the lessons of history so that it will be given the freedom to repeat its terrible mistakes.”

      • Impressive. What is that? Fifty words?

    • JC

      Who do you trust more for information about the goings on in Ukraine: Stone’s documentary, or the State Department’s Office of Public Affairs?

      Followup question: who do you turn to for “unbiased information?”

      Lastly: how do you resolve the different narratives to which you may be exposed?

      Think, man, think!

      • InfoWars. My go to source.

        “Keeping Ukraine out of NATO is no doubt a goal of the Russian government. However, the trouble that Washington brought to Russia in Ukraine–by orchestrating a coup, installing a puppet government, and unleashing violence against the residents of the former Russian territories that Soviet leaders attached to Ukraine–is being used for wider purposes than to incorporate Ukraine within NATO.

        In other words, Washington’s strategic goals go beyond NATO membership for Ukraine.

        One goal is to break apart the economic and political relationships between Europe and Russia. By using Ukraine to demonize Russia, Washington has pushed the European Union into imposing sanctions on Russia that disrupt the trade relationships and create distrust.”

  2. Related.

    Here are six Conundrums of socialism in the United States of America:

    1. America is capitalist and greedy – yet half of the population is subsidized.

    2. Half of the population is subsidized – yet they think they are victims.

    3. They think they are victims – yet their representatives run the government.

    4. Their representatives run the government – yet the poor keep getting poorer.

    5. The poor keep getting poorer – yet they have things that people in other countries only dream about.

    6. They have things that people in other countries only dream about – yet they want America to be more like those other countries.

    Think about it! And that, my friends, pretty much sums up the USA in the 21st Century. Makes you wonder who is doing the math.

    These three, short sentences tell you a lot about the direction of our current government and cultural environment:

    1. We are advised to NOT judge ALL Muslims by the actions of a few lunatics, but we are encouraged to judge ALL gun owners by the actions of a few lunatics.

    Funny how that works. And here’s another one worth considering…

    2. Seems we constantly hear about how Social Security is going to run out of money. But we never hear about welfare or food stamps running out of money! What’s interesting is the first group “worked for” their money, but the second didn’t.

    Think about it…..and Last but not least:

    3. Why are we cutting benefits for our veterans, no pay raises for our military and cutting our army to a level lower than before WWII, but we are not stopping the payments or benefits to illegal aliens.
    Am I the only one missing something?

    Via Mark Miller

    • Turner

      This “6 conundrums” post is being widely distributed among extreme right wingers. I found it on Allen West’s site, which is possibly where big swede found it. West is, of course, batshit crazy.

      But, of course, that’s the kind of guy big swede admires.

      I suppose big swede thinks “via Mark Miller” counts as attribution. But this post sure looks like plagiarism of the laziest kind to me.

  3. Steve W

    Liz, Dennis’ lecture was the greatest lecture I’ve ever heard in 5 years of college. It was a thing of deep soul searching thought provoking beauty. It was agonizing, and funny, and sad and redeeming.

    it was art. I assure you it wasn’t incoherent. It was inspired.

    A woman in my class maybe 10 years older than me stayed after everyone else left to thank him for the great lecture.

    i was turning in late home work and was completely in agreement with her.

    Into the evening I thought about various parts of his amazing story, people he had known places he had been ways of looking at meaning. That night at Spiritwood in Victor, for St. Patty’s Skins, I was telling people about this amazing lecture.

    Don’t believe every thing you read in the papers, liz.

    I was there. If you’d like details it’d be happy to share.

    When we returned to class after Spring Break and Dennis was gone, we were put into the other linguistic class run by the dept head. He was a nice enough guy, Tony. They were three or 4 chapters behind us. The rest of the semester was review what we had already covered in Dennis’ class. Same book. We students were cheated. It was a complete waste of time.

    After Dennis was gone I got to know him as a person. When/if Dennis drinks, he can get difficult. But he’s brilliant. He’s an amazing musician and poet.

    But every week 3 time a week he arrived to the second on time and went full speed ahead in linguistics, up until that day after the war started before Spring break. He had a really difficult yet really interesting class. it was hard to keep up. But i learned a really lot really fast.

    They should have kept him at least to the end of the semester and let the 3 or 4 people disturbed by his art transfer to Tony’s class.

    I even went and spoke to the Dean about it at the time because it was a lie. Dennis wasn’t out of line. He was too honest for a very few people. It disturbed them.

    • lizard19

      I was at a wedding and just happened to sit next to the head of the linguistics department. he was the guy who brought Holt to UM to teach. he said Holt took off his shirt and said things like he’s surprised the CIA hasn’t killed him yet. he speculated Holt was intoxicated. since you were there, Steve, you can confirm if that’s accurate.

      • Steve W

        The head of the Dept wasn’t in our class that day or the three times a week the class was held up to that point in the semester.

        Dennis didn’t seem drunk to me, at all. When I turned my late home work in after the class I smelled no alcohol, and Dennis was calm, and professional.

        He did give a tour de force lecture. Part of his story (and a fairly small part) related to a time 14 years before when he had been in a mental hospital near Santa Monica when (I believe) the Riverside earth quake occurred and part of the hospital collapsed into the basement. He suggested they use a chair to break a window so they could get out of the building and he remarked at how strange it was that one moment he was a patient and the next he was taking charge and helping the people exit the building.

        Holt knew he was giving a dangerous lecture. He was saying things that people don’t usually say. He was telling the students the truth about who and what our government really is. Not what Peter Jennings says it is. It was very cool. And it was well crafted.

        It was the day after the war started and he was laying it out on the line.

        And it related to the chapter we were starting that day, Semantics. The linguistic science of meaning. He brought the whole lecture back to semantics and the bell rang and he said have a good vacation and people moved on to their next class.

        I never got to learn semantics beyond that wonderful lecture, because like it said, we were regressed 3 or 4 chapters upon our return after Spring Break, never to again reach semantics.

        The admin never asked the students what we thought. They only heard the 3 or 4 students who freaked out that their professor had been in a mental hospital back in 1988 or 1989.

        I know this because I asked the Dean how many complaints had been lodged. It sounded like 3 or 4 students and some parents of I assume same students.

        I was a really tough class academically and maybe some people were relieved not to have any more home work the rest of the semester from that class.

        No one I observed during the entire class got up and left. No one came in because a student had called someone on their phone. There was no urgency of action. Just an amazing powerful lecture. Too powerful for a few apparently.

        It’s an example of the power of the spoken word.

        • Steve W

          PS I read in the MSLA-N paper shortly after the lecture that some unnamed person said Dennis had taken off his shirt, but that is false. I told the Dean that Dennis had not taken off his shirt. And he didn’t. i said that then and I stand by it now.

          I would love to get in touch with the older woman who stayed behind after class to thank him for his excellent lecture. I’d love to hear her recollections. I don’t know her name. She was just in the class.

          • lizard19

            thank you for offering your first-hand account of what transpired.




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