Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Beyond cyberspace

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The Human Use of Human Beings

Recently, I’ve been reading the work of Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and polymath best known as the founder of cybernetics. Wiener plays a small but pivotal role in my book Astounding: he was one of John W. Campbell’s professors at M.I.T., and Campbell later remembered him as the only person there who ever helped him with a story. (He also called Wiener, who always remained one of his intellectual idols, “one of America’s dullest and most incompetent teachers.” According to Campbell, Wiener would write an expression on the blackboard, say “From this, it is clear that…”, and then write another one without explaining any of the intermediate steps. He could also do third-order differential equations in his head, which was very impressive, except for the fact that he expected his students to do the same thing.) I became interested in Wiener because of the role that his ideas played in the development of dianetics: Campbell once wrote a letter to Wiener saying that he thought the latter would be “greatly interested” in his work with L. Ron Hubbard, and Wiener later asked the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to stop using his name in its literature. And much of the terminology of dianetics, including the word “clear,” seems to have been derived directly from Wiener’s work. But after reading both Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings—while skipping most of the mathematics, which even Isaac Asimov admitted he didn’t understand—I’ve started to realize that Wiener’s overall influence was much greater. For much of the fifties, Campbell served as a conduit to bring cybernetic ideas into the mainstream of science fiction. As a result, Wiener’s fingerprints are all over the genre, and from there, they entered all our lives.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words, like “postmodernism,” that can be used to mean just about anything you want, but it originated in a pair of straightforward but profound observations. Wiener, who had worked on computing machines at M.I.T. and laid out the principles of their operation in a famous memo to Vannevar Bush, had grown intrigued by the parallels between computers and the human brain. He also understood that any attempt to explain intelligence in purely mechanical terms was doomed to fail. The mind doesn’t resemble a clock or any other machine, with gears that can run forwards or backwards. It’s more like the weather: a complicated system made up of an countably huge number of components that move only in one direction. Wiener’s first important insight was that the tools of statistical mechanics and information theory could be used to shed light on biological and mental processes, which amount to an island of negative entropy—it’s one of the few places in the universe where matter becomes more organized over time. But how the heck do you control it? In practice, life and intelligence consist of so many variables that they seem impossible to analyze or replicate, and Wiener’s second major contribution related to how such complicated systems could regulate themselves. During the war, he had worked on servomechanisms, like anti-artillery guns, that relied on negative feedback loops to increase their accuracy: the device performed an action, checked the result against its original goal, and then adjusted its performance accordingly. And it seemed to Wiener that many organic and cognitive processes could be modeled in the same way.

Norbert Wiener

This might all seem obvious now, when we’ve unconsciously absorbed so much of Wiener’s thinking, but it’s one of those pivotal insights that opened up a whole new world to explore. When we pick up a pencil—or a cigar, in the example that Wiener, a lifelong smoker, liked to use—we’re engaging in a series of complicated muscular movements that are impossible to consciously control. Instead of explicitly thinking through each step, we rely on feedback: as Wiener puts it, his senses provide him with information about “the amount by which I have yet failed to pick up the cigar,” which is then translated into a revised set of instructions to his muscles. By combining many different feedback loops, we end up with complicated behaviors that couldn’t emerge from any one piece alone. Life, Weiner says, is an attempt to control entropy through feedback. It’s a powerful concept that allows us to look backward, to figure out how we got here, and forward, to think about where we’re going, and it had a considerable impact on such fields as artificial intelligence, anthropology, and game theory. But what fascinates me the most is Wiener’s belief that cybernetics would allow us to solve the problems created by rapid technological change. As he writes in The Human Use of Human Beings:

The whole scale of phenomena has changed sufficiently to preclude any easy transfer to the present time of political, racial, and economic notions derived from earlier stages…We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in our new environment.

This sounds a lot like John W. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of university for turning his readers into the new breed of men who could deal with the changes that the future would bring. And when you read Wiener, you’re constantly confronted with concepts and turns of phrase that Campbell would go on to popularize through his editorials and his ideas for stories. (For instance, Wiener writes: “When we consider a problem of nature such as that of atomic reactions and atomic explosives, the largest single item of information which we can make public is that they exist. Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.” I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that this sentence gave Campbell the premise that was later written up by Raymond F. Jones as “Noise Level.”) Campbell was friendly with Wiener, whom he described fondly as “a crackpot among crackpots,” and cybernetics itself quickly became a buzzword in science fiction stories as different as “Izzard and the Membrane,” the Heinlein juveniles, and The Demolished Man. Over time, its original meaning was lost, and the prefix “cyber-” was reduced to an all-purpose shorthand for an undefined technology, as “positronic” had been a few decades earlier. It would be left to writers like Thomas Pynchon to make real use of it in fiction, while cybernetics itself became, in Gordon Pask’s evocative definition, “the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors.” But perhaps that’s the fate of all truly powerful ideas. As one of our presidential candidates put it so aptly, we have so many things we have to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

2 Responses

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  1. Yeah. Weiner and John von Neumann (cellular automata, game theory w. especial reference to minimax theorem) are all over the better SF of the 1950s — Phil Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.

    If you haven’t seen it, a useful book is John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death by Steve Joshua Heims first published in 1982.

    I don’t agree with the simplistic, Manichean binary Heims sets up between the two figures — Weiner good, von Neumann bad — but it’s got the best short intellectual biography of Weiner and his ideas I know of.

    Both men were deeply prescient and did so much to create our world that as a result most of us today have internalized muddy versions of what they thought without knowing where those ideas come from. One way that happened is, as you write, via “John W. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of university for turning his readers into the new breed of men who could deal with the changes that the future would bring.”

    Von Neumann is a hard piece of intellectual history to totally ignore, of course, to the extent that the US Post Office even put out a von Neumann stamp within the last couple of years. Norbert Weiner and his ideas, on the other hand, definitely are overdue for reconsideration and revival.

    Mark Pontin

    October 7, 2016 at 7:20 pm

  2. @Mark Pontin: Thanks for the recommendation! There’s also a book called The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction that I haven’t read yet, but probably will.


    October 11, 2016 at 9:02 pm

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