Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Norbert Weiner

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The Human Use of Human Beings

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 7, 2016.

About a year and a half ago, I spent some time 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 upcoming book Astoundinghe was one of John W. Campbell’s professors at M.I.T., and Campbell later remembered him as the only instructor who ever helped him with a story. (He also called him “one of America’s dullest and most incompetent teachers.” According to Campbell, Wiener would write an expression on the blackboard, say that its implications were clear, and then write another without further explanation. He could also do third-order differential equations in his head, which was very impressive, apart from the fact that he expected his students to be able 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 to Wiener saying that he thought the latter would be “greatly interested” in his research with L. Ron Hubbard, and Wiener later had to ask the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to stop using his name in its literature. 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 influence in the genre was even greater than I supected. For much of the fifties, the magazine Astounding served as a conduit that brought cybernetic ideas into the mainstream of science fiction, 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, 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. So 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 both to figure out how we got here 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 Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of technical education 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 such stories as Walter M. Miller’s “Izzard and the Membrane,” the Heinlein juveniles, and Alfred Bester’s 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, much as “positronic” had served the same function 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 none other than our own president once put it so aptly, we have so many things we have to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

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