“Cybernetics [is] control and communication in the animal and the machine.” – Norbert Wiener
This is the first in what will be a series on cybernetics. The esteemed Ethnarch provided a good primer on Cybernetics in the 128th episode of the Myth of the 20 Century podcast, which was about speculative fiction. He identified Wiener and Deming as progenitors of the science of cybernetics, which focuses on control and automation.
My goal is to provide further edification and at times amusement about this subject which was once dear to me. I meant for this to be a critique of these men and their science, and there will be some of that. However, I shall attempt to extract what lessons I can discern to help us, rather than engage in critique for its own sake.
Norbert Wiener was a prodigy, or by his own later description, an ex-prodigy. His father, Leo, was a professor of Slavic languages at Harvard. Through his father, Norbert was related to the famed rabbis Maimonides and Akiva Eger. Leo’s birthplace, Białystok, was also home to the progenitor of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof, and to the Cubist painter Max Weber.
Norbert Wiener was born in Missouri in 1894, and entered Tufts College at the age of 11. He gave his dissertation on philosophy at the age of 18, and the work in his dissertation on ordered pairs influences mathematics to this day .
I shall skip ahead to the World Wars. He was a pacifist even before WWI, but he did not try to evade service. In the Second War, he worked on feedback systems to improve anti-aircraft guns used by the Anglo-American-Soviet allies. This work on feedback, and what he learned about information theory in the process, would shape his seminal 1948 book “Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and the machine.”
At time of writing, I have yet to read it fully, to my chagrin. This work is both technical and philosophical, replete with calculus as well as literary references and analogies. It is why he is regarded as the father of the science, at times alongside others. However, as with most science, he stood on the shoulders of giants, as several contemporaries we shall meet in this series were also working on what would become cybernetics in the 1940s, and it was taking shape even before.
Regarding Wiener’s definition, I now bristle not only at the notion of control, but also at the equation of animals with machines and vice versa. Wiener himself provided an explanation of what he meant by control in his later book, 1950’s “The Human Use of Human Beings”:
“When I communicate with another person, I impart a message to him, and when he communicates back with me he returns a related message which contains information primarily accessible to him and not to me. When I control the actions of another person, I communicate a message to him, and although this message is in the imperative mood, the technique of communication does not differ from that of a message of fact.”
He goes on a bit later: “When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person.” This could be considered true, but only in a very abstract sense. To his credit, Wiener uses the rest of the book to emphasize the difference between persons and machines. The main thrust of “Human Use” is the idea of automation as a liberating force, to help mankind escape from drudgery.
This book and these ideas are a large part of why he is remembered so fondly by persons working on artificial intelligence today. I recently skimmed 2019’s Possible Minds, a collection of twenty-five essays about AI edited by John Brockman . Although I read none of the essays, I noted that several mentioned Wiener. After all, when someone you respect tells you that your dream and your life’s work can be noble, good, and liberating, wouldn’t you listen?
Wiener’s pacifism had not left him, and indeed found resurgence in the Atomic Age. After WWII, he left the military-industrial complex, and refused to accept any government funding for his academic work. He was not shy about sharing his work with Soviet scientists, either, which earned him government scrutiny.
In a more cynical mood, I could suspect that Wiener had become either a mouthpiece for the establishment, or at least a useful idiot. However, I have known enough people like him – and I was one for a long time – to regard him as sincere. He saw the potential of technology to destroy mankind, either through physical extinction or through an inner death, and he made his stand the way he knew how.
That said, I have read one other book of his: “God & Golem, Inc.”, which comments on the nexus between cybernetics and religion. Like “The Human Use of Human Beings”, it is full of gems for people who “[really] love science”. Upon re-viewing it for this series, I no longer enjoy it as I once did. Observe the following:
“Man makes man in his own image. This seems to be the echo or the prototype of the act of creation, by which God is supposed to have made man in His image. Can something similar occur in the less complicated (and perhaps more understandable) case of the nonliving systems that we call machines?”
This statement, of man making man in his own image, also has some truth to it. Not only do we shape ourselves in part, we try to shape others, by providing people we love with wisdom. However, it includes a tentative denial of God, and another attempt to liken machines to living beings – indeed, it amounts to an attempt to usurp God’s role as creator of life.
God & Golem, Inc. was published in 1964 (the year of Wiener’s death), at a time when religion was getting pushed aside in the public space. This is something that Wiener advocates for near the end of the book: “It is to the body politic that many considerations of ethics must apply, and to that part of religion which is essentially a paraphrase of ethics.”
This is an attitude that we see in leftist screeds time and time again: they regard every moral question as a political one, and they have come to regard all of religion as “essentially a paraphrase of ethics”. The prevalence of these views does not lay squarely or solely at Wiener’s doorstep. It is being churned out every day, from many directions, for decades now.
I have lost my patience for this view, and it is part of why I left the left personally – I discovered the beauty and joy available to the right-wing only after the left became quite openly disgusting, in many ways which you are likely familiar with.
Yet even the disgusting parts are paved with good intentions. These people really believe in a shining, lubed-up future and they want to shove it into each and every one of our lives – and if they can’t get us, well, as Ginsberg put it, “We’ll get you through your children!“
The left want to create a machine in their image to fulfill the dreams of anyone who denies God: endless, consequence-free idleness. In this series, we shall explore the underlying ideas and means by which they hope to create such a machine. As Wiener stated in the conclusion of God and Golem, Inc., “The machine, as I have already said, is the modern counterpart of the Golem of the Rabbi of Prague.”
 After some simplification by Kuratowski.
 Brockman helps bring scientists and technocrats together, and who also helped bring them to Jeffrey Epstein for his entertainment. This is more probably due to Epstein’s scientific curiosity than any nefarious activity on Brockman’s part, apart from the nefarious activity inherent in scientism. For example, Epstein was very interested in extending his life through cryonics, and he funded cryonics ventures.