DJ's Reviews > The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society

The Human Use Of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener
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Dec 18, 08

bookshelves: futurism
Read in December, 2008

Thoughts on accelerated change, the singularity, neuroscience, evolution, and more from a man who refers to the last decade of the 19th century as "the nineties".

This book is the forerunner to a line of fantastic (yet, at times, exaggerated) works straddling mathematics, machines, and biology, known as the "cybernetics" movement. At times, this book suffers from the same affliction that Akira Kirosawa's films do - they seem cliched and unoriginal to the modern reader/viewer who has grown up in a creative world molded by their influence. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth a look for both its historical importance and Wiener's unique interweaving of disparate scientific fields.

Wiener is the first instance I've encountered of a writer adopting contemporary technology as a new framework through which to view the world. (I assume that there were others before him, but I suspect they would have been almost nonexistent before the first Industrial Revolution. New paradigms based on technology require huge technological leaps that occur within a generation for inspiration and I'm not sure there were any before then that qualify.) Today, this baton has been passed to those viewing the world as networks (i.e. Steven Johnson) and information (i.e. Seth Lloyd), but Wiener scooped them all.

Employing Claude Shannon's new information theory, Von Neumann's thoughts on computers, Gibbs' statistical physics, and his own keen intellect, Wiener muses on humans as patterns of information in the entropic flow of the universe, human "transmission" (teleportation), and even the social issues stemming from it, such as the economic leapfrog played by agile third-world economics and the dangers of a wholesale shift away from menial labor (and the ensuing creation of an entire generation with no place in the world). Actually, his awareness of the ethical issues implicated by the changes he describes are outstanding coming from a lifelong theoretical mathematician.

He also employs these paradigms in ways I hadn't seen before such as interpreting science as the decoding of nature's secrets. He describes each species and other entity in their world as adopting its own "secret codes" to communicate with allies and befuddle enemies (yes, this was the era when every scientist in America was employed by the US war effort in some fashion and Wiener indeed worked on code-breaking). Evolution then progresses as a constant effort for an entity in the world to maintain the integrity and secrecy of those communications against the continual efforts of competitors to decode them. Its a fascinating way to view evolution (both of biological species and non-living evolutionarily stable situations in our universe), but Wiener is careful to point out that it would be a mistake to view nature as seeking to keep her secrets from man. I'm not sure he gave a satisfactory justification for believing this beyond the fact that the entire endeavor of science presupposes that we are not being lead on a wild-goose chase. (Though honestly, the physics we're exploring know sometimes makes you wonder...) Half the battle of science and engineering is simply knowing that a solution to your problem exists. For instance, if Russian scientists were to announce that they had figured out how to encode humans and safely transmit them through broadband lines, half the physicists and computer scientists in the US would immediately drop their projects and focus on figuring out how to do it themselves. One, because no American likes to be beat by the Russians, but two, and more importantly, because they know a solution exists. The scientific endeavor (like many others I imagine) is inevitably plagued by that tiny voice of doubt inside every researchers head that says, "This cannot be done." Wiener's sound advice: ignore it.

Wiener's careful consideration of the details of early computers also tipped me off to the technological desensitization that occurs with each passing generation. To Wiener, the computer's great limitation was the time investment needed to design a "tape" customized to the user's needs. Computers, he suspected, would spread as far as cottage industry but not down to the consumer level because consumers would never be able to afford to a hire a team of technicians to create a "tape" suitable to their needs. He never saw desktops, consumers OSs, commoditized software, and ten-year olds programming in their basements... because he never saw past the tape. The shift from "hard" software programs like a tape and those we have today is one that's hard to appreciate if you grew up with C++, STL, and a school full of Dells. Each generation marvels at and analyzes the new; the constant or omnipresent is taken for granted and left unexamined. Wiener analyzes that which to us would not seem worth a second glance.

My one criticism is against Wiener's stoicism. For such a revolutionary thinker, he can still be quite stodgy. His extremely disciplined childhood seems to have closed his mind to any view of invention and scientific investigation but that of the careful, ever-progressing technician. He outright condemns the idea of an engineer taking apart and building things "for fun" when he could be working toward solving the world's problems. While I agree with his statement that its important to prioritize the "know-what" over the "know-how" question, engineering "play" is essential. One, humans are powerful predicting machines but not that powerful and a bit of leeway can lead to many an accidental discovery. Two, science and engineering is not solely for the purpose of progress. Its also a source of pleasure for those who do it. I suspect Wiener would faint like a Victorian duchess in the presence of pot-smoking, bongo-playing Richard Feynman or Dean Kamen and his technotoy paradise island.
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