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The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  696 ratings  ·  73 reviews
Only a few books stand as landmarks in social and scientific upheaval. Norbert Wiener's classic is one in that small company. Founder of the science of cybernetics—the study of the relationship between computers and the human nervous system—Wiener was widely misunderstood as one who advocated the automation of human life. As this book reveals, his vision was much more comp ...more
Paperback, 200 pages
Published March 22nd 1988 by Da Capo Press (first published November 30th 1949)
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May 21, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Jun 22, 2017 rated it liked it
This is the kind of book that used to be written when scientists and science writers were philosophically literate.
Mar 18, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cultural-study
With its references to the (to me) unfamiliar names of J. Willard Gibbs and Ludwig Boltzmann, the opening pages of The Human Use of Human Beings had me reading Wikipedia articles and watching Youtube videos so that I could get a clearer idea of what Wiener was discussing. As I returned to Wiener's book and continued reading, I saw that I need not have bothered, as I found most of the rest of the book comparatively accessible. Not that I minded doing my own research on Gibbs and Boltzmann: one re ...more
Ben Peters
Sep 03, 2009 rated it really liked it
A brilliant, wild little book from a polymath of prodigious proportions, it summarizes his seminal and baffling Cybernetics (1948) and extends an early critique of the information society. Written amid postwar froth, Wiener vaults a theory of communication and control meant to help stabilize any agent (quantum, chemical, biological, human, mechanical, social) into a sweeping philosophically informed lattice of "communal information." A must read for anyone interested in cold war history, philoso ...more
Kevin Carson
Jul 15, 2022 rated it liked it
Shelves: warfare
Based on the title and description, I was expecting a book on the application of systems theory to the macro-analysis of society and of social change. This book contains a lot of cranky rambling that is entertaining, and occasionally even thought-provoking, on the nature of life, the universe, and everything a la Buckminster Fuller. But there's very little that's directly related to the subject matter of systems theory or its application to social analysis. ...more
Ask Franck
May 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting. Provided a solid next step in my curiosity / obsession with information theory.

The simultaneous breadth and depth of subject he is able to speak significantly about is astonishing, if a little chaotic at times.

Skipped a few pages toward the end that felt too boring and detailed.

Otherwise, some very good parts in there, and his ability to put information theory in perspective is great.

It’s nice to hear from a guy who was both extremely mathematical, and at the same time very
Jun 09, 2022 rated it it was ok
Shelves: philosophy, politics
Quite frustrating to read.

Wiener was a mathematician that completed his PhD at the age of 19, worked in MIT's mathematics department for 40 years, and won loads of awards etc. etc.

In this book, Wiener makes his previous work Cybernetics more accessible to the "lay person". The central thesis is that machines can be thought of as communicative organisms, and humans as machines. With a strong engineering background, Wiener does a nice job of giving examples to convey principles of feedback, learn
Feb 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The individual technical details have dated a little, hence the docked star -- chess computers now routinely beat human players, for one. I also felt the book hopscotches around a little too much -- there isn't as much of a sense of a through-line with all the arguments, so it feels more like an anthology of essays around a single conceit rather than a work conceived formally end-to-end. But the moral, ethical, and social implications that Wiener outlines in this book have only become more urgen ...more
Amy Cowdrey
Aug 08, 2022 rated it did not like it
Had to read this for grad school. If you like listening to someone lecture you on all kinds of things you know nothing about and essentially just feeling like they are far more intellectual than you are, maybe this is the book for you.
Ryan Young
Dec 03, 2022 rated it it was amazing
founder of the science of cybernetics talks about its role in society. lots of wild tangents about the dangers of modernity from the guy who codified our new reliance on technology.
John Jr.
Feb 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
In looking back more than 15 years to when I read this book, I find, as is usually the case, that what persists are general impressions more than specific recollections. Instead of attempting to construct some sort of short essay, I'll present a few comments.

The word "cybernetics" was coined by Norbert Wiener, in 1947 (to use the year specified by the usually reliable Science Fiction Encyclopedia), as an English adaptation of a Greek word, kubernētēs, meaning pilot, steersman, navigator, control
May 05, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: conviction

The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.

The title is somewhat misleading, although it could seriously be thought of as a long introduction to a book with that title. This is a layman’s version of Wiener’s Cybernetics, and that’s a much more descriptive title. As it should be: Wiener was one of the founders, if not the founder, of the field of Cybernetics,

… the study of messages as a means of controlling mac
Sep 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
There are many things I love about this book, but most of all is the fact that Norbert Wiener, then a professor at MIT, wrote this book in 1950. Despite its existence well before its time, 'The Human Use of Human Beings' stands as a great precursor to both information technology and media theory.

Analogies fly back and forth throughout the first half of the book, between human individuals, societal systems and machines. He pulls this off especially well, putting an engineer inside fever dreams of
Mar 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very surprised to discover how readable Wiener is. As a pop science book from the 1950s, of course much of it is dated, but that’s what makes it even more interesting! This feels more than an exploration of technology and science’s progress in terms of our relationship with the non-human (automation and computer interface, in this case) – it would have been interesting to put Wiener in a time machine and send him to 2019 – to see how much of his descriptions of some of the issues the scientist ( ...more
Feb 03, 2022 rated it really liked it
an interesting take on society from a brilliant guy. you can’t really put Wiener in a box — who else is out here considering communication theory as a theory of society, or who considers society itself as a “local and temporary island of decreasing entropy”?

Wiener is remarkably prescient. before programming languages had taken hold, he was writing about the possibility of machines communicating to each other. before machine learning was even a term, here Wiener was considering the idea of a mac
Thomas Resing
Apr 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business, technology
I love it when I find a book written so long ago that has so much to say about things that are happening today. Often, we think, "This is something so new, that the only things written about it are just now being written."
Norbert Wiener was a mathmetician, but also much more than that. He explores automation and messaging topics that are very much relevant today.
I rarely, if ever, hear people talk about Cybernetics, a term he coined and at the center of the book. However, it's great to be remin
Jul 04, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Written in the 50s by a mathematician, this is a philosophical book. I did not understand 100% of it BUT it definitely cracked my skull open and made me think about humans' existence on this planet, my existence.
When you read this kind of books life becomes so much clearer; the inconsequentiality of all our lives so obvious that it's not sad or gloomy, it's just so "matter of fact" that all we can do is appreciate the serendipitous sequence of events that brought us here and do the best with ou
Nov 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Surreal from today's perspective. While at its core, Wiener reflects on information, language, and organization, he foresees Artificial intelligence (Deep Blue), robotics in manufacturing, and wide spread use of Computers. His deliberations on the societal consequences of automation and the use of machines for decision making (he actually discusses the importance of defining goals, reminiscent of Bostrom's Superintelligence) are prescient.

The book mainly covers computer science and information t
Dec 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fabulous and thoughtful discourse on human feedback systems

I admit this is a book I have read multiple times. It is a book I have a strong affinity for. I come back to it every few years. Why? Norbert's views of the future were prescient of our times. He does a fine job of hi-lighting the dangers of a "machine à gouverner" and the implications thereof. In essence he describes what can happen if you were able to apply probabilistic control to humans and tie this back to feedback systems.

The b
Chris Paquette
Apr 24, 2022 rated it it was amazing
My interest in this book was in obtaining an outside perspective on currents in contemporary technological culture which have had their incipience in earlier scientific and philosophical movements, particularly those that faced problems in early twentieth century communications theory. Norbert Weiner was a pioneer in the discipline of “cybernetics”, meaning ‘pilot-ware’, which is the science of messages—i.e. messages between rapid prediction-making machines.

Wiener does not rush headlong into sup
Roberto Rigolin F Lopes
We are in 1949, Wiener is lecturing us on communication of humans and its machines; the scope is broad: from physics to society. Regarding information, humans are patterns trying to perpetuate themselves fighting nature’s probabilistic tendency to disorder (second law of thermodynamics). How we are doing it? Well, the whole discussion unveils the beginning of the information revolution supported by computers. Hey, just 70 years ago, geniuses like Wiener and Von Neumann weren't sure about machine ...more
Avika Chatterjee
Feb 04, 2021 rated it liked it
In any popular thriller science fiction, there is this basic story of handing over the gear of scientific research to government from scientists or there is some morally corrupt psycho scientist wants to take over humanity committing gruesome atrocities. Now this sounds to us like fiction and may happen in a distant future where none of us will make it to witness that. But if one is aware of history and as well as present, it would not be very hard to for them to recognise that those far future ...more
May 17, 2021 rated it liked it
More examples would have been very helpful, but still an interesting look at where engineering was at the beginning of the computer era and at the end of the second Industrial Revolution.

“To discover the secrets of nature requires a powerful and elaborate technique, but at least we can expect one thing - that as far as inanimate nature goes, any step forward that we may take will not be countered by a change of policy by nature for the deliberate purpose of confusing and frustrating us.”
Julio Pino
Aug 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A huge influence of Thomas Pynchon's GRAVITY'S RAINBOW (remember Slothrop getting an erection every time a V-2 rocket is about to fall on London?) Norbert Wiener asks us to ponder human beings as systems, not entities, with ingrained mathematical codes that nevertheless can be altered. This is not Pavlovian conditioning or Skinnerite Behaviorism but rather a revelation of the intimacy between humans and others systems, like our cousins the computers. ...more
Jonathan Spies
Mar 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is incredible. Not only does he foresee much of the technology that has come to pass, but he enumerates many of the ethical questions we have needed and still need to muddle through. There are passages that have become outdated but the foundation for thinking about technology doesn't get any stronger than in this book. ...more
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Decided to try this one as I read Possible Minds (another collection of essays compiled by John Brockman. This one uses Human Use of Human Beings as a launch pad for recent AI contemplations) as well as Gregory Bateson's Ecologies of Mind. Cybernetics will never make complete sense to me but this book filled in some gaps. ...more
Nov 30, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Inquies but after a time there is no inquiry rather the authors thougt.

I Will not say this is a great book rather this is a good book depicting the thoughts of a great person -- The thoughts which ar enot much of practical use though half of them are extremely important and useful. I would say read it.
Aug 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was referenced in a CISSP study book that I am reading so I thought I'd give it a read. It is still very relevant considering the year it was written. Pretty eerie actually. It'd be a quick and fun read for those who are interested. ...more
Alex Calderwood
Apr 21, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Not very often is a book this relevant to my life or work. It will influence the way I think about disseminating technical work, and the objectives of technology making, computational modeling, and the discursive relationship between morality + mathematics, technology + philosophy.
Jimmy Head
Pre-digital world that never could not see beyond analog.
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