“Norbert Wiener and the Counter-tradition to the Dream of Mastery” – Doug Hill

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“Norbert Wiener and the Counter-tradition to the Dream of Mastery” – Doug Hill

Doug Hill:
Good morning. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to be here. I have to say, to start with, that I have learnt so much in the course of listening to the various presenters that have preceded me here, that my mind is buzzing and I’m just really very happy to be here. I’d also like to specifically thank Greg Addison, and especially Phil Haul, for helping me get up here today. I should mention also, very grateful to Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman for their fabulous book on Norbert Wiener and some of the points that I’ll touch on today, you will have heard mentioned last night that I trust it won’t be too repetitious.

I am neither a mathematician nor an engineer, so my references in this paper to the technical aspects of Wiener’s contributions in those disciplines will be minimal, and I hope safely general. What I am is a journalist who for more than two decades has studied the history and philosophy of technology and who recently self published a book based on those studies. In the final section of that book I pay homage to Norbert Wiener’s outspoken ethical stands in regard to the dangers of the technologies he was so instrumental in bringing into being and it’s Wiener’s ethics and the ideas behind them that I’d like to talk about here.

Wiener was far ahead of his time, as I think everybody here knows, in recognizing that our habits of technology field consumption pose significant threat to health and the environment. He predicted that within the foreseeable future will will be facing growing coal and gas shortages, growing scarcity of water with which to supply our cities. Growing rates of infection due to increased air travel and antibiotic resistance. Growing problems related to process and synthetic foods. Growing risk of nuclear power accidents and growing risk of nuclear war.

Wiener did more than worry about this things, he spoke out about them in best selling books, in magazine, articles and in speeches. He also declined to participate, as you know, in military and corporate projects that would make those threats more likely to materialize his stands that cost him dearly in terms of his career, his pocket book and his reputation. In his personal life, Wiener was in many respects a difficult and an unpleasant man. I think it’s fair to say, but his willingness to stand up for what he believed in and his willingness to pay the price for those believes make him, in my view, a genuinely heroic figure.

Perhaps, the perception of Wiener’s that most impresses me and I think most crucial for us to understand, remember and act upon today is his appreciation of uncertainty, both in human understanding and as human understanding is manifested in the technologies humans create. The evidence is overwhelming that uncertainty is a universal inescapable quality of the human condition and that our endeavor to affect change in the world, need therefore, to be accompanied by a substantial measure of caution and humility.

That so many scientist and technician seem not to appreciate this simple truth, would be astonishing. Were it not for the fact that their pursuits are to a large degree driven by a quest for certainty. Wiener was rare among his colleagues, very rare, I think, and recognizing that contradiction which is one of the reasons his colleagues found him so annoying.

In this paper I want to review Wiener’s positions on uncertainty and then attempt to place him in historical perspective as a significant contributor to what the philosopher of technology [inaudible 00:04:20] Wiener calls the counter-tradition to the dream of mastery. Wiener’s description recognized the point I just made that the desire to achieve mastery over nature, over events, over other people and over uncertainty itself is to a large degree the motivation that drives the scientific and technological projects.

The counter tradition to the dream of mastery recognizes that the dream of mastery is just that, a dream. One that we long to achieve but never will. For me, at least, early evidence that Norbert Wiener probably was a genius can be found in a paper that uh, Jim and Flo mentioned last night. The theory of ignorance. A paper he wrote at the age of ten. According to Dark Hero of the Information Age, Wiener spoke in that paper about the impossibility of being certain of anything, and disputed man’s presumption in declaring that his knowledge has no limits. All human knowledge, he added, is based on an approximation.

Uncertainty would become a central focus of Wiener’s career in science and of the ethical stands that accompanied that career. His breakthrough paper on Brownian Motion was inspired by gazing at the waters of the Charles River from his office at MIT, wondering how he could find some sort of quantifiable pattern within the seemingly random ripples and waves on the river surface. This was a problem that would lead to the dynamic at the heart of cybernetics and it could also be seen philosophically as addressing one of the central riddles of existence. As Wiener himself later put it, “The highest density of mathematics is nothing less than the discovery of order within disorder.”

Wiener’s solution for that problem emerged from the techniques of statistical mechanics developed by Willard Gibbs, an obscure theorist who Wiener considered America’s greatest scientist. Gibbs applications of probability theory demonstrated, Wiener believed, that “chance is part of the warp and weft of physics, and thus affirmed his recognition of his sort of irrationality in the world.” That’s a quote from Wiener, and I like that a lot. Even before discovering Gibbs, Wiener had the hotspot to challenge the certainty of Bertrand Russell, again, as mentioned last night, with whom Wiener briefly studied after earning his doctorate at Harvard.

Wiener was repulse by Russell’s entire approach to mathematics, Conway and Siegelman quote a letter Wiener wrote to his father expressing a great dislike for the great man. His mind impresses one as a keen, cold, narrow, logical machine, Wiener wrote, that cuts the universe into neat little packets, that measure, as it were, just three inches each way. That’s quite a statement about some of the tendencies of technology in general as well as Bertrand Russell, I think, and I’m sure that some of the people in this room are probably at work addressing that problem.

Wiener soon went public with his reservations regarding Russell’s too neat mathematics, publishing a paper attacking the central argument in Russell’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s magisterial Principia Mathematica, contrary to what Russell and Whitehead claim, North Whitehead wrote, “It is highly probable that we can get no certainty that is absolute in the propositions of logic and mathematics at any rate in those that derive their validity from the postulate of logic.

20 years later Wiener would not with pleasure that [inaudible 00:08:29] and incompleteness theorems affirm that judgement, as he put it in the second volume of his autobiography. “To me, logic and learning and all mental activity have always been incomprehensible as a complete and close picture and had been understandable only as a process by which man puts himself in rapport with his environment. This is the famous part of that quote, we are streaming upstream against a great torrent of disorganization which tends to reduce everything to the heat death of equilibrium and sameness described in the second law of thermodynamics.”

Now I’m going to talk about the counter tradition to the dream of mastery. Wiener’s discussion of the counter tradition to the dream of mastery can be found in his seminar book, “Autonomous Technology. Techniques out of control as a theme in political thought.” That title suggests the degree to which the ideas Wiener explores reflect and affirm Wiener’s believe in uncertainty. Indeed at one point Wiener quotes a long confessional passage from Wiener’s cybernetics in which Wiener acknowledges his responsibility for unleashing powerful new techniques into the world of Belsin and Hiroshima, knowing that those who would inherit access to those techniques included the most irresponsible and most vinyl of our engineers.

As Wiener well knew, technology can go awry even when deployed by the most responsible and least vinyl of engineers, simply because once unleashed, it interacts with this environment in ways that are impossible to fully predict or control. Wiener provides a number of quotations that demonstrate how long and how often that impossibility has been recognized. One is a poem from Solon of Athens, dating from approximately the 6th century BCE, “Danger for all” Solon said, “lies in all action, and there is no telling which way the end would be after a thing has began.”

It’s likely that one of the classic narratives in the counter traditions of the dreams of mastery, the Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis, was composed within a century or so of Solon’s poem. Wiener points out that one of the chief reasons mastery is unattainable is the interconnectedness of the world. Because of that interconnectedness repercussions expand promiscuously, consequences fall like dominoes. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius seem to anticipate particle physics when he said, “All things are implicated with one another and the bond is holy. There is hardly anything unconnected with another thing.

Hannah Arendt, in her book, “The Human Condition” reflected on the implications of interconnection. “Action” she wrote, “no matter what its specific content, always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries. These consequences are boundless because action, though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every reaction become a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes. Since action acts upon beings who are capable of their own actions, reaction apart from being a response, is always a new action that strikes out on its own and affects others. Thus action and reaction among men never move in a close circle and can never be reliably confined to two partners.”

With his understanding that information and feedback are the lingua franca of both organisms and machines, Wiener recognize that the chain reactions to which Arendt referred applied not only to the relationships between human beings but also to the relationships between human beings and machines and to the relationships between machines and machines. For that reason he also recognized that thanks to the growing power ubiquity and interconnectedness of our machines, the dream of mastery has become one of the most dangerous illusions of our time. In his final book, God & Golem, Inc published [inaudible 00:13:49] in 1964, Wiener used Goethe’s poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to convey how quickly technology can escape our control.

“For much of history” he wrote, “the ramifications of misplaced intentions were relatively limited, simply because the scope of our reach was relatively limited. Human impudence,” he wrote, “hitherto shielded us from the full destructive impact of human folly. Modern technologies were in the process” he said, “of changing that. The penalties for errors of foresight, great as they are now, “Wiener wrote, “will be enormously increased as automization comes into full use.” I think Bruce Schneider made some of those points very nicely this morning.

Speed, Wiener frequently argued, is the most basic reason, and this is true. In the 1960 essay for science magazine, he wrote that although we may, in theory, be able to control our machines, such control means little if we can’t impose it until it’s too late. By the very slowness of our human actions, Wiener said, our effective control of our machines may be nullified by the time we’re able to react to information conveyed by our senses and stop the car we’re driving, it may already have run head on into a wall. I think of some of this slides that we’re showing at the deepwater horizon disaster and Fukushima earlier in these session are good. There’s many examples but those are two good ones.

The question we have to ask ourselves today, it seems to me, is whether the technological project as a whole may be taking us head on into a wall. The survival of civilization, as we know it, literally depends on the technologies that sustain it. Even though it’s becoming increasingly evident that some of these technologies are in the process of destroying the planet, we can’t bring ourselves to surrender them because the disruption required to do so will destroy us. [Langdin 00:16:11] Wiener calls these intructible commitments, the technological imperative. In my book I call them Evidence of Defacto Technological Autonomy.

The most obvious autonomous technologies are the artificial intelligence systems that Wiener pioneered which are daily becoming ever more capable of running themselves. Wiener was keenly aware that by crossing the boundary between machine and organism his work increasingly came to resemble the building of the Gollum, like Frankenstein, he knew, Gollum is a creature capable of acting for reasons of its own and it doesn’t always follow directions. More than a century before Wiener another exponent of the counter tradition to the dream of mastery Thomas Carlyle expressed the same concern. “The shadow we have wantonly evoked stands terrible before us” he said, “and will not depart at our bidding” Thank you.