“Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century: The Long Historical View” – Benjamin Peters

Download mp3 HTML Transcript

“Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century: The Long Historical View” – Benjamin Peters

Felipe Pait:
… milestone question is indeed a fascinating one. I don’t pretend to have an answer. Instead, let me just offer the fact that I’m writing a book – although not an uncritical celebration of cybernetics, but nonetheless cybernetics remains the red thread for the history of digital media sixty-five years later I think should stand for something.

I had trouble reducing this to what I will now provide as three sort of modest comments on what I am taking from my study of Norbert Wiener in broader context. Indeed, in an attempt to de-flatten the cybernetic discourse if we could. So these comments are thus – first, that technology is about much more than technology; second, that the history of cybernetics both internationalizes as well as, I think, deepens the American intellectual tradition – specifically pragmatism; and that third, that Wiener worked in thought laboratories, and perhaps, so might our history. So those are my three points.

First, that technology is about much more than technology, and as Heidegger famously put it “The essence of technology is anything but technological” – and by this I do not simply mean that the study of information technology must draw, as cybernetics has, on mathematics, biology, neuroscience, engineering, and philosophy – as if this were not enough, but that a proper study of technology must also impinge upon and also involve psychology, the profound social and moral questions involved in psychology, linguistics, anthropology, the humanities and ethics and just, for what it’s worth I think, one of Wiener’s best readers is actually a science-fiction writer, the Polish author [inaudible 00:01:41] Skavlem who gives direct answers to rich theodicy questions that Wiener raises in books such as [inaudible 00:01:47], “Our Master’s Voice” and the recently translated, if you don’t know it, “[inaudible 00:01:50]”, his masterwork, which is a non-fiction by the way.

And so anyway the idea I think if you implemented that technology is more than technology must almost surely require a revolution the modern day between liberal arts and the technical sciences. And it also demands that I think we recognise in the genius of Norbert Wiener, McCulloch, Pitts, and many others, not only a capacity to grapple with the emergent nature of reality, but perhaps foremost to recognise our own emergent ignorance before the world to which our studies must admit. I think that deserves reflection.

So the second point: the history of cybernetics both internationalizes as well as deepens a curiously American intellectual tradition, namely pragmatism. It is obvious, I think, given Wiener’s significant influence across the former Soviet Union in Eastern Europe – I’ll be glad to say much more on this if you’re interested. By the way still today the average graduate still knows the name Norbert Wiener – as well as we can see significant projects in England, elsewhere in Europe, Chile, Peru, elsewhere in South America, that essentially to study Norbert Wiener is also to globalize and internationalize the study of an often American-centric information age. But I also want to argue conversely that to study Norbert Wiener is also to enrich what is probably the only philosophical family tree worth the name in American thought – that is pragmatism. I do not simply mean that all good engineers are also pragmatists, although this is probably also true. Instead I mean this in the sense that for Wiener, transmissions of messages are an infrastructural or an architectonic question, an organisational issue – the fifth chapter of “The Human Use of Human Beings” – it has real consequences that no experience is sufficient and self-sufficient as we learnt earlier today. Wiener thinks of messages as operational, as shapers of organisms and machines, and thus breaks through the divides of body, mind, territory, map, reality, representation, that so obsess and preoccupy much of modern thought including communication, perhaps especially, communication theory.

I think there are at least three pieces of evidence that offer this and I would point to [inaudible 00:03:59] Dewey paper this morning in addition to reading Wiener is a pragmatist, particularly in Cambridge school classical pragmatism. First piece, as a young boy Wiener accompanied his father in visits to the William James household, and in his autobiography he refers to James about a dozen times, mentioning his devouring, quote “the great books of Professor William James”. Wiener backhand compliments James at one point, says quote “less of a philosopher than one might have thought” adding “I do not have the impression that James was at his best in pragmatism.” This [inaudible 00:04:30] surprises as well as quietly claims his own command over what pragmatism should look like and in this by the way, Wiener’s response resembles Russell’s assessment of pragmatism.

The second. Josiah Royce, I think a totally forgotten and fascinating figure, who is himself, at this point 1910-1913, a self-declared absolute pragmatist and an unquestionably a key influence surrounding the development of early pragmatism, was of course Wiener’s doctoral advisor during these three years. And for his part Wiener was surprisingly explicit about Royce’s influence; in one of his autobiographical volumes Wiener states that Royce introduced him to mathematical logic, the field in which Wiener was to make his first and early contributions. Wiener attended, perhaps more interestingly, Royce’s summer seminar on scientific method for at least two years and he then later claimed that it was it was, quote, “some of the most valuable training I ever have had” – which while remained unspecified, in my mind refers to his learning a method by analogy, or namely helping Wiener, quote, “as all members of the seminar did, articulate the method of by which I (he, Wiener) had come to his own ideas and the philosophical significance thereof”, something I think you can in cybernetics later fleshing out.

His doctoral notes also curiously refer frequently to Peirce, Peirce’s study of inductive logic and the scientific method. And perhaps third, the most clear evidence for Wiener’s debt to pragmatism is his own 1914 essay which sets the stage for his coming work. This essay is relativism, in which he asserts the limited knowability of an infinitely complex world and he couches this in references to pragmatism in [inaudible 00:06:11]. Especially, I think, how he recognizes that the criterion of sorting ideas, by their consequences, depends on what purposes we bring to the world. And it is I think this kind of fundamentally pragmatist commitment to sorting through the consequences of his own work that we can later see animating Wiener’s own role as a far-reaching social critic of the Cold War in which cybernetics later emerged.

And my third point – no doubt there’s more to say about that – the third point is that Wiener worked in thought laboratories and so might our history. Wiener’s meta-level summer seminars on logic and the method of inquiry under Royce at Harvard I think foreshadowers model what we might call thought laboratories. And indeed characterizes many generative small groups that straddle university, military, corporate and philanthropic institutions throughout not only Wiener’s work, but the post-war computational turn in general. We can point to of course his military defense work, the Rad Lab at MIT, the theology society with Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, the Harvard medical meetings with Arturo Rosenblueth and of course the Macy conferences. Also concurrently the Macy conferences on group processes that Mead’s attended and perhaps even the small group as Mark Stallman suggested yesterday, of the genius project, which Wiener gathered friends to, under the pressures of McCarthyism. I think of course a thought laboratory approach extends far beyond Wiener too; we might look in the same period to the Lusitania set theoretic club in Moscow, behind the Moscow school of Mathematics, the Vienna Circle, The Hixon Symposium at Caltech in 1948, summer 1956 at Dartmouth conference, the symposium of information theory at MIT, MIT’s architecture machine group, subsequent forums held by the [inaudible 00:08:03] foundation on neuroscience, cognitive science, and other places. Just the point is that this sort of historical actor, the vehicle of thought laboratories is not unique to Wiener. Each of these might be under, I think, as what Royce back in 1913 called, quote, “a community of interpretation” or a community in action in search of higher, asymptotic approaches to truth and this is in his great last work “The Problem of Christianity” if you’re interested, which was published the very year that Wiener’s study under Royce was cut short.

Finally, let me suggest that a thought laboratory approach might help those who would otherwise be interested in cataloging a world of technology by diversifying the range of actors that we can study, by offering a site to our network if you’d prefer, a trading zone in Galison’s terms for action of computing. In this sense I think the history of computing becomes, as [inaudible 00:08:56] suggests, a literal sense of activity or action. It also helps press hard questions on the balance of credit that conventional history of technology would otherwise ascribe to individual geniuses who I see as sort of the masters of computation, the mathematicians, and in quotes “on the one hand we are also to ascribe credit to the industries, or the masters of computer production on the other hand”, and I think instead approach to thought laboratory and actions of computing might cut the difference and help show how the questions of information technology remain a topic of living debate, a topic worth losing sleep over, as Margaret Mead famously chipped a tooth in the excitement of the first day of the Macy conferences.

So, in thought laboratories, it’s interesting and fantastic that material formats become a question for experimentation. No longer, as the industrialists are forced to admit, must computation be done by either analogue, genetic, mechanical, molecular, quantum, or even gendered formats – it can be done simultaneously, conceived of in the minds of all laboratory participants and I think this sort of flexibility to think about computation or computing can help challenge, lastly, the dominant paradigmatic distinction in computing fields held today – namely the distinctions between the symbolic or the software and the real, or the hardware. On this, too much of our current thinking pivots, I argue.

To this day, not only do we distinguish clear lines between software and hardware, between computer science and computer technology, the virtual and the world, the real and the offline, or the dgital and the analogue. Yet, as Wiener’s life and work I think make self-evident, none of these distinctions are wholly and many, if accepted wholesale, will pollute and lead to poor thinking. Rather, Wiener’s life and work teaches me at least, that we may see in the generative thought laboratories of twentieth century computational turn, a rich tradition of computing practice and computing discourse that are neither purely symbolic – that is abstract, theoretical, or paper-based proceedings – nor purely material, applied, empirical or experiment-driven. Rather perhaps we can begin to see with Wiener how the study of computing opens the larger living world of ideas, institutions and arguments all around it. Thank you.