“Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century: The Long Historical View” – Introduction — Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D
Participation and a lot of time for questions. I really wanted 90 minutes, but the program committee was so successful, this program is so action packed. We’ve been seeing in every session, the chair is running up and pulling the microphone out of people’s hands and so forth because it’s just very incredibly packed with wonderful and diverse information. That should give us a little more time for discussion, but I do want to be fair to the people who have this room the next session after us so I’m going to be very strict with our panelists here, even though they all have so much wonderful stuff to say and to give you more time for questions.
I just need to say very briefly how this panel came about so we can frame the question. We’re hearing a whole bunch of important things about cybernetics and Wiener and what he did and bits and pieces, where he came from, what he did, and what those students and others came after him did, and its importance. It’s pretty narrow fields, but, of course, we’ve also heard about how he was a great popularizer and his books were best sellers and so forth and so on. I’m the director of the IEEE History Center, which for all intents and purposes we can say is the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is a History of Technology Center sponsored by IEEE, which is, of course, [inaudible 00:01:26] sponsors of this conference.
IEEE has a program called Milestones wherein we recognize achievements, events in the history of engineering and technology relevant to IEEE technologies, which is really essentially, accept for a few bridges and tunnels, is really pretty much all technology if you know anything about IEEE, the largest professional association in the world with over 400,000 members in 170 countries. It was proposed by some local members when this conference was proposed and when the IEEE Boston section took on the main part of the sponsorship, it was proposed why don’t we nominate the publication of cybernetics by Norbert Wiener as an IEEE Milestone?
What happened is when this was floated for table or whatever word they say in England or whatever, when it was brought up to the membership, some members objected and said that, A, either nothing in it was really original and, therefore, it wasn’t groundbreaking and/or, depending on which person it was, it had no real impact in the sense of engineering impact or technical impact. It may have made some people buy books that didn’t buy books before and read books and maybe think about science and technology. I don’t know. Maybe some policy makers became a little bit more educated about the role of technology in society, but they said that it should not be a Milestone because of the complicated politics of IEEE and timing and so forth.
It was, therefore, not possible to get everyone together and negotiate this out in time for the conference. Instead, the program committee asked me would I organize a panel where we get some people together to look at it from that frame of reference, that framework. Of course, you guys don’t know. I’m not going to go into details of what else or Milestone and how you can find it, but just have in your mind an idea that there’s certain events that happened in technological history. Edison’s light bulb, Bell’s phone, but it doesn’t have to be a physical object. Franklin’s publication of his papers on his electricity experiments. Certainly, some of these may be the most analogous, but, again, it was very technical and Wiener’s cybernetics was popular.
Shannon’s paper in ’48. Clearly an IEEE Milestone. You could pick certainly one of Wiener’s individual developments and say the Wiener filter and say, “This is a Milestone.” You’d probably say, “Yes.” It’s small in scope, but if we define it that way, it moved engineering forward. What I’ve done is I’ve asked some panelists to talk about Wiener’s contribution and varies a whole range of areas, but by looking at it in the longer view, what came before, what he did, what came after, and say in that context is what he did, what we might consider a Milestone in engineering and technology history.
Then, what we’d really like to do is then open it up to we hope audience both questions and also potentially answers. Of course, this is the age of Google and all that and social media, so we’ll use the great collective group consciousness to give guidance to the section. We have section officers sitting in the audience, and they can take this back to the section and say, “You know what? The naysayers were right. We should look for something else.” Or saying, “You know what? The naysayers were wrong. We’re going to renominate this and next year, hopefully.” It would have been nice to do the dedication at the conference, but certainly, next year we’ll be back in Boston to dedicate it.
That’s the context. Our first speaker, and by the way, I said David Magell, who you know is well known as a [inaudible 00:05:16] speaker. Unfortunately, he took ill and had to leave. Two of the other speakers have already given talks I hope you were all at, and this will be taking their stuff and spinning it a different way, so they’re going to get almost no introduction, but since Ron Kline has not spoken yet at this conference, I wanted to get a little bit about him. Ron is the Bovay Professor in History and Ethics of Engineering at Cornell University. He’s the immediate past president of SHOT.
Everyone know who SHOT is? This is a complicated conference. Some of you do and some of you don’t. SHOT is Society for the History of Technology. That’s the membership association for historians of technology the way that IEEE is for the engineers and the way the Cybernetics Society is for the cyberneticians and so forth. He’s done so much other wonderful stuff. I’m not even going to mention it. Instead, I’m going to mention what he left off here, which is that he’s one of my predecessors as the Director of the IEEE History Center, so therefore, he is uniquely qualified for this task. Without further ado, I’m going to turn it over to Ron.