“Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century: The Long Historical View” – Ronald Kline

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“Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century: The Long Historical View” – Ronald Kline

Felipe Pait:
Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here. I’ve been working the last 15 years on a book. It started out to be a book on the history of information theory. Then I started reading the Wiener Papers in the archives at MIT and I got fascinated with cybernetics. There’s an interesting question about whether it should be a milestone. Okay. What I’m going to do, this book I’ve just finished, it’s in press, it’s called the Cybernetics Moment which may conflict a little bit with the goals of the society. I want to talk about that at the end of the talk today and it’s called why we call our age the information age. It has a lot to do with cybernetics, so that may be one reason to call cybernetics a milestone.

What I want to do is talk about a very small part of that book and it’s a chapter about the popularization of cybernetics. By popularization I mean this in a very wide sense, not just writing a book where you simplify the mathematics, but where you extend cybernetics to most of the social sciences, a lot of physics, chemistry, biology and so forth. I want to focus on that. I would call all of these books popularizations, even the first one. Cybernetics was an extremely successful book. It sold extremely well, much to the surprise of a lot of people. Human Use of Human Beings, the two autobiographies, and Wiener’s last book God & Golem.

What I want to talk about is the mathematics of popularization. I don’t mean the popularization of mathematics. Okay. What I mean is how to use mathematics to extend cybernetics and also to circumscribe it because he was worried that groups like dianetics were appropriating cybernetics which they did. L. Ron Hubbard who is a scientist and engineer. He’s also a friend of Claude Shannon’s by the way. There’s an interesting correspondence in Shannon’s papers about L. Ron Hubbard and Warren McCulloch who is head of the Macy Conferences.

Dianetics was claiming Wiener as one of their founding fathers and so Wiener contacts his lawyer about this. I only have 10 minutes today for my talk. If I had longer, this would be half the talk and what I’m going to give would be the other half so let me turn to the other half. I’ll bring it up in the end. He’s using Wiener, not Hubbard, Wiener is using mathematics to regulate the boundaries of cybernetics. You would think, how can cybernetics have boundaries, right, because the premise of cybernetics is that control and communications engineer explain all of life and all of intelligent machines so how can this have boundaries? He was concerned about the boundaries.

I think this is a page … I think that’s where he defines information as the algorithm. I want to talk about two books, Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings. They both sold extremely well. Okay. In Cybernetics, in the beginning and in the end he says, “My good friends Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.” Bateson’s daughter spoke yesterday to open the conference. “Have encouraged me to apply my energies to applying cybernetics to the major social issues of the day.” He criticizes their excessive optimism is what he called it, about applying cybernetics to the social sciences. He says this, this is almost the last two sentences of Cybernetics. “In the social sciences, we have to deal with short statistical runs nor can we be sure that a considerable part of what we observed is not an artifact of our creation.”

In other words, the problem of the observer, which he wrote a paper in Philosophy of Science about. “We cannot afford to neglect the social statistics, neither should we build exaggerated expectations of the possibilities.” This is a remarkable statement because the next book, The Human Use of Human Beings, the subtitle is Cybernetics and Society. Why is this? Well, the mathematics he’s talking about is not control theory and it’s not information theory per se. It is a prediction theory in the book. He’s talking about prediction in times series. That’s why he’s talking about short runs of data and he’s also concerned about the observer.

He thinks the social science of the observer is too big. The observer is too big and influences the result. That’s what he says in Cybernetics in the last chapter of the book. He also criticized the way other people apply mathematics in cybernetics. This is a quote from a letter that he received from Charles Holt of the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Holt says that he and his colleague, Herbert Simon, you may have heard of Herbert Simon who won the Nobel Prize in economics, they’re applying several theories to management decision problems and they’re sending some papers to Wiener saying, “Look at what we’ve done. We’re using cybernetics in this area. What do you think?”

He wrote back and said, “The general treatment you give does not seem to be particularly closely related to any technique of observation.” There’s the observer again. “I get the causal impression of a rather tenuous theory as well.” Simon went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics for his theory of bounded rationality. A lot of that is based on cybernetics which he learned from Ashby. In contrast, Wiener liked a lot better what Gregory Bateson was doing with cybernetics. There are a couple of letters back and forth between him and Bateson, praising Bateson’s work, supporting his work for a grant from the Macy Foundation and Bateson writes back in a famous letter, in the behavioral sciences anyway.

“It was our conversation at your house which gave me the central idea for what became his double bind theory of schizophrenia. What Bateson is doing is making an analogy between giving a computer a paradox, one of those paradoxes resulting in paradoxes, and analogizing that to how to do psychiatry. What does he with the Human Use of Human Beings? His subtitle is Cybernetics and Society. I would argue, there are no equations in the book. There are some word equations. There’s one word equation, at least one, that defines entropy information as the negative algorithm of a probability in words.

I would argue that he uses mathematical reasoning to … just like before he was using mathematics to draw a boundary around cybernetics and exclude particular use of mathematics in cybernetics. Here he’s using this mathematical reason. It informs the whole book. The whole book is informed by the idea he and Shannon independently in 1948 published this equivalence between the definition of information and entropy. For Wiener it was negative entropy. He says, “The thesis of this book, the society can only be understood through a study of messages and the communication facilities belong to it.”

He used these communication machines which is that’s his phrase for the moth-bedbug which simulates a Parkinson’s Disease and the hearing glove to teach the deaf to speak to illustrate those principles. What I would argue he used mathematics here to extend cybernetics. This is not using prediction theory or control theory or quite frankly information theory beyond what I just said, but it’s using that mathematical reasoning of information as a negative entropy to do that. In fact, he comes up with a semantic theory of information. In my research, I must account 30 scholars, sometimes I’d give a talk and then another scholar would come up and say, “Well, I have a semantic theory of information that comports with Shannon’s theory of information.”

Wiener himself in that book equated amount of information with amount of meaning. He was criticized for it by Donald Mackay, British information theorist, and [inaudible 00:08:30] Israeli philosopher in science. He’s extending cybernetics into linguistics in his way. Economics, I have my undergrads read this book in the information science class I teach, a history of information science class I teach and this passage just confounds my undergrad students. They cannot understand this passage. “Just as an entropy tends to increase,” the degradation of energy or the availability of energy, “tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, so information tends to decrease,” because it’s negative entropy.

“Just as entropy is a measure of disorder so information is a measure of order. Therefore, information and entropy are not conserved and are unequally unsuited to being commodities.” There’s a couple of places in there where he says information is not well-suited to be a commodity at all and he’s drawing on a mathematical reasoning to say this. Again, he’s carving out a boundary here because if you look at the correspondence, he does not like econometrics. He thinks they have shaky ways of using time series. This is not one way to do it, to show that information cannot be a commodity. How am I doing with time?

Speaker 2:
You have two minutes.

Felipe Pait:
Good. Let me close. I argue in the book that while I call the cybernetics moment as universal, there’s all this excitement about it in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in all these different fields. It collapses when there’s a decline in scientific status of cybernetics. People give all kinds of reasons, it’s association with dianetics, it’s association with science fiction, it’s association with the counterculture and so forth. Meaning information theory is another science that I believe is collapsing.

Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, interviews Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in the main stage of the Macy Conferences in 1976. It’s 30 years after the Macy Conferences, about that time or 25 years after they ended. He asked them to explain this. As part of the interview he asked, “What happened to cybernetics? Why didn’t it become public knowledge in the US?” Not that it doesn’t exist somewhere, it did, but why didn’t it become public knowledge? Margaret Mead thought it was because cybernetics was associated with Soviet Union, Soviet communism and that’s the answer she gave.

Gregory Bateson drew a diagram. Margaret says, “You better draw that out because it won’t come across in this interview.” The top, Bateson says, cybernetics did not become adopted in a widespread manner in the behavioral sciences because of the engineer input out that way of thinking. Whereas Wiener, and they included Wiener in this, Wiener considers the observer, Bateson considers the observer and what became known as second order cybernetics. He also interestingly, and Margaret Mead in that interview says, “I considered it’s a broader ecosystems view of cybernetics.”

Definitely up to 2010 or so when my research, it appeared on my research about 2010, the top diagram is the first order cybernetics associated with societal cybernetics and the bottom diagram is the second order with American society for cybernetics. Okay. One of the conclusions I have in the book because I also have a discussion of the history of information discourse, why people talk about information … What’s the relationship between all this work on information and talking about an information society?

What I came to the conclusion was that rich way of talking in cybernetics, in the Human Use of Human Beings, in Shannon, in Brand and in the co-evolutionary quarterly all over the place was flattened. It was very much flattened when we talk about information age where cybernetics gets truncated in this public discourse, not at this conference of course, but in a public discourse it gets truncated to an adjective, an all-purpose adjective cyber and information is definitely treated as Utopian commodity. Thank you.