from The Cult of Intelligence (chapter)

Cybernetics and the Secret of Life

by Theodore Roszak

[The following excerpt from Chapter One of the book The Cult of Information, by Theodore Roszak, is provided here for non-commercial/educational purposes in the interest of contributing to "a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange." You should be able to find the book at the library. Otherwise you can buy it online at Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.]

In my own life, there was a book that did more than UNIVAC to revise my understanding of information and the machinery that manipulated it. In 1950 the mathematician Norbert Wiener wrote a pioneering and widely read study called The Human Use of Human Beings, a popularized version of his classic 1948 work Cybernetics. For the general reading public this engaging and provocative little book landmarked the appearance and high promise of "cybernation," the word Wiener had coined for the new automotive technology in which he could discern the lineaments of a second industrial revolution. In the pages of his study, the computer was still an exotic devise without a fixed name or clear image; he quaintly refers to it as "an ultra-rapid computing machine." But even in its then primitive state, that machine figured importantly in what was for Wiener one of the key aspects of cybernation: "feedback," the ability of a machine to use the results of its own performance as self-regulating information and so to adjust itself as part of an ongoing process.

Wiener saw feedback as far more than a clever mechanical trick; he regarded it as an essential characteristic of mind and of life. All living things practice some form of feedback as they adapt to their environment; here then was a new generation of machines reaching out toward the status of a sentient animal, and so promising to take over kinds of work that only human intelligence had so far been able to master. And not only work, but certain other kinds of play as well. Wiener was much impressed by the research then under way to build chess-playing machines; this served as further evidence that machines would soon be able to process data in ways that approach the complexity of human intelligence. "To live effectively," he concluded, "is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man's inner life, even as they belong to his life in society."

Wiener was claiming nothing less than that, in perfecting feedback and the means of rapid data manipulation, the science of cybernetics was gaining a deeper understanding of life itself as being, at its core, the processing of information. "It is my thesis," he wrote, "that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the new communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback."

Some five years after Wiener's book was published, a new field of study based on his thesis announced its presence in the universities, an intellectual hybrid of philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, and electrical engineering. It was called artificial intelligence, or AI. The key assumption of AI was clear from the outset; in the words of two of the discipline's founding fathers, Alan Newell and Herbert Simon, "the programmed computer and human problem solver are both species belonging to the genus 'Information Processing System.'"

A few years further along (1958), and Newell and Simon were pitching their hopes sky high:

There are now in the world machines that think, that learn and create. Moreover, their ability to do these things is going to increase rapidly until--in the visible future--the range of problems they can handle will be co-extensive with the range to which the human mind has been applied.

At the time they made the prediction, computers were still struggling to play a credible game of checkers. But Simon was certain "that within ten years a digital computer will be the worlds chess champion."

Wiener himself may or may not have agreed with the glowing predictions that flowed from the new study of artificial intelligence, but he surely did not endorse its optimism. On the contrary, he regarded information technology as a threat to short-term social stability, and possibly as a permanent disaster. Having invented cybernetics, he intended to function as its conscience. The Human Use of Human Beings, as the phrase itself suggests, was written to raise public discussion of the new technology to a higher level of ethical awareness. Automated machines, Wiener observed, would take over not only assembly line routine, but office routine as well. Cybernetic machinery "plays no favorites between manual labor and white collar labor." If left wholly in the control of short-sighted, profit maximizing industrialists, it might well "produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which... even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke."

Two years after Wiener issued that warning, the first cybernetic anti-utopia was written. In Player Piano Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who had been working in the public relations department of General Electric, one of the companies most aggressively interested in automation, imagines a world of intelligent machines where there is "production with almost no manpower." Even the barbers have been displaced by haircutting machines. The result is a technocratic despotism wholly controlled by information technicians and corporate managers. The book raises the issue whether technology should be allowed to do all that it can do, especially when its powers extend to the crafts and skills which give purpose to people's lives. The machines are slaves, Vonnegut's rebellious engineer-hero insists. True, they make life easier in many ways; but they also compete with people. And "anybody that competes with slaves becomes a slave." As Vonnegut observes, "Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, said that way back in the nineteen-forties."