Norbert Wiener – Cybernetics

cybernetics

Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. 2nd Ed. The MIT Press, 1965.

Cybernetics was the field of control and communication theory which laid groundwork for the computer culture now we live in. It was an integration of diverse sciences and disciplines asking how to design a model for the communication between human and machine (human-computer interface). In order to establish a new theoretical system of control and communication, there were an extensive co-operation among then the most prominent scientists including biologists, physiologists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, engineers, and mathematicians. Through the collaboration and communication between the heterogeneous fields, and then through the concentrated investment by the state and the industry for the continuous development of cybernetics, we could enjoy now this convenient technology of informational computation. On the one hand, it is true that the cybernetic researches of the early half of the twentieth century have culminated with the information technology of the twenty-first century. In some sense, progress in science and technology contributed to the happiness of the human society. On the other hand, however, those researches in cybernetics might have developed into the horrible apparatus for the control of the human beings. In this sense, the dream of cybernetics has come true – not our dream.

Cybernetics as a control machine was already embedded in its early formation stage. The practical and real aim of cybernetics was to make an ultra-rapid computing machine to shoot down the enemy airplane in the Second World War – “the improvement of anti-aircraft artillery”(5). In order to shoot the missile to a very fast aircraft, the operator must predict the future position of the target accurately in an extremely short moment. Moreover, if the movement of the target is non-linear, the calculation of the position might be completely hard or even impossible. For the rapid computing machine, cybernetics had to incorporate researches on calculation apparatus, digital switching devices, memory storage, feedback mechanism, circular process between nervous system, muscles, and sense organs, and so on.

As Eugene Thacker pointed out in his The Global Genome, it is notable that in cybernetics information (or message) is, whether it is electrical, mechanical, or nervous, “a discrete or continuous sequence of measurable events distributed in time”(8). What is matter is the amount (quantity) of information, not the quality or content of it. And information for Wiener has nothing to do with energy or matter: “information is information, not matter or energy”(132). That is to say, information is related with sequencing or time series (amount of duration of information in the circuit) and the amount of information is nothing but the content of information. If this sort understanding of information is important, that is because it might be a foundational concept for the digital system. As the human or animal nervous system – which is a computational system – follows “all-or-none” principle (120), information can have a meaningful message only when it is understood digitally – as we know it today. We can assume that from the cybernetic understanding of human being as machine or vice versa enabled contemporary digitalization of everything.

The idea of cybernetics is problematic not only because it was war related project and it provided logical and mathematical model for producing war machine, but also because it pursued and was synched with the most capitalist ideology. Wiener knew well that this new development in control and communication technology has “unbounded possibilities for good and for evil” (27). Good thing is that machine will provide the human race “mechanical slaves” to perform its labor; but evil thing is that they will devaluate the human labor. He looks as if he worries about the harmful consequences of the benefit of technological progress. However, when he says “Of all of these anti-homeostatic factors in society, the control of the means of communication is the most effective and most important”(160), he seems to be an advocate of the Fordist mode of production. Though the human labor was alienated (devaluated), in the mass society the continuous reproduction of obedient labor power (whether working class or machine) was necessary to maintain the security of the capitalist society. Thus, the workers were destined to be (or work) like machines or to give way to machines.

Now we no longer need to know of the process of computation, functions of circuits, communicational feedback, and psychophysical effect of the machine (computer). All are invisibly incorporated in human-computer interface, and communication between human and computer is not heterogeneous any longer. The discourses of posthumanism are based on this assumption: Human and machine can naturally incorporate into one organization and there is no difference in their functionality. Cybernetics is not only foundation of information technology (cyber world), but also cyborg – a hybrid of biological and mechanical organization.

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