The Human Use of Human Beings – N. Weiner

Written by Norbert Weiner in the 1950’s, this book is definitely flavored by its time, and is timely in its messages.

Norbert was a child prodigy , brilliant mathematician and philosopher. Looking at the fields of engineering, the study of the nervous system and statistical mechanics, he coined the phrase “cybernetics” to characterize the  “control and communication in the animal and machine”. This idea and many others have become pervasive through the sciences (especially computing and biology). As he sees it, “If the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are the age of clocks, and the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries constitute the age of steam engines, the present time is the age of communication and control”.

For Norbert, technologies were viewed as applied social and moral philosophy. His personal philosophy itself being rooted in existentialism, instead of the formal analytical philosophy of his day. He strongly prized himself on being an independent and knowledgable intellectual, not affiliating with any political, social or philosophical group. He did not accept funds from governments , agencies, corporations or any other groups that would or could compromise his independence and honesty.

As a lifelong obsession, Norbert wished to distinguish human from machine. He recognized the organization of patterns and functions that could be performed by either, but focussed his intention and understanding on the human/machine identity/dichotomy within a humane social philosophy. The obvious questions therefore arose:

1. How is the machine affecting people’s lives?

2. Who reaps those benefits?

I commend Norbert for urging the scientists and engineers of his day to “practice ‘the imaginative forward glance’ so as to attempt assessing the impact of an innovation, even before making it known”. This is valuable for us even today when considering the environmental impacts of our creations, let alone the overall human life impacts as well.

Norbert plainly states “that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever increasing part.” “To live effectively 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.”

Comparing “the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines” he finds that there is a”parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy” (disorder) through feedback. Feedback being essential  for both human and machine to make effective decisions and ultimately take action. “Certain kinds of machines and some living organisms -particularly the higher living organisms-can, … modify their patterns of behavior on the basis of past experience so as to achieve specific antientropic ends. In these higher forms of communicative organisms the environment, considered as the past experience of the individual, can modify the pattern of behavior into one which in some sense or other will deal more effectively with the future environment.” Only in this way can we create new environments, since absolute repetition is absolutely impossible.

He warns however, that “what many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature. For the more we get out of the world the less we leave, and in the long run we shall have to pay our debts at a time that may be very inconvenient for our own survival. We are the slaves of our technical improvement…We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment.”

This “new” environment, or in Norbert’s words “second industrial revolution”  or ” new automatic age” in part consists of the transportation of words/messages/information which serve to forward an individual’s power of perception, and in a sense extends one’s physical existence to the whole world. The design of the machines that would help make this “new” environment would be “transferred from the domain of the skilled shop worker to that of the research-laboratary man”. “Invention, under the stimulus of necessity and the unlimited employment of money” would be the “new blood” fueling the research behind them. The employment of these computing machines during this time would be “much faster and more accurate than the human computer” enabling the replacement of humans at certain levels whereby these machines can talk to each other and execute “repetitive tasks”. The benefit being that it “has displaced man and the beast” as a source of physical power, ideally freeing up time to pursue greater interests, but also warns that “the matter of replacing human production by other modes may well be a life-or-death matter”. Under these circumstances, it is logical to see that these new tools will “yield immediate profits, irrespective of what long-time damage they can do” and that any automatic machine that “competes with slave labor…will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties…”. “Thus the new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword”, whereby the “machine’s danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it”. Norbert takes solace in that “the technique of building and employing these machines is still very imperfect” and that “the problems of the stability of prediction remain beyond what we can seriously dream of controlling”.

Norbert saw that during this time “invention is losing its identity as a commodity in the face of the general intellectual structure of emergent inventions”, whereby “information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities”. It is to this last point on information not being a good commodity where we see that Norbert was not able to see beyond the times in which he wrote. It can be agreed that “the matter of time is essential in all estimates of the value of information”, but he was unable to anticipate the increased speed by which it could be acquired, stored, and received, let alone the exponential decrease in cost.

Norbert leaves us with a lingering thought we must all confront, namely that “what is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions.”

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4 thoughts on “The Human Use of Human Beings – N. Weiner”

  1. Looking at this, it’s not surprising that Weiner was “cast out” by conventional science/tech, and not even credited for cybernetics in general. They saw him as a communist, and this was not a good thing to be after WWII as the Cold War began. (Attention went to Bateson and Meade and their early version of systems theory.)

    The part I’m lingering on here right now is:
    “invention is losing its identity as a commodity in the face of the general intellectual structure of emergent inventions”

    I hadn’t even remembered this line, or the section it came from. I guess you’re saying invention retained its value in spite of what he said? I guess that changes once Kurzweil’s machines can program themselves?

  2. The entire passage that the quote is taken from is:
    “At present, the invention is losing its identity as a
    commodity in the face of the general intellectual
    structure of emergent inventions. What makes a thing
    a good commodity? Essentially, that it can pass from
    hand to hand with the substantial retention of its value,
    and that the pieces of this commodity should combine
    additively in the same way as the money paid for
    them. The power to conserve itself is a very convenient
    property for a good commodity to have.”

    My take on the use of that quote was that the physical (machine technology) object was losing its perceived value (depreciation over time) in a market on it’s own whereby the market is now more being driven on the idea that originally created the machine in the first place. – If that makes any sense:/

    1. Regarding this part of your post:

      “information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities”. It is to this last point on information not being a good commodity where we see that Norbert was not able to see beyond the times in which he wrote.

      Though a lot hinges on the definition chosen for words like “information” and “commodity,” I tend to disagree with your assertion. Is it the information that is valuable (in a monetary sense), or is it the computational resources that store, process, and transmit it? This is a small part of Jaron Lanier’s argument, that those in the business of the “information economy” actually derive their profit not from information (which they actively devalue), but from owning and using very powerful computer systems that are well placed on the network.

      On the flip side though, I’m reminded of the arguments of other commentators like Lessig (who argued that ideas become code and code becomes law) and Bill Gates (who theorized in a very boring book that through ubiquitous information we can achieve “business at the speed of thought”). Both seem to argue that information (i.e. an idea) has become part of the invention (i.e. code and hardware) in a more fundamental and streamlined way than ever before.

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