Quote I wish I had to hand when writing Everyware, or: Plus ça change

Norbert Wiener, from Cybernetics: Communication and Control in Animal and Machine:

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which…embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these technical developments. They belong to the age. […] The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields…most remote from war and exploitation. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

A profoundly pre-Foucauldian read on “power,” to be sure, and almost achingly naive in so many ways – but oh boy can I sympathize.

4 responses to “Quote I wish I had to hand when writing Everyware, or: Plus ça change”

  1. molly says :

    Cybernetics figures very heavily into my thesis project. You might be interested in In Search of Norbert Wiener, about the man behind the cybernetics. It’s good but also sad on many levels.

    Wiener did know what he was dealing with and was optimistic and cautious both. What’s rather interesting is how cybernetics got waylaid and mislaid in the US, due to Communist fearing and McCarthyism. The study of it, though, is reappearing in many corners.

  2. Enrique Ramirez says :

    I think that this quote shows Wiener at his weakest … here is a brilliant man, at the highest echelons of his craft, who capitulates and takes on the raiment of a moral milquetoast. He sounds like he is resigning himself to the fact that the war scientists have no option but to capitulate to new global power geographies. As opposed to Oppenheimer, who rapidly declared that “I am Shiva, destroyer of worlds” in the post-Hiroshima world, Wiener declares (in an important tidbit left out from the above quote), that “The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploration.” (emphasis mine).

    Cybernetics existed before Wiener’s book, and Wiener only really gave a name to this not-so-nascent science. What he does, however, is not shy from the fact that his personal experiments at MIT and in Mexico, his involvement with the Macy conferences, are indisputably rooted in both military technology and medicine. This quote has always bothered me because Wiener subtly absolves the cyberneticist from directly engaging the moral charge of his/her science and advocates approaching it from the realm of psychiatry or psychology (a call answered by the likes of Gregory Bateson and Anthony WIlden).

    It’s interesting because Wiener’s later response is somewhat schizoid. Not only does he write an eloquent response to the above problem in “The Human Use of Human Beings,” but he also writes articles in Life Magazine about how current urban planning tactics can ameliorate the damage caused by nuclear attacks. Quite different from the Wiener of 1947, with his distanced pessimism.

    Wiener’s idea technology “belonging to an age” reminds me of the principle of “heterogeneous engineering” that is present in STS literature. In other words, technologists have to change society in order to create the conditions that allow their technologies to propagate.

  3. speedbird says :

    Enrique, I agree completely with your irritation at the sense of ethical lassitude you’re picking up on here. It really does seem as if Wiener’s just throwing up his hands and giving up, as if he’s arguing that he’s no more responsible for what becomes of the field he shepherded to prominence than Mrs. Fenster next door.

    But, really, how different is this than Oppie’s “I am become Death” line? The latter was surely as spine-tinglingly and bleakly poetic as anything uttered in the long sad history of American rhetoric, but – let’s face it – a little de trop. There’s too much self-flagellating narcissism in it for it to read as anything like a true acceptance of responsibility – it’s almost as if Oppenheimer is absolving himself for what he actually did by taking on the ludicrously overscaled moral burden of a Prometheus.

    There’s got to be something in between; maybe Mark Weiser was two baby steps further down the right track than Wiener, with his “build in all the safeguards you can, and tell the world at large you’re doing something dangerous.” (Even that feels a little like a copout to me.)

    I’m also tickled that you zeroed right in on that line I excised from the quote, which I left out because I couldn’t quite bear to appear like I was endorsing the idea that physiology and psychology were or ever could be “remote from…exploitation.” I’m afraid you’ve caught me out. : . )

  4. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Yeah, Adam, I think you are absolutely dead-on when you say that JRO was a little de trop … and I did not really consider the implicit narcissism behind Wiener’s and Oppenheimer’s pronouncement. Now I have to read this stuff again. Harrumph :)

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