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Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener

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Norbert Wiener (2000), Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in theAnimal and the Machine (1948), Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Note: cybernetics is a general term but I could also call this area ofresearch in organised systems, information theory or communicationtheory or systems theory - the beginnings of an understanding ofcomplex systems.Herein, the entire understanding of control and communication (in theanimal and machine) is characterised by the term 'Cybernetics' forWiener (2000) - taken from the Greek word meaning 'steersman'. Writingin 1948, but recognising a longer history concerning governors (forinstance, the first article on feedback mechanisms by Maxwell in 1863),the link to controlling mechanisms can be found in the etymologicalroots of the terms themselves (governor is a Latin corruption of theGreek word for steering) - the earliest references being to thesteering of ships and the feedback therein (2000: 11-12).The link between philosophy and mathematical logic is crucial to anunderstanding of the development of cybernetics too, in the increasingmechanisation of processes for computation (by this, I mean the moregeneral understanding of computation as the procedure of calculating;determining something by mathematical or logical methods). Leibniz inparticular is important in combining 'universal symbolism' and 'acalculus of reasoning' into the 'construction of computing machines inthe metal' (Wiener, 2000: 12). The link is thus drawn betweenmathematical logic and the mechanisation of processes of thinking.Factory:An interesting aspect of Wiener's work on cybernetics is that itcarries a moral thread in accepting that new developments inmechanisation have 'unbounded possibilities for good and for evil'(2000: 27). He is thinking of an obvious instance such as thedeployment of the atomic bomb, but more specifically the idea of theautomatic factory and assembly line production. He sees this as adistinct reality, as a 'non-metaphorical problem' (2000: 27), imagininga workforce of mechanical slaves to perform human labour. He remainsundecided as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but thinksany assessment cannot be simply made in terms of the market (or moneysaved as a result of mechanisation) but must include an understandingof the conditions of labour. For him, any level of 'competition'between machine slave labour and human labour is a certain acceptanceof the conditions of slave labour even if on the surface it appears todecrease human suffrage.Wiener traces the possibilities from the first industrial revolution -'the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery' tothe 'modern' industrial revolution where the devaluation will become ofthe human brain (2000: 27; he is thinking of the brain of the skilledscientist and administrator in particular). In such a scenario, 'theaverage human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sellthat it is worth anyone's money to buy' (2000: 28). Therefore a societyhas to be forged that works on a set of principles other than those ofmarket forces. This, for Wiener, is crucially important for anyone withan interest in labour conditions such as labour unions. In other words,
 
labour requires a broader understanding of its conditions to includesocial, political, economic and technical questions.Automata:For Wiener, it is the desire to produce automata that is expressed ateach stage of human and technological development - 'the livingtechnique of the age' (Wiener, 2000: 39). If technical development canbe traced from the age of clocks in the seventeenth and earlyeighteenth centuries to a later eighteenth and nineteenth century ageof steam engines to the twentieth century of control and communication,the clock mechanism continues to be a good object to describe suchchanges - and to describe analogue and digital processes.More precisely, in the time of Newton, it is clockwork automaton thatcombines technical achievement with philosophical ideas. For instance,Descartes considers non-human living things as automata at this time asa way of reconciling the idea of them having no souls (Wiener, 2000:40). In this thinking, main and matter are seen to be autonomousentities but little attention is given to the dynamic interrelation ofthe two. This is why the work of Leibniz is particularly influentialfor Wiener, as someone engaged with the dynamics of mind and matter.Leibniz introduces the idea of 'monads', semi-autonomous entities thatcorrespond to each other through a pre-established harmony (of God;2000: 41). These monads are compared to clocks 'wound up so as to keeptime together from the creation for all eternity', with such perfectworkmanship of the Creator that they do not run out of time with eachother (as would be the case with human produced clocks; 2000: 41). Theyreflect one another but this is not a causal relation, in that they areautonomous to all intensive purposes and closed from influence from theoutside world. Automata, for Leibniz, is constructed like clockwork.In the nineteenth century, machine and natural automata (plants andanimals) were considered rather differently in parallel to thepredominant technology of 'energy'. Living organisms were thus seen ina limited fashion to be 'heat engines', burning fuel, but again withlittle attention to the complexities of operations - that take accountof external and internal factors (such as energy flow, metabolism, andincoming and outgoing messages akin to sense organs). To Wiener:'In short, the newer study of automata, whether in the metal or flesh,is a branch of communication engineering, and its cardinal notions arethose of the message, amount of disturbance or "noise" - a term takenfrom the telephone engineer - quantity of information, codingtechnique, and so on.' (2000: 42)In this thinking, an analogue is struck between the human and machinesystems, but rather differently than simply seeing living things asmachines. Storage and transfer of information might be described inphysiological terms, but this is not to say one simply stands for theother or is equivalent but that a description in these terms might leadto complex understandings of the processes at work. In some ways thisseems to be a return to a mechanistic world-view but a thoroughlyagnostic one, and one complicated by a fuller description of livingmatter as organism.The relationship to time is also important for Wiener as he sees input-output as a consecutive relation of past-future (where does the present
 
stand in such a conception?). According to Wiener (in his chapter'Newtonian and Bergsonian Time'), the modern conception of automataconforms, not to a Newtonian model, but to a Bergsonian one - inkeeping with the description of living organisms. Bergson emphasisesthe inadequacy of a Newtonian description of biology: 'the differencebetween the reversible time of physics, in which nothing new happens,and the irreversible time of evolution and biology, in which there isalways something new.' (Wiener, 2000: 38; residing somewhere betweenthe matter of Newton and the anthropomorphism of 'vitalism').Feedback (see Bill Nichols notes too):Much of the Wiener book is concerned with mapping these principles ofdescribing the living organism in all its complexity (and themathematics lies beyond my comprehension andgives me a big headache).One important aspect is 'feedback' that describes a certainintervention in the transmission and 'return' of information. Wienerdescribes this rather unpredictable aspect as a human link in a chainof events but also as an automated link with human intervention (2000:96). His example is a thermostat, switching on or off depending on thetemperature of a particular space at a point in time. If all workswell, the temperature might remain constant. The governor of a steamengine is a classic example of a mechanical version of the sameprinciple, regulating velocity depending on the load the machine bearsand keeping its operations constant. The point for Wiener is thatvoluntary movement in humans is regulated in much the same way, andthat human 'disorders' can be used to demonstrate faulty feedback inthis way (such as Ataxia, and this can be further explained inmathematical terms but I prefer an act of faith in this regard). Insuch a scenario, a 'compensator' (something that can be controlled fromthe outside because the load fluctuates) is required as well as an'effector' (the input-output relations) in order to compensate for thefaulty information feedback and to reinstate control (2000: 113). Thisis grossly oversimplified (especially in this case, but also in thebook) especially when translated to the human organism but the overallprinciples clearly hold some insights. [see Steve Grand's Creation:life and how to make it (2000) for a more contemporary but all the samesimplified perspective]Feedback operates between the eye and muscles to make sense of thedifference between objects (make meaning in other words) - a visual-muscular feedback system. This is relatively simple in the operation ofa flatworm and thus easy to see the parallel between living organismsand artificial mechanisms. In the human organism (or more specificallyin Wiener's example with human vision, 2000: 133-143), these operationsare decidedly complex with interlinked subordinate feedbacks that worktogether in complex ways (like a computing machine to Wiener) - suchthat the organised whole is more than the sum of its parts ('gestalt').The point of course is to better understand the human organism to builtbetter artificial mechanisms, and in turn in the spirit of feedback,through this process to better understand the human organism (Wiener isthus hopeful about the potential for sensorial prothesis). He adds awarning to those who may draw 'specific conclusions from theconsiderations of this book do so at their own risk' (2000: 144; he isconcerned with the correlation of cybernetics and psychopathology). Thevisual cortex (or indeed brain) and the computer have much in common

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