Cybernetics, symbiosis, and my messy room

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I read a book on the novel topic of cybernetics.   Designed for young readers, the book foretold how computer-driven machines would allow us humans to do wonderful things in the near future.  I looked forward to being able to do a lot more creative things in much less time, and I had hoped that the cyber-controlled devices of the future would do all the menial work (such as cleaning my messy room!) for me.

Alas, the future has not yet arrived.

When reading the articles by Wiener and Licklider (written in 1954 and 1960 respectively), I remain amazed that they anticipated how computers would soon hold vast amounts of information and be able to recognize speech.   And I appreciate Wiener’s concern that humans should be careful as they use these new machines and not idolize them.  (Apple products fans–pay attention to this guy!)

Even so, while I realize that the new cyber-machines allow me to do things that once took me a great amount of time (just think of all those trips to the library to find a single, and ultimately useless, article!), I’m not sure that I’ve become much more creative as a thinker or educator.  I can obtain information easier, but have the machines helped me transform it into knowledge, insight, or wisdom?

Maybe the cyber-machines would be more useful if the institutions in which I work  would allow me more time to use the devices creatively.  At my university, for example, the machines make it possible for administrators to push down to us faculty members tasks that used to be performed by others.  In the olden days, I recall handing off my final grades to a secretary, who passed the data to others, who entered them into the massive mainframe computer.  Now I enter the info into a PC myself.  And when I write grant proposals with colleagues, I am expected to find detailed information that previously was obtained by a lower-paid staffer.

Likewise, I waste hours of my life trying to make sure my cyber-machines have the latest software and do not contain viruses in them.  And how often have I spent hours trying to fix a computer glitch only to wish that I had left everything the way it was, seeing that the “fix” was worse than the original problem?

Maybe one big difference between the average user and folks like Wiener and Licklider is that they more intimately understood the machines with which they worked.  Wiener wrote that “If we want to live with the machine, we must understand the machine.”  But who understands the cyber-devices that we increasingly depend on? Consequently, when something goes wrong in a cyber-machine today, most of us need to find someone else to help us fix it, thus eating more time that could have been spent being creative.  (On the other hand, look at all the jobs that have been generated to serve us idiots!)

Don’t get me wrong.  I’d rather fight than give back my iPad or iPhone.  Still, the wonderful symbiotic relationship between humans and machines that Wiener and Licklider envisioned has not yet been realized, in my view.  And the nonrealization of the utopian symbiosis is not the result of inadequate hardware development.  Rather, it derives from the ways people created expectations of how we should use the time freed up by not having to spend so many hours plotting graphs by hand.

As is typical ofinteractions between people and machines throughout history, new technologies emerge and evolve within a social context.  Despite images of a life free from drudgery  (replaced by a life of leisure, contemplation, and creativity) that many of us expected when we read about cybernetics four decades ago, we still  spend too much time using the new machines to do menial stuff we don’t really want to do.

And worse than that, my room is still a mess!

2 thoughts on “Cybernetics, symbiosis, and my messy room”

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