Deus “in” machina

Reading Norbert Wiener’s “Men, Machines, and the World About” while still contemplating Vannevar Bush has left me fixated less on the machines and more on the men (and I do mean men, not people) who made them. Both Wiener and Bush were two of the men who made the machines of war. While reading Bush, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he felt an overarching sense of guilt for what he helped to create, the “machine” of war, and for those who died because of it. Reading Wiener, I have little doubt. He seems a man plagued by guilt and even fear of the genie he helped let of of the bottle, of the god in the machine.Both are motivated to forge ahead, to make sure that something good comes of the technological advances of war.

In attempt to better understand the context in which Bush and Wiener worked, to get a better feel for World War II, I am reading Slaughterhouse Five. I’m only a few chapters into the book, but it is clear already that Vonnegut was pretty messed up by his own experiences in the war, but I do not detect any guilt. I don’t know if he killed anyone during his service as a soldier, but if he did, he did so as a foot soldier, facing the same risk himself, not as a scientist tucked away in his lab on the other side of the Atlantic. Vonnegut suffered as a prisoner-of-war and perhaps that experience as vicitim replaced any lingering guilt. So it goes.

But what of the morality of Wiener and Bush? Wiener was clearly seduced by the opportunities the war presented him to tackle complex problems such as the automation of the anti-aircraft gun. Wiener gets so caught up in the problem and his chance at a solution that he justified his view of the gun operator and the gun as different parts of single machine.

I knew a scientist of the Cold War era who faced a similar dilemma as Wiener. Born in 1939 in a still-depressed coal mining town in southwest Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Air Force after high school and became a mechanic. After he was discharged, he became a mechanical engineer for a company that made semiconductors. After many years of service, he accepted a more lucrative offer to work at  a mega corporation of the military-industrial complex, in a division that made missile heads. He worked his way up to a Senior Industrial Engineer, not bad for a man without a college education save an associate’s degree in business earned in night school. This man was a passionate inventor and loved to fix anything that was broken. He was a man ahead of his time in terms of workers’ rights, and fought tirelessly to ban smoking in the work place. He refused to let anyone call the women who worked on the assembly lines “girls”, and he was an extraordinary mentor to the few female engineers who joined the company, fresh out of college. He hated war and killing of any sort. He spent his weekends hiking the White Mountains, watching birds and playing with his kids. Yet he continued to make machines that killed people. He did not attempt to rationalize this choice. He simply said that he needed a job to pay the bills, to feed his family.  He ended his career early, while he was only in his mid-fifties, after both mental and physical collapse. I cannot help but wonder whether he just could not bear to go on making machines that killed people.

He moved to Florida with his wife where he lived in peace for five years. He took long walks in the marshes and looked at birds. Then he was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Little was known about the etiology of this particular cancer, but there was  a high correlation with exposure to organic solvents of the kind young mechanics would practically bathe in after a day solving problems on the assembly lines in the semiconductor industry. Mechanics who not only made the machines, but were an integral part of Wiener’s machine. After a valiant two-year battle, he died on September 17, 2002. Unlike Vonnegut, I cannot say “so it goes.” I can only say, “I miss you Dad.”

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