14 NMS_03  Icarus Falling

14 NMS_03 Icarus Falling

14 NMS_03  Icarus Falling

ref:  Norbert Wiener, “Men, Machines, and the World About”
J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis”

Regarding the two readings, I found the writing by Norbert Wiener not only more accessible, but more open and capable, weaving together folklore and contemporary warfare, physics, technology and psychology to gather a conversation around complex situations. The text and thinking is agile, demonstrating an ability to aggregate, cross-platform and scale differences.

Licklider on the other hand, for me at least in the first read, made analogies that were in the end unsubstantiated. In particular, the use of the language of symbiosis, and organism, where much is implied, but the differences between organism and machine remain vast. Licklider seems more focused, and perhaps prepared to present problems, solutions, and what is feasible, words that are used repeatedly. He barely gives a nod to Wiener, although is clearly influenced by his work.


Norbert Wiener dwells in a far more difficult area, one inclusive of the complexity of human interactions, the idea of freewill, ethics and the dilemmas that arise in a contemporary context. I was drawn into the ideas and questions. In particular, my intuition, and experience in creative practice finds me returning over and over again to the question of dynamic balance underlying many areas of my work. I see it in the discipline of architecture, I see it in our human dealings and in our material choices and in the dilemmas that often arise in a complex context. The idea of the Mean has occurred in many cultures. Indeed, for architects, the mythical first architect, Daedalus sets out this warning to his son Icarus, “Fly neither too high, or too low.” We find the Doctrine of the Mean in variations among the ancient philosophers, Aristotle, Confucius, and in more contemporary forms. It is also expressed by many names in nuanced variations, paradox being one that Wiener draws out.


The writing begins with the problem of calculation, and a problem of war. How does one target accurately a moving plane with antiaircraft weaponry, accurately and immediately calculating trajectory and distance which are changing moment to moment.

He then moves on to the description of the origins of cybernetics, from the Greek word “meaning to govern, as essentially the art of the steersman.” He considers the mechanism for steering large ships as an interface that tempers this “too much, too little” through scale adjustment. Part of what I find fascinating about this text, is that by the end of the writing, Wiener returns to the question of war, not merely as a problem to be solved, but as a dilemma for the scientist and citizen alike. The question of cybernetics, the oarsman, over and understeering is recast as much more than a problem with a solution. Who is the oarsman, for example, and what will we do with this astonishing ability to steer something of this magnitude?

Gregory Bateson provides some insight into the idea of dilemma and paradox, and one that I think situates itself well in this conversation. He writes, “ a paradox is a dilemma where you take both sides.”  As Wiener concludes, “Gentleman, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.” My sense is that we inherit this paradox, and will pass it along and might often find ourselves taking both sides. In some part, the dilemma is a dilemma of direction and control. In complex situations, there is no one in charge, no one alone at fault, no single problem and no single solution.

Wiener writes, the “new industrial revolution which is taking place now consists primarily in replacing human judgement and discrimination at low levels by the discrimination of the machine.” He goes on to state, “Energy and power are not the proper concepts to describe this new phenomenon. In the same way that the industrial revolution transformed the context he suggests that we need to develop a new language, and new understanding to describe, engage and control this inchoate, emergent context.

Sanford Kwinter, in an essay on the architect Rem Koolhaas, entitled Flying the Bullet, or When Did the Future Begin? raises the question of how do we deal with this new context. He structures the text around a short article written by Chuck Yeager, How to Win a Dogfight, where Yeager describes, through a series of dictums, a way of thinking that I think figures into this conversation. Yeager says, “Don’t even think about turning. Just turn your head or your body and let the plane come along for the ride. When you take aim, fly the bullet into position.” There is some idea of mastery found in transcending the apparatus, moving into a different relationship with the question of target and trajectory, adjusting the perception of time.

Kwinter acknowledges the work of Wiener on cybernetics, but questions the extents of science:

“We are again dealing with relative motion and time/distance computation: how to make the bullet meet its target, in time and not only in space…when that rendezvous must clearly take place in the unknowable future! This was the same problem, at another level, on which Norbert Wiener worked during World War II and which led to the science of cybernetics. But long before the science of cybernetics there was the art of cybernetics. Now the art remains superior to the science in most extreme (hypertemporal) situations and milieus, and so it is the art that both the pilot and the visionary architect pursue.”

Kwinter asks, “How then, to fly the bullet?” and I think put another way, in relationship to Wiener, is it possible to transcend the apparatus where the ubiquitous machine, a conflation of science and technology exists only for what is known and anticipated?