The Genie’s Out of the Bottle

I was in some ways heartened by the humanity evident in parts of Norbert Weiner’s “Men, Machines, and the World About.”  While his vision seems to share some of the technocratic exuberance of Vannevar Bush, Weiner also seems a bit more cautious, especially toward the end of the essay, when he offers a series of warnings about the need to make “many changes in the way we live with other people,” to seriously consider the importance of leisure in our lives, to counter growing governmental secrecy, and to turn machines to human advantage.

In the last paragraph, he turns to a folk tale to drive home his point about the potential dangers of new computing machines that can learn.  More specifically, he recalls the story of the fisherman and the genie, a powerful figure that is quite irked at being long imprisoned in a bottle and seeks to take out revenge on the fisherman who has inadvertently released him.  Although, the fisherman eventually manages to talk the genie back into the bottle, Weiner ends his speech with a dire warning: “Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.”

This view of  technology as a genie out of its bottle seems to recur frequently in the 1950s and early 1960s, a particular cultural moment when, living in the shadow of the bomb, it was nearly impossible not to be concerned about the potential negative consequences of “progress.”  It was the image that Walt Disney turned to in “Our Friend the Atom,” a segment from his weekly television show that was first broadcast in 1956, just two years after Weiner’s essay, and later widely shown in schools.  While Disney, a technological booster, sought to reassure his audience about the beneficence of nuclear power, his use of a genie in the film also raised the specter of unintended consequences for more alert viewers.   Six years later, when John Kennedy was decrying the stalled US-Soviet negotiations to halt atmospheric testing on nuclear weapons, which were spewing radioactive fallout across much of the globe, he also passingly mentioned that the “genie was out of the bottle” and he openly wondered whether we would be able to put it back.  He returned to that powerful image when he presented the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification in 1963, declaring the newly negotiated agreement an “important opening wedge in our effort to ‘get the genie back in the bottle.'”

Weiner’s warning at the very end of his speech suggests a call for thinking long and hard about the potential unintended consequences of technological development, a call that seems to have largely fallen on deaf ears.

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One Response to The Genie’s Out of the Bottle

  1. Sort of funny that you use the nuclear arms race as your example, since it’s the one issue this planet has mostly managed to put back in the bottle. At least in the sense that we’re not wondering whether World War 3 will be starting today (and be over 2 hours later).

    I was born in April, 1966. Supposedly the, “Gen X” generation started in 1966, so I’m one of the oldest. I see myself as one, in that I’m reasonably tech-savvy, and enjoy technology, but I always coined my generation as, “The Day After” generation. We’re the kids that grew up knowing the world may end at any moment, from just someone accidentally hitting the wrong button, or pissing off the other “superpower” just a bit too much. I guess the baby boom generation felt that too, but it had such a taste of unreality for me. We didn’t bother hiding under desks like the 1950’s drills, because we knew we would be toast, regardless. Nothing to be done but die. Cheerful childhood, eh? 🙂

    Btw, I coined “The Day After” generation from the 1983 made-for-tv mini-series, about life in Kansas after a nuclear holocaust… Of course, one could ask… would Kansas look much different the day after as compared to before? 🙂 🙂 🙂

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