It was unclear to me while reading Norbert Wiener’s article how he saw himself and humans in general. He seems highly critical of human intellect and somewhat dismissive of human anatomy, but contradicts himself a few times along the way. .
For example on page 68 he suggests that the human nervous system works in a sort of binary fashion, with individual fibers showing an “‘all or none’ action” and do not “fire halfway.” While this may make sense on a purely biological scale, it certainly doesn’t on a psychological level where ambivalence and indecision is relatively common for humans (at least for yours truly).
On page 69 he further posits that “the nervous system is not only a computing machine but a control machine….” but misses the fact that the human nervous system is not a closed system, i.e., it is vulnerable or open to influences both internal and external. While viewing the human nervous system at a very high, perhaps at a functional, level may seem appropriate for computer design, it is imperfect and therefore not a good model to build too closely upon for true “control machines” such as computers that we depend on for maintaining public safety and security. For that matter, I don’t want my laptop to be as volatile or moody as my own systems; as versatile, yes, but not too close to human anatomy.
Do I sense some elementary socialist tendencies in Wiener?
There is an interesting dichotomy in the way he views professionals (such as the architect, “brilliant” as he or she may be on pg. 69) and factory workers (pg. 70). It seems as if Wiener would be fine if the architect who so foolishly placed a thermostat “in the only room of the house with a fireplace” were to burn up in said fireplace, but that we should make every effort, for economic and “elementary humanitarian” reasons, to “not have people in a factory that is likely to explode.” Are factory workers more valued in Wiener’s view?
I also take exception to the way Wiener perceives human reaction to chaos or emergencies believing that such can and should be programmed for (pg. 70) since humans tend to react badly in such events and “you simply do not find that the Lord will give you the right thing to do when the emergency comes.” The lack of divine intervention aside, Wiener seems to discount human intuition, the effects of adrenalin, and case studies that argue the opposite (and my own experience).
I do agree with Wiener’s contention that it could be dangerous if people in this country were to bow down before “the brass calf (which should be a “golden calf”), the idol, which is the gadget.” (pg. 71) One could argue that this is in fact happening, witness the “rock concert ticket” like lines that result when the new iPhone is available, but I don’t really think humans worship the gadget. No doubt there is anxiety when one, a smartphone at least, is unavailable to some (including me at times), but the benefits to both human safety and happiness seemed to be missed by Wiener.
This is perhaps understandable in context of his times, less than one decade after the destruction of Japanese cities by scientifically developed means. The same type of fear or anxiety can be seen in writings and actions after 9/11 (or 4/16 for that matter), but resorting to comparisons with medieval times, or fairy tales is not constructive. Frankly, even though there are times I am extremely frustrated because of my role in supporting Information Technology devices, I would never want to put “the machine back into the bottle.” I see too much good from the devices or gadgets, some of which are used to allow loved ones to speak to each other before an emergency event, again back to 9/11, makes such discourse impossible forever. And, I can’t forget Flight 93, such devices did provide valuable information to regular, untrained people from all walks of life, that prompted them to make a decision that resulted in the loss of their lives to potentially save hundreds if not thousands of other lives.
Even when such dire consequences are not at stake, IT machines and gadgets can be fun and aid in the pursuit of happiness for millions everyday.
Further suggested reading– “Abundance: The future is better than you think” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler; Free Press, 2012.