Night Magic

Bedtime story?! It’s too late my sweetie. You must go to sleep.

Ok then…

A quick one. From my childhood or made up?

Both?!

Hey you! Give me a minute to think.

Ok.

Are you warm enough?

Are you ready?

One day, when I was in 4th grade just like you, my friend Alexandra — remember Alexandra? — well, she came running down the street to tell me the strangest thing of all: that deep in the woods adjacent to our houses lived a veeeery old man, who had just invited us all, I mean everyone in town, to a feast. His name was Norbert Wiener. Mr. Nor — as we quickly started calling him — was a mathematician. And a chemist. And a biologist! And zoologist! Wild, huh? But most of all he loved reading philosophy. He spent his days in this beauuuutiful log cabin thinking about people. He was so very interested in understanding how we organize in groups. Like in families, or in clubs, or in countries, or in religions, you know, all the different ways we team up and interact. Well, Mr. Nor was fascinated by these connections. He wanted to know how we relate to each other, to the things around us, to the environment, to the world.

He wanted to know how we make each other happy. How we make each other sad. How we make our lives better. And sometimes worse. So, listen to this: He decided that if he really wanted to understand people, he needed to understand their tools! Know why? What do tools help us do?

Right! Change the world we live in! Make it more like the world we want.

So Mr. Nor began to study how we make our tools work. And how we could create even better tools. And how we use our tools. And what our tools do when we use them. And then all of a sudden he was struck by this very unsettling question: Is there any possibility our tools ever use us?

Mr. Nor began losing sleep. He tossed and turned aaaaaall night, eeeeeevery night, thinking about this question. One Wednesday morning, smack in the middle of the work week, he decided to take a break to go on a long walk. He wanted time away from everything. Time to just be. He slipped into his boots, put on his hat, grabbed his walking stick, and took off. He walked and walked, up and down hills, through winding leafy paths, into dark pockets of tall trees, out into sunny clearings, feeling the cool breeze fill up his lungs, wondering if the boundary between his self and the world around him was ever real. Was he — are we — autonomous beings, he wondered, separable from the tools we make to interact with the world? Or are we in relationship with these tools, capable of becoming their master, but vulnerable to being gobbled up by them as well?

The answer came to Mr. Nor like a heavy weight on his soul. Our capacity to interact with the world and change it, opens ourselves to change, he thought. Changes can be cherished or dreaded, but the most dangerous changes of all are the ones we don’t even notice. Mr. Nor knew from personal experience. His greatest contribution to the world, the tool that gave him so much pride, was made possible by his participation in the vast people-machine that gave birth to the atomic bomb. He was part of this machine, at first without even realizing it. But when the war was finally over and he had seen the destruction that all these seemingly great tools had caused, he stepped off the machine. He called for a new breed of scientist who cared about the people their tools may affect and who would work painstakingly to prevent harm. Disapproving government secrecy that could lead people like him astray, Mr. Nor said:

We shall have to realize that while we may make the machines our gods and sacrifice men to machines, we do not have to do so. If we do so, we deserve the punishment of idolators. It is going to be a difficult time. If we can live through it and keep our heads, and if we are not annihilated by war itself and our other problems, there is a great chance of turning the machine to human advantage, but the machine itself has no particular favor for humanity.

On his way back to his cabin, Mr. Nor became convinced that what makes scientists strong against the devouring power of their tools is their humanity. And the way to feed one’s humanity is by taking time to rest, to engage with others, to notice and participate in the world that surrounds us. Slowly, Mr. Nor took off his hat, turned it upside-down into a small sack, and began filling it with mushrooms, potatoes, pine nuts, spinach, squash, walnuts, rhubarb, and so many other delicious foods that he found on his path.

What? Yes. And green beans. How could I forget!

He then called everyone in town to invite them to a biiiiiig feast that he promised to host every Wednesday night — smack in the middle of the work week! — for the rest of his life, for leisure and merriment and the nurturing of the human connections that he thought matter the most. Alexandra’s mom was one of the first people he called.

We all went.

The feast was like magic. Mr. Nor had made more food than I had ever seen in my life, spread on this loooong kitchen table with eight legs. Gosh was it delicious. Then he sat in a small, wooden chair and told us stories. At the end of the gathering, many hours later, with this warm smile on his face, he announced that he had never felt more content in his life. His hat, he said, the one that had helped him collect the nuts and the vegetables, had become his favorite tool.

Are you still awake?

No… You won’t get to meet him unfortunately. But I could take you to his log cabin some day. His hat is still sitting upside-down on the kitchen table.

[Inspired by Wiener, N. 1954. Men, Machines, and the World About. In N. Wardrip-Fruin and N. Montfort, 2003. eds., The New Media Reader, pp. 67-72. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.]

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