In the opinion of the average man, the modern period is characterized by what he considers to be the virtuous rapidity of progress. It will be quite as true to say that the modern period is an age of consistent and unrestrained exploitation: of an exploitation of natural resources, of an exploitation of conquered so-called primitive peoples, and finally of a systematic exploitation of the average man.
- Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings
A truly prolific and extremely gifted human being, Wiener can be considered as one of the "founding fathers" of cybernetics, and its inspired offshoots, including systems theory and much of the managerial science which became part of Sloan's curriculum, as well as a major contributor to robotics, factory automation, computer science and artificial intelligence.
A Brief History
A child prodigy and a undoubtedly a genius, in both the creative and intellectual sense, Wiener entered university at 11 years of age. He received his undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Tufts University in 1909 at the age of 14. He attempted graduate school
in zoology at Harvard, left for Cornell, where he had a miserable year, and returned to Harvard, achieving a Ph.D. in Philosophy at age 18.
After graduating, he went to England, receiving a travel grant to study at Cambridge. There, he studied under Bertrand Russell and also met and became friends with T.S. Eliot. Wiener finished his postdoctoral year at Göttingen (whose faculty at the time included mathematician David Hilbert and philosopher Edmund Husserl, among others). He returned to England but was unable to return to university, and left for America, where he had a difficult time securing an academic position.
By 1919, Wiener held an Instructor position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Mathematics, which was followed by the award of Associate Professor in 1931. In 1932, he became a full Professor at MIT, where he stayed until 1960. Wiener was an engineer at heart despite his abstract mathematical and philosophical education, and enjoyed applied rather than theoretical mathematics.
During his first decade at MIT, Wiener had accomplished a mathematical construction of Brownian motion and had done substantial work in potential theory and harmonic analysis in mathematics. Through World War II, he worked with ballistics and anti-aircraft defense, as well as with filters and especially feedback. His work in applying feedback loops in electrical systems would provide some of the experiential basis of the science which would eventually become cybernetics as we know it.
Wiener On Humanity and Its Future
In a modern age where specialization is a way of life, Wiener reminds one in some respects of the powerful and expansive intellectuals like Leibniz or even earlier Renaissance and even Greek philosophers, who had an impressive command of the intellectual life and traditions of the culture of their times.
In The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener is quite blunt in stating that the continued survival of the human race is no longer ensured, and that so long as the scientist remains the bondsman of the entrepreneur, the race will come to a quick evolutionary end.
Wiener believed that it was necessary to raise up a new generation of scientists, specialists in their own field, and yet acquainted with areas outside the narrow focus of their technical education. He recognized the ineffectiveness of the intelligentsia to be due to the combination of their focus, their refusal to acknowledge the limits of their own disciplines and knowledge, and the inability to see and create connections and dialogue between their respective scientific disciplines.
Wiener published a huge volume of works, including several books suited for a somewhat less technical audience. His prose has been denounced as atrocious and dense, but he never claimed to be a good writer! I personally find his style very cogent and eminently logical. His far-reaching insights into the nature of human behavior and the development of self-replicating, self-organizing systems are inspiring, even in the form presented to the lay audience.
His works include:
- The Human Use of Human Beings (1950)
- God, Golem, Inc. : A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1963)
Both of these are written for a lay audience and address far more the social implications which Dr. Wiener foresees as resulting from the science of cybernetics than the technical realities which underly them, and are philosophical and moral in scope rather than scientific and technical.
- Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948)
This book, his seminal work on cybernetics, has a substantial math component. A good grasp of calculus, matrix algebra, and formal statistics and probability, along with some of the basic physics of information theory would be very helpful if you want to make sense of more than half of the book. Wiener himself said it possesses a "forbidding mathematical core". He wasn't exaggerating!
In addition, Wiener wrote two short stories and a novel (The Tempter, 1959) and published an autobiography in two parts:
- Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (1953)
- I Am a Mathematician (1956)
- Wiener, Norbert The Human Use of Human Beings, The Riverside Press, Cambridge MA 1950