The Eccentric Genius Whose Time May Have Finally Come (Again)

Resurrecting the legacy of a man who understood, and feared, the future of automation.

I’ve been preoccupied lately with thoughts of marauding broomsticks, genies in bottles, and monkey’s paws.

All are literary images the scientist Norbert Wiener used to make the point that we fool ourselves if we think we have our technologies firmly under control. That Wiener was instrumental in creating the technologies he warned about demonstrates the insistent obstinance of his peculiar genius.

The images came from, respectively, Goethe’s poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the “Fisherman and the Genie” fable in One Thousand and One Nights, and W.W. Jacobs’ short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which a magical talisman gives an elderly couple more magic than they bargained for. The common theme is unexpected consequences, specifically the often tragic ones that can overtake us when we seek to exploit mechanisms of superhuman power. "The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence," Wiener wrote in 1964, "not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves."

* * *

Wiener is best known as the inventor of “cybernetics,” a fertile combination of mathematics and engineering that paved the way for modern automation and inspired innovation in a host of other fields. He was also one of the first theorists to identify information as the lingua franca of organisms as well as machines, a shared language capable of crossing the boundaries between them.

Wiener was 69 when he died of a heart attack in 1964. He’s come to mind recently because a conference dedicated to reclaiming his reputation is scheduled in Boston later this month. Sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century will feature a series of papers and panels demonstrating not only that Wiener was ahead of his time, but that now his time has finally come. Indeed, engineers who are well grounded in cybernetic theory will tell you technology is just catching up with ideas Wiener proposed more than half a century ago.

It might seem odd that Wiener’s reputation would need reclaiming, considering the immense impact he achieved in his lifetime. As a child he was widely acclaimed (and sometimes ridiculed) as a prodigy; he earned his undergraduate degree from Tufts at the age of 14, and his doctorate from Harvard when he was 18. As an adult he became one of the most famous scientists in the world. His books were best sellers, his opinions regularly featured in national magazines. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his wife, Margaret Mead, were among those enthralled by Wiener’s presentations at the intellectual all-star games known as the Macy Conferences. “I think that cybernetics is the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the past 2,000 years,” Bateson declared, according to Wiener’s biographers Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman.

Yet, much sooner and more thoroughly than could have been expected, memory of Wiener and of his contributions faded. Several reasons account for his eclipse. One is that during the height of his career, Wiener refused, for ethical reasons, to accept research contracts from the military or from corporations seeking to exploit his ideas. Since the military and corporations were the main sources of research support, Wiener’s defiance hindered his progress during a period of unprecedented technological advance. Besides nuclear weapons, Wiener was perhaps most worried about the technology he was most directly responsible for developing: automation. Sooner than most, he recognized how businesses could use it at the expense of labor, and how eager they were to do so. "Those who suffer from a power complex," he wrote in 1950, "find the mechanization of man a simple way to realize their ambitions."

Wiener’s personality, too, contributed to his marginalization. Psychologically scarred by his father’s brutal attempts to mold and promote him as a prodigy, he was the quintessential outsider. His social ineptitude was notorious. He would snore sonorously through academic meetings and enthusiastically pick his nose while delivering lectures. His colleagues at MIT developed evasive strategies to avoid being buttonholed by Wiener in the hallways; his interminable monologues typically began with the question, “Am I slipping?”

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