Life in the 21st Century is a reader-supported publication. Please become a paid subscriber. Long ago, I quit reading philosophy – credit or blame Nietzsche. Immediately after, I read a number of the 20th century physicists who were immensely educational and enjoyable. In ways, it was philosophy of a different sort. Many of the best had extensive knowledge of the Greeks, the intellectual roots, all agreed, fundamental to physics itself. Recently, I reread a few of these essential thinkers, instigated by the recent popular promotion/shilling of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the latest generation of computer technology, a technology itself developed with knowledge gained from 20th century physics.
This was the rest of it (the stuff I found most interesting though it is also kinda interesting that his wife was a nazi sympathizer-so much for what happens when you don't have a social dimension):
After popularizing cybernetics, Wiener became a kind of labor and anti-war activist. He reached out to unions to warn them of the dangers of automation and the need to take the threat seriously. He turned down offers from giant corporations that wanted help automating their assembly lines according to his cybernetic principles, and refused to work on military research projects.
He was against the massive peacetime arms buildup taking place after World War II and publicly lashed out at colleagues for working to help the military build bigger, more efficient tools of destruction. He increasingly hinted at his insider knowledge that a “colossal state machine” was being constructed by government agencies “for the purposes of combat and domination”, a computerized information system that was “sufficiently extensive to include all civilian activities during war, before war and possibly even between wars”, as he described it in “The Human Use of Human Beings”.
Wiener’s vocal support of labor and his public opposition to corporate and military work made him a pariah among his military contractor-engineer colleagues. It also earned him a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI subversive surveillance list. For years he was suspected of having communist sympathies, his life documented in a thick FBI file that was closed upon his death in 1964.
Levine's book is great. I am myself a military brat (not American but in my country) and generally have affection for the military proper -the people my dad knows anyway. They are decent people.
But I do question a lot of military contracting based on my one interaction with a Lockheed Martin funded local sleazebag/creep. And based on my complete distrust of that awful borg of surveillance capitalism: Facebook-Google-Microsoft-Apple-Amazon and smaller sleazy contractors.
As for Weiner's hypotheses..I worry about sleazy MIT Media Lab types (the Intelligent Design supporter Rosalind Picard who wanted to rehabilitate Epstein and started Affectiva-emotion ai or something..Now it is called SmartEye..all shady and dubious stuff. Because MIT generally comes off as shady I don't even know what to make of less obviously sleazy labs like Dina Katabi's lab there though she seems innocuous enough as a person and Emerald doesn't look terrible. The MIT Media Lab is just creepy...
This was the section on Weiner that struck me:
Weiner was an odd and brilliant man. He was also a true wunderkind. The son of a strict and ambitious academic and Slavic scholar, Weiner was forced to memorize entire books and recite them from memory and to perform complex algebra and trigonometry in his head.
“My father would be doing his homework for Harvard and I had to stand beside him and recite my lessons from memory, even in Greek, at six years old, and he would ignore me until I made the simplest mistake, then he would verbally reduce me to dust”, he recalled in his autobiography.
With this kind of training, Weiner went to college at the age of 11-“the infant prodigy of Boston” one newspaper called him-earned a PhD in mathematics by age 18, and, rejected from a job at Harvard, started teaching at MIT. His life of frantic study and pitiless criticism from his father didn’t prepare him for the social dimension of life: he was clumsy, couldn’t talk to women, had few true friends, was depressive, and could barely take care of himself.
Weiner’s mind was perpetually hungry, devouring everything in its path. He crossed just about every disciplinary boundary, cutting through philosophy, mathematics, engineering, linguistics, physics, psychology, evolutionary biology, neurobiology and computer science.
While building it, he had a profound insight about the nature of information. He began to see that the communication of information wasn’t just an abstract or ephemeral act but had a powerful physical property to it. Like an invisible force, it could be relied on to trigger a reaction. He also made a simple but profound leap: he realized that communication and transmission of messages was not limited to humans, but pervaded all living organisms and could be designed into the mechanical world as well.
Wiener published these ideas in a dense 1948 tract called “Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine”.
In a big way, this intermeshing of cybernetics and big power was what caused Norbert Weiner to turn against cybernetics almost as soon as he introduced it to the world. He saw scientists and military men taking the narrowest possible interpretation of cybernetics to create better killing machines and more efficient systems of surveillance, control and exploitation.
He saw giant corporations using his ideas to automate production and cut labor in their quest for greater wealth and economic power. He began to see that in a society mediated by computer and information systems, those who controlled the infrastructure wielded ultimate power.
Wiener envisioned a bleak future and realized that he himself was culpable, comparing his work on cybernetics to that of the world’s greatest scientists who unleashed the destructive power of atomic weapons. In fact, he saw cybernetics in even starker terms than nukes.
After popularizing cybernetics, Wiener became a kind of labor and anti-war activist.
I was just reading the section in Yasha Levine's Surveillance Valley on Norbert Weiner. He is just about the only interesting scientist or human described in the book and so it is my favorite chapter in a fairly dark (if essential reading for the internet age type of) book..
It is incredible what essentially shallow minds (with mere manual dexterity with some areas) make of fairly powerful technologies..
We are a pretty damn shallow species with some narrow types of prowess (largely with exploiting an increasing degraded host planet).. No wonder we are breaking pretty much every damn thing..
Hoffman, Pentland etc (let alone Musk/Page/Brin/Zuck etc.) are a far cry from Weiner...