21CW: Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

In this issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine we acknowledge one of the quintessential multi-disciplinarians of our time, Dr. Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), the Father of Cybernetics. During his life, Wiener influenced mathematics, philosophy, science, technology, ethics, biology, prosthesis, education, manufacturing, and many other fields. He was an early practitioner of diversity and social inclusion, and an advocate of social responsibility in the development of technology. He predicted the social impact of robotic, cybernetic, and other technologies on the future of society, and after several decades his writings retain their relevance.

In the year marking the 120th anniversary of his birth and 50th anniversary of his death, a host of scientists, engineers, and interdisciplinary scholars from around the world came together at the IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (21CW) on June 24–26, 2014, in Boston, MA, to commemorate his life and work [1]. While 21CW considered the current state of technologies that Wiener had worked on, many speakers addressed Wiener’s focus on the social impact of technology.

Here we share with you several thought-provoking offerings from 21CW. Firstly, we present abridged transcripts of keynote talks delivered by Mary Catherine Bateson, Andrew Pickering, Bruce Schneier, and Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. We then present four distinctly different papers, ranging in topic from Wiener’s philosophical roots to his influence on today’s technology design and application.

In Norbert Wiener: Odd Man Ahead, distinguished writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson reflects that Wiener’s puzzlement about human relations may have provided a necessary link to his questions about how humans will deal with intelligent machines. She advocates for extending Wiener’s understanding of cybernetics and human behavior to the natural world. Only then, she posits, can we start to understand ourselves as part of a global system, and start to live with that broader environmental-cybernetic perspective in mind.

Andrew Pickering is internationally known as a leader in the field of science and technology studies. In The Next Macy Conference: A New Interdisciplinary Synthesis, he shows that one way to think of Wiener in the 21st century is to return to the original matrix of cybernetics, the Macy conferences, and ask what the next meeting series might look like. The Macy’s were famously interdisciplinary, and Pickering contends that a shared interest in “unknowability” bound the contributors together. By reframing our own conversations around this concept, he proposes, we can start to reintegrate cybernetics’ various threads (mathematics, engineering, and the environment, the humanities and social sciences, the arts and psychiatry) in the present.

World-renowned security expert and author Bruce Schneier is widely respected for his views on cyber-warfare and cyber-crime. Sixty years ago Wiener had deep insights in these areas, including his comment that “… in the long run, there is no distinction between arming ourselves and arming our enemies” [2]. In Ubiquitous Surveillance and Security, Schneier illustrates how ubiquitous surveillance breaks down so much of what our society has built up, and challenges us to recognize and understand just how damaging the loss of our privacy, freedom, and liberty can be.

Flo Conway and Jim Seigelman’s Reintroducing Wiener: Channeling Norbert in the 21st Century takes us on a guided tour of Wiener’s life, work, and outspoken social concerns about the human consequences of new technologies. Authors of the award-winning book Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (Basic Books, 2005/2006), Conway and Siegelman here assess the long-range accuracy of Wiener’s warning shots and “channel” his wisdom into the 21st century. They offer informed speculation on what Wiener would celebrate in today’s technological age, what he would dread, and his updated guidelines for living and working with the intelligent machines humans have created in their image.

An “exocortex” is a wearable (or implanted) computer, used to augment a brain’s biological high-level cognitive processes and inform a user’s decisions and actions. In Securing the Exocortex: A Twenty-first Century Cybernetics Challenge, Bonaci et al. focus on Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), a special type of exocortex used to interact with the environment via neural signals. Use of BCIs range from medical applications and rehabilitation to operation of assistive devices. They can also be used for marketing, gaming, and entertainment, where BCIs are used to provide users with a more personalized experience. BCI-enabled technology carries a great potential to improve and enhance the quality of human lives; however, this technology is not without risk. Bonaci et al. address a specific class of privacy issues, brain spyware, where attacks are shown to be feasible against currently available non-invasive BCIs. Influenced by Wiener’s computer ethics work, the authors also propose a set of principles regarding the appropriate use of the exocortex.

Thomas Fischer’s Wiener’s Prefiguring of a Cybernetic Design Theory proposes that Wiener’s writings – in particular an abandoned reflection on the process of invention – reveal that Wiener was not only one of the inventors of cybernetics, but also an early cybernetician of invention (i.e., design). Developing analogies between the causal principles observed in automatic anti-aircraft guns, the formation of cybernetics as an academic discipline, and the practices of cybernetics and design, Fischer argues that Wiener not only operated between what is (scientifically describable) and what ought to be (designed), but that he also reflected theoretically on himself doing so, thereby enacting several concepts of today’s cybernetic design theory.

In Norbert Wiener and the Counter-Tradition to the Dream of Mastery, Doug Hill discusses “the counter-tradition to the dream of mastery” and Wiener’s place in that tradition. The phrase is used by the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner to describe a series of thinkers who for centuries have pointed out the impossibility of ever achieving control over human or natural affairs. The powers that our technologies place at our disposal make that understanding especially important to recognize, and at the same time especially easy to ignore. Wiener spoke often of that dilemma.

Finally, we present Laura Moorhead’s award-winning 21CW Best Student Paper Down the Rabbit Hole: Tracking the Humanizing Effect of John Dewey’s Pragmatism on Norbert Wiener. Echoes of pragmatism have long been noted in the Cold War era and, specifically, Wiener’s cybernetics. Increasingly, Wiener’s work is revisited in the pursuit of “big data” in education. Yet, scholars ignore the influence of pragmatism – and John Dewey, in particular – on cybernetics and its reach into education. Moorhead reveals how Dewey played a role in Wiener’s philosophical underpinning and views on education, and how pragmatism had a humanizing effect on Wiener’s efforts and, ultimately, his ongoing and increasing impact in technology and education.

We hope you enjoy this special issue.


Philip Hall is a Principal Fellow with the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia. Email: philip@faerberhall.com

Heather A. Love is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, University of South Dakota, United States. Email: Heather.Love@usd.edu.

Professor Shiro Uesugi is the President of Matsuyama Junior College, Matsuyama City, Japan. Email: shiro.Uesugi@nifty.com.