The Cybernetics Movement

By on June 29th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

The Cybernetics Moment, Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age. By Ronald R. Kline. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015

Reviewed by Karl D. Stephan

The photograph on the dust cover of The Cybernetics Moment is striking. In front of a chalkboard covered with equations, a man wearing owlish glasses contemplates a lash-up of wires and vacuum tubes mounted on a carriage with wheels that look like they belong to a child’s tricycle. He holds a large cigar in his right hand.

The man is Norbert Wiener, and the rig he’s looking at is a “communications machine” that moves in response to changing light patterns. The year is 1949, and the photograph shows Wiener near the peak of what author Ronald Kline calls “the cybernetics moment.” By the early 1950s, the term cybernetics will come to be regarded as almost magical in its promise to solve problems ranging from technical matters of control theory in hardware systems all the way to social problems such as urban planning and the economy. But by the late 1960s, it gradually became clear that the hope of uniting ground-breaking efforts in both the physical and social sciences under the umbrella science of cybernetics was only a hope, not a reality.

In choosing to write about the history of an idea, Kline has undertaken one of the most difficult of historical tasks, and it’s no wonder it took him the better part of fifteen years to complete the book. Biographies start and end with the subject’s life. Histories of a particular technology have similar well-defined limits. But the history of an idea, especially an idea as multifaceted and chameleon-like as cybernetics, can easily turn into a cat-herding expedition. Fortunately, Kline is a masterful historian who knows his way around archives and among the ways of researchers, and he explores the many meanings and ramifications of the cybernetics concept from its birth (Wiener himself coined the word) to the 1980s, by which time most of the early participants had either died or returned to their respective traditional disciplines.

If the story can be said to have main characters, there are two: Wiener, a child prodigy and later an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his industrial-research counterpart, Claude Shannon, who worked for Bell Laboratories. Both were mathematicians by training, and both were profoundly influenced by the defense work they were called upon to do during World War II. Wiener contributed to the development of automatic fire-control systems for anti-aircraft weapons. Shannon, working on secret wartime communications systems at Bell Labs, was inspired by those problems to develop what came to be known as information theory, and Wiener developed similar ideas at about the same time.

But what they did with their respective discoveries could not have been more different. Shannon published his work in his seminal 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” which is widely regarded as marking the foundation of the discipline of information theory. Shannon’s focus was narrow and technical — to him, the content of a message was completely irrelevant. All that mattered was its mathematical characteristics, which allowed a communications system designer to know certain things about how accurately the signal carrying the information could be transmitted.

Wiener, on the other hand, had bigger plans for his ideas. Essentially, a cybernetic system was any system that used information about its output to control itself in a feedback loop. This sort of behavior is obvious in a simple control loop such as a household thermostat that controls a heating system. In his 1948 book Cybernetics, Wiener claimed that the cybernetic viewpoint applied not only to nuts-and-bolts hardware, but also to living things ranging from simple cells all the way up to human beings. Possibly no one was more surprised than Wiener himself when his rather mathematically dense book became a best-seller, with over 22 000 copies sold by the end of 1949. Kline attributes some of these sales to what he calls the “Hawking effect,” referring to the popularity of physicist Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which was much more widely purchased than read.

Whether or not buyers of Wiener’s book actually read it, its popularity quickly established the term “cybernetics” as a new buzzword that attracted both researchers and funding to the interdisciplinary work that the concept encouraged. When Wiener energetically promoted his concepts and wrote a second book aimed at a more popular audience, he unleashed a chain of events that eventually went in directions he never anticipated. In particular, several prominent researchers in the social sciences took up the cybernetics cause in ways that Wiener eventually disapproved of.

From that point on, despite Kline’s efforts to keep things orderly, the tale grows increasingly complex. To deal with the cybernetics heyday of the 1950s, Kline book’s has chapters entitled “The Cybernetics Craze,” “The Information Bandwagon,” “Humans as Machines,” “Machines as Human,” and finally, “Cybernetics in Crisis.” A bewildering cast of characters enter — Warren Weaver, a director at the Rockefeller Foundation who not only did important research on his own but played a crucial role in funding information-theory research as applied to language translation; Herbert Simon, a well-known social scientist who struggled to apply cybernetics principles to his field; and a number of individuals well known for their work in other fields, ranging from Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Denis Gabor to Whole Earth Catalog author Stewart Brand and anthropologist Margaret Mead. Among other things, The Cybernetics Moment is a fascinating study in how institutional support in the form of grants by both private foundations and the then-new National Science Foundation (established in 1950) were critical in forming (or not forming) new disciplines, as well as encouraging new interactions among established disciplines.

Most researchers who have depended on external funding are familiar with the fact that funding tends to follow trends, almost like clothing fashions. From Kline’s evidence, it appears that grant proposals that mentioned cybernetics were in great favor in the 1950s, and he traces numerous connections among researchers, foundation officers, and government figures who supported projects in many disciplines, all related to cybernetics in some way.

His other primary source for what was going on in the field is professional journals, including those devoted primarily to cybernetics itself. The American Society for Cybernetics was not founded until 1964, by which time it was clear to many that the term had been overused. Many attempts to apply cybernetics concepts had failed to live up to their earlier promise, especially in the areas of biology and sociology, though Wiener himself generally disparaged the way social scientists tried to apply the concept.

Meanwhile, the informationtheory parts of the book show smooth and largely unremarkable progress in the areas of communications theory and computer systems, but this progress eventually left the banner of cybernetics behind. Following Shannon’s more engineering-oriented attitude, other engineers and computer scientists applied more sophisticated feedback-control theory and information theory to increasingly complex systems, and after the 1950s, they largely eschewed the term “cybernetics” to describe what they were doing. Wiener’s forecasts of huge automated factories in Cybernetics eventually came to pass, but at a slower pace that didn’t produce equally huge bursts of unemployment.

Kline makes it clear that the surprising popularity of the term was as much a product of public anxiety concerning the role of technology in postwar society as it was a legitimate recognition of an important new technical field. The word “cybernetics” gave a specific name to the sometimes intimidating progress of technology that the public of the 1950s witnessed. Kline shows how anxiety over technological unemployment and the threat of “electronic brains” was portrayed in popular media such as Time and the fanciful creations of satirical artists such as Boris Artzybasheff. By the 1980s, familiarity with computers had made them seem more benign, and cybernetics was a term largely forgotten by the public, though it lived on in the name of a journal called Cybernetics and Human Knowing devoted to “sociocybernetics.” It also persisted in certain rather marginal social-science fields devoted to “second-order” cybernetics, which includes the observer in a wider system and is more qualitative than the quantitative, mathematical “first-order” cybernetics Wiener originally meant by the term.

Wiener died in 1964. Today, many technological advances that he would have classed as cybernetics are now encompassed in the field of artificial intelligence, which has passed beyond its purely speculative stage and has now become a routine part of life in industrialized societies. While technological unemployment is still a concern, the forms it takes are more complex than Wiener or anyone else could envision in 1949, when only a few room-size computers existed anywhere in the world. The cybernetics moment has clearly passed.

Because cybernetics involved so wide a range of disciplines, researchers, and institutions, Kline has trouble maintaining a clear story line through the book. It is not fair to say that the total is less than the sum of its parts, but the nature of his subject forces Kline to run back and forth along the historical timeline as he takes up different aspects of his subject. Perhaps the book will be most valuable as historical background for the large number of disciplines that were involved in the cybernetics moment: computer science, communications engineering, information theory, and the social sciences of sociology and anthropology. While cybernetics as an independent discipline has largely vanished from the scene, many concepts and disciplines that are still with us today were born in, or at least influenced by, the chaotic and exciting times when the term held great promise and unlocked the coffers of research foundations of the 1950s. Even when research is funded as part of a fad, it can still do some good, and that may be the best lesson to be learned from The Cybernetics Moment.


Karl D. Stephan obtained the B.S.E.E. degree from Caltech, the M. Eng. degree from Cornell. and the Ph.D. degree at the University of Texas at Austin in microwave engineering. After sixteen years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he joined Texas State University-San Marcos in 2000, where he is now Professor in the Ingram School of Engineering. He has published widely in the fields of microwave engineering, atmospheric physics, the history of technology, and engineering ethics. His email address is