Friday, March 4, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Preface and Chapter 1


Wiener, Norbert. (1989 [1950]). The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. London: Free Association Books.

[I had planned to read Simondon's Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, but learned that that book was written in response (in part) to this one, so I decided to read this one first. My impression was that this was a restatement of his cybernetic theory from his original book, for a broader general audience; however, this book does not seem to give a very deep understanding of cybernetics, imho. Instead, Wiener expounds some of the basic concepts and ideas of cybernetics, and then applies them to different scenarios and contexts in a large number of short chapters, with widely varying degrees of success.]

Summary of Preface and Chapter 1


Wiener notes the influence of earlier thinkers, such as Gibbs, who had moved physics away from the stable Newtonian model, to one that is all about contingency. This (rather than, or rather moreso than quantum physics per se, as in many other accounts), is, according to Wiener, the big difference between modern (20th century) physics and math, and earlier. One big surprise is Wiener’s equation of entropy with evil – though he means evil in a “negative” Augustinian model, rather than a “positive” Manichaean model.


Chapter 1 summary:

Wiener reiterates his definition of cybernetics as the theory of messages, and discusses the close relationship he sees between communication and control. He defines concepts such as messages, information, feedback. These are all significant for his theory in which what moves or flows is “information” (not labor, heat, energy, etc.). He explores analogies between living beings and various levels of automata. His primary point seems to be that more recent (in his day) automata, which use feedback and memory, are increasingly similar in operation or design or whatever to living beings. For instance, old-school automata such as clockwork figures on a music box have "prearranged behavior" while humans and animals have "contingent behavior" (22); automata are now increasingly capable of such contingent behavior, and complex actions; increasingly they also “act on the external world by
means of messages.”

[The idea of command-as-communication clearly obscures labor – indeed, don't I in fact transform my environment through labor more than by "command?" This is the perspective of the noble or manager – commands are imagined as having direct effects, instead of being mediated by work, etc. It seems awkward to think of, for instance, digging a ditch as an act of issuing “commands” to the shovel, the dirt, etc. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see this in relation to a thermodynamic theory of labor as energy.]

[I'm wondering how Wiener will treat the difference between mediated and unmediated, or differently mediated, actions. When I turn the knob on the sink to turn on the water, I am not "communicating" in the sense of sending a message which turns into an abstraction along the way, then decoded (this seems implicit in the concept of "message" and the way in which entropy/noise is treated in relation to it). Certainly you could say that the movement of my hand "communicates" a motion to the knob, which communicates that to the internal mechanism (and this motion is transformed mechanically, or can be), but there seems to be a massive difference in the two forms of "communication" (I don't know whether Wiener will recognize this, ignore it, or conflate the two).] [The answer is: he will phrase the difference as a matter of complexity and the possibility for contingent responses involving feedback.]

To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man's inner life, even as they belong to his life in society. (18)

[Here the conflation of communication and control (from merely asserting a relation or similarity, to taking it for granted in the repetition of “communication and control” as a black-boxed pair) feels a bit ominous here, as we move to the assertion that control belongs "to the essence of man's inner life".]

It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feed­back. (26)

 Both have sensors; for both the incoming messages "are not taken neat" but are transformed through the apparatus [this seems to be his version of my question as to whether the input is abstracted or not]. Anyway information takes a new form available to use by the system (27).


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