Born in Columbia, Missouri, on November 26, Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) gained prominence as a world-famous mathematician who founded the interdisciplinary field of cybernetics, questioned its social implications, and encouraged scientists and engineers to consider the social consequences of their work. He died in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 18.
A child prodigy, Wiener earned a B.S. from Tufts University at the age of fourteen and a Ph.D. from Harvard at eighteen. As a professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he made his mark in the areas of statistical theory, harmonic analysis, and prediction and filtering. While doing research on an antiaircraft system during Word War II, Wiener developed the key idea behind cybernetics: Humans and machines could both be studied using the principles of control and communication engineering. Both were information-processing entities that interacted with the environment through feedback mechanisms to pursue goals.
The atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 brought the issue of social responsibility to the fore for Wiener. He wrote a resignation letter to the president of MIT that fall, stating that he intended to leave science because scientists had become the armorers of the military and had no control over their research. Although Wiener may have never sent the letter, he stopped doing military work. He became well-known for this stance in 1947 when the press reported his refusal to attend a military-sponsored symposium on computers and to share his war-time research with a company developing guided missiles. Wiener reasoned that "the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences" (Wiener 1947, p. 46).
Wiener expressed his views on the ethical and social aspects of science and technology in Cybernetics (1948), The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), and God and Golem, Inc. (1964). All three books warn about the potentially dangerous social consequences of the very field he had founded. Wiener claimed that cybernetics had "unbounded possibilities for good and evil" (Wiener 1948, p. 37). Electronic prostheses would benefit humans, and automated factories, the basis of a second industrial revolution, could eliminate inhuman forms of labor. If, however, humans "follow our traditional worship of progress and the fifth freedom—the freedom to exploit—it is practically certain that we shall face a decade more of ruin and despair" in implementing this technology (Wiener, 1950, p. 189). He also criticized game theory and military science for viewing the world as a struggle between good and evil.
Wiener considered whether to stop working on cybernetics because of its dangers. But it belonged "to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers," namely, those doing military work. He recommended educating the public about the social implications of his field and confining research to areas, "such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation" (Wiener, 1948, p. 38–39). Near the end of his life, Wiener said scientists and engineers should stop being amoral gadget worshipers (Wiener 1964) and imagine the consequences of their work well into the future. In regard to growing concerns about the dehumanizing effects of computerization, he recommended a cybernetic division of labor: Humans should perform functions best suited to them, computers those best suited to computers.
Cybernetics has led a life of its own outside of Wiener's control. In the late 1940s, philosophers in the Soviet Union criticized Wiener for attacking dialectical materialism, then did an about-face in the 1950s and adopted cybernetics wholeheartedly. In Western Europe and North America, in the 1960s, cybernetics lost prestige among scientists who questioned its rigor and universal claims. Beginning in the 1980s, some humanists praised Wiener's antimilitarism, while others criticized cybernetics for creating a philosophy of nature and a computer-based material culture that turns humans into cyborgs (cybernetic organisms). At the same time, historian and philosopher Donna Haraway co-opted Wiener's cybernetic vision to create an ironic cyborg epistemology with which to critique the global corporate-military-university complex and the technosciences that sustain it.
Galison, Peter. (1994). "The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision." Critical Inquiry 21(Autumn): 228–266.
Heims, Steve J. (1980). John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wiener, Norbert. (1947). "A Scientist Rebels." Atlantic Monthly 179(1): 46. Reprinted in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, February 1947, 31.
Wiener, Norbert. (1950). On the Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Wiener, Norbert. (1961). Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 2nd edition. New York: MIT Press.
Wiener, Norbert. (1964). God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.