Norbert Wiener

By: Erik Davis
November 26, 2014


Gaze back at the twentieth century through Google Glass™ or some other augmented reality gear, and it looks a lot like the most significant development was not ideological warfare or capitalist triumph but cybernetic coupling: the establishment of a theoretical and technical correlation between human beings and machines. With Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (1948) and its bestselling, equation-free follow-up The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), the uber-brilliant NORBERT WIENER (1894–1964) did as much as anyone to outline the logic and consequences of this equivalence, an abstract map that has become the territory we live in. As a mathematician, Wiener formalized the dynamics of feedback loops and the stochastic properties of information, whose quantification he presciently recognized as the key to the coming realm. As a transdisciplinary thinker, Wiener morphed metaphors drawn from physics and engineering into conceptual operators that helped bring a wide variety of disciplines — biology, robotics, computer science, sociology, anthropology — into resonance. But it is his moral and philosophical thought that makes him shine in our twilit hour. A humanist in the best sense of the term, as well as a fiercely independent social misfit, he foresaw the evils lurking in cybernetic command and control and the “concentration of power” that would result. Walking his talk, Wiener refused to engage in academia’s happy postwar marriage with industry and the military, and he warned labor leaders about the devastating impact of automation. Though Claude Shannon tends to get the credit today for his digital formulation of information theory, Wiener’s more continuous, analog approach is experiencing a comeback as the cyborg exits science fiction for daily life. But so too are the fears in his final work, God and Golem, Inc. (1964), which called for active struggle against coercive technological “sorcery” and the dancing, multiplying broomsticks of automation.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Charles M. Schulz, Felix Gonzales Torres, Eugene Ionseco.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884–93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generations.