Wiener's Cybernetics Legacy and the Growing Need for the Interdisciplinary Approach [Scanning Our Past]
I. Wiener's Contribution
Norbert Wiener (Fig. 1) was born in Columbia, MO, USA, in 1894. His father, Leo Wiener, was the first Jew to be appointed a tenured, full professor at Harvard University [1, p. 25], raising Norbert in a multidisciplinary intellectual milieu that included American pragmatism . Wiener wrote his first philosophical paper at age 10 on the role of approximation, uncertainty, and incompleteness of all human knowledge [2, p. 96] (Fig. 2). Norbert was famous for being a child prodigy graduating from Tufts University with a degree in mathematics at age 14 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University at age 18 in the philosophy of mathematical logic. At 19, he undertook postdoctoral study under Bertrand Russell, having written his dissertation on Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Key sources on Wiener’s life and work include his own two-volume autobiography , , along with Heims , , Masani , Conway and Siegelman , Galison , and Kline .
In 1919 Wiener gained a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) becoming a full Professor of Mathematics in 1932. Using Gibbs’ outcomes on statistical mechanics, Wiener examined Brownian motion and provided an advance in probability theory called the ‘‘Wiener measure’’ [5, p. 83]. He made significant contributions in harmonic analysis and Fourier transforms but is best known for his contributions to the development of cybernetics. Over time, Wiener developed a strong interest in the study of feedback mechanisms in both science and engineering. This work included research he did with engineer Julian Bigelow1 during World War II on an antiaircraft fire-control system, from which Bigelow, Wiener, and neurophysiologist Arturo Rosenblueth proposed a general explanation of purposeful (teleological) behavior in both animals and machines in 1943 .
Wiener and Bigelow set out to work on how they could shoot down an enemy airplane by predicting its future position. They managed to develop a curved-flight predictor, but the Wiener–Bigelow system did not go into operation during World War II due to complexity of its implementation. Yet this research led to sophisticated filtering techniques, and Wiener quickly connected the preliminary results with nervous disorders. Wiener asked Rosenblueth about the potential links of his findings, and Rosenblueth reinforced Wiener’s view of the similarity of control in the human and the machine at least on a statistical basis [3, p. 253]. These discoveries led to Wiener proposing the new field of cybernetics .
II. Defining Cybernetics
When we consider the introduction of a new term into the literature we need to reflect on its antecedents. It almost always emerges from a body of existing knowledge. Neurophysiologist W. Ross Ashby in Britain, communication and control system engineers in the United States, and many other researchers wrote about humans and feedback control mechanisms which anticipated cybernetics when it was not known by that name [29, ch. 4] . But it was in 1944 that Wiener and the group of scientists and engineers around him and Rosenblueth became aware of the ‘‘essential unity of the set of problems centering about communication, control, and statistical mechanics, whether in the machine or in living tissue’’ [10, p. 19]. It was Wiener himself, who put the stake in the ground, pronouncing that the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in machine or animal, should be called ‘‘cybernetics.’’ Wiener acknowledges the work of James Clerk Maxwell (1868) [10, p. 19] for the first significant paper on feedback mechanisms where reference is made to governors in the Latin form. Instead, Wiener took the Greek form of ‘‘steersman’’ written ‘‘"&’’ and claimed ‘‘cybernetics.’’2 Wiener was intrigued by how the human brain worked and looked for ‘‘common elements in the functioning of automatic machines and of the human nervous system’’ [11, p. 19].
At the time of the first large-scale electronic computers (like the ENIAC), journalists had begun to anthropomorphise machine elements (e.g., ‘‘electronic brains’’ ) and Wiener sought to compare the two forms more closely. For example, he compared the human brain to the digital computer and noted that vacuum-tube computers used much more energy than their biological counterparts, but the energy spent on each calculation was very small [10, p. 155]. For Wiener the central analogy of cybernetics was in terms of a generalized feedback control system. Wiener believed cybernetics could model animals and automatic machines because they both had ‘‘sensors, effectors, brains, and feedback-paths with which they communicate (exchange information) with the outside world and operate in and on that world’’ [7, p. 12]. It was on focusing on these feedback patterns that Wiener made interdisciplinary observations regarding the human brain that tied together neuroscience and electronics. In doing so he would draw upon analogies like giving a psychiatric patient electroshock treatment was akin to erasing a computer’s memory.
Similarly, Wiener was intrigued by how the human body was constantly providing feedback to the brain in order to control basic physiological vital signs like blood pressure and temperature, known as homeostasis.
He even did research on such cybernetic devices as medical prostheses and the automatic control of insulin injection. Although much of the rich discourse that Wiener and other cyberneticians developed in the 1950s has been abandoned in today’s flattened talk of an information age, the noun ‘‘information’’ and the prefix ‘‘cyber’’ today inform how ‘‘we talk, think, and act on our digital present and future’’ [7, p. 4].
Wiener’s most famous book, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, was published in 1948 . In this he drew together a multidisciplinary approach developed in the early part of a series of conferences organized by the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation in New York City, chaired by Warren McCulloch and held between 1946 and 1953. These conferences on feedback mechanisms in biology and society attracted an interdisciplinary group of several dozen specialists, including John von Neumann and Claude Shannon, alongside whom Wiener made major contributions to the foundation of modern information theory. These included the ‘‘Wiener filter,’’ a method of reducing noise present in a signal, initially written as part of his military research in 1942, and released publicly in 1949 .
To the surprise of book publishers and the press, the highly mathematical Cybernetics rose to fame (with a concerted publicity campaign) and soon there was discussion that this might even serve to bring the disciplines closer together by allowing at least a common universal language that could be understood and applied by all. The Macy feedback conference series adopted the term cybernetics as its title, which helped spread cybernetics and information theory throughout the social sciences and biology, forming a basis for a later discourse on information. Attendees and thought leaders linked to the Macy conferences believed that they could model the behavior of humans and society because they both contained information-feedback loops . According to Kline ‘‘[t]he allure of cybernetics rested on its promise to model mathematically the purposeful behavior of all organisms, as well as inanimate systems’’ [7, p. 4].
III. Wiener's Interdisciplinary Approach
Wiener placed priority on the ability of scientists to step beyond their own discipline in order to achieve interesting results (Fig. 3). For him, multidisciplinary work involved more than having people of different backgrounds working in the same team: ‘‘The mathematician need not have the skill to conduct a physiological experiment, but he must have the skill to understand one, to criticize one, and to suggest one. The physiologist need not be able to prove a certain mathematical theorem, but he must be able to grasp its physiological significance and to tell the mathematician for what he should look’’ [10, p. 3].
Key to this type of interdisciplinarity was the fact that Wiener saw significant parallels between human and machine processes. For example, he wrote: ‘‘In the ear, the transposition of music from one fundamental pitch to another is nothing but a translation of the logarithm of the frequency, and may consequently be performed by a group-scanning apparatus’’ [10, p. 141]. Some have criticized the liberal-human subject position of Wiener’s (first-order) cybernetics (e.g., Hayles ). Wiener’s concern was not with distinguishing the human and the machine, but with ensuring that humans did not themselves become part of a machine in the organizational sense: ‘‘When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine’’ [16, p. 185].
For Wiener, while his work on control and communication helped lay a theoretical basis for computerized factory automation and many information technologies of the 21st century, he was among the early group of scientists and engineers to call attention to potentially negative impacts of computers and cybernetics. His warnings about the effect on employment through automation were popularized as the subject of science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano . But it is perhaps now, more than ever before, when we ponder on both the utopian and dystopian possibilities of cybernetics when Wiener’s warnings should be heeded. In the postwar era, Wiener strove to mathematically model humans and machines (with some caveats regarding human society).
What was once typically relegated to the realms of science fiction, we are now edging toward. Science fiction and science fact were once scarcely on speaking terms, now they are at times indistinguishable one from the other. If we can map the activity of the 100 billion neurons in the human brain as we cracked the code to the human genome in DNA, what about the trajectory then? If we can delete the memory of the computer and reprogram it, can we also do that to people who use embedded brain stimulators? And ultimately who is in control of the decision making processes?
Generally, engineers in research institutes tend to only reflect on ethics at that time when they have a commercialized product going to market. If indeed this reflection is to happen at all. Ethicists are more often than not bolted on to a nationalfunded project or center to justify the existence of the entity in question and assure the nonacademic community that nothing remiss will take place outside established national guidelines. Among the scientists and engineers who began to question science and technology in the Cold War, Wiener, with a strong interdisciplinary background, began to ask profound questions about the societal implications from the problem definition phase. While this did not mean he stopped his research when he understood his work might collide with fundamental human values, he had at least drawn a discernible line where he thought his ideas might signal negative consequences for humanity at large, if pursued unchecked.
IV. The "Inter" in Interdisciplinary: The Value of Sharing Science
In many ways, between the 1920s and 1960s, Wiener’s questions foreshadowed those of the field of science, technology, and society (STS), often called science and technology studies. He was able to do so because of his family grounding in the humanities and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries to consider questions usually reserved for the social sciences. The Macy Conferences held between 1946 and 1953 aimed at breaking down the disciplinary barriers in the sciences. Mathematicians, engineers, biologists, social scientists, and humanists debated how the wartime theories of communications and control engineering applied to both humans and machines. Some anthropologists like Margaret Mead and her then-husband Gregory Bateson hoped that cybernetics would bring greater rigor to the social sciences. But the goal of the Macy conferences was for cybernetics to be considered an interdiscipline with the focused goal that people could communicate with one another, creating a ‘‘hybrid field of knowledge existing between and within disciplines’’ [7, pp. 3 and 62].3
Macy conference series chair Warren McCulloch noted at the end of the first year of the group’s existence that members had come from such diverse disciplines that they had to begin with learning each other’s vocabularies before they could even hope to understand one another and carry out even a simple conversation. He wrote about research results that had been ‘‘gathered by extremely dissimilar methods, by observers biased by disparate endowment and training, and related to one another only through a babel of laboratory slangs and technical jargons. Our most notable agreement that we have learned to know one another a bit better, and to fight fair in our shirt sleeves’’ [18, p. 69]. Margaret Mead was initially impressed with the usefulness of cybernetics as a common language that could cross disciplinary boundaries and lead to real interdisciplinary research, but she was utterly deflated when ‘‘the whole thing fragmented’’ upon trying to set up a project in the 1960s for cross-disciplinary communication between the United States and the USSR [7, p. 182].
One of the important characteristics of the field of STS today is its examination of claims for a single trajectory of technology independent of society, such as ‘‘progress’’ . Wiener writes: ‘‘[t]hose who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth’’ [16, p. 42]. Rather than placing limits on the concept, for Wiener faith in progress is undesirable: ‘‘[t]he simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness’’ [16, p. 47]. Parallels to this approach can be found in the work of Ellul , Borgman , Feenberg , Marcuse , Bauman , and others.
Having reached a perspective that he felt required action, Wiener sought to achieve change through the activity of the scientist or engineer. Wiener’s approach is pragmatic rather than sentimental:
Such interests in the humanitarian duties of the scientist as I now have are due more to the direct impact of the moral problems besetting the research man of the present day than to any original conviction that the scientist is primarily a philanthropist [2, p. 73].
Retaining this pragmatic perspective, Wiener often pointed to the difficulty of achieving what he classified as desirable outcomes. He wrote that the scientific method leaves scientists ill-equipped to tackle societal issues:
The scientist is thus disposed to regard his opponent as an honorable enemy. This attitude is necessary for his effectiveness as a scientist, but tends to make him the dupe of unprincipled people in war and in politics [16, p. 36].
Wiener wrote extensively on the need to allow the individual space to be creative. For Wiener the individual could not be separated from the community, and while he advocated opportunity for the individual (particularly to be creative) his focus throughout his writings was on improving the community:
Whatever benefits are awarded for scientific creation should have the good of the community as their purpose even more than the good of the individual. As such, they should be contingent on a full and free publication of the new ideas of the discoverer. The truth can make us free only when it is a freely obtainable truth [25, p. 154].
For Wiener, ‘‘the most fruitful areas for the growth of the sciences were those which had been neglected as a no-man’s land between the various established fields... A man may be a topologist or an acoustician or a coleopterist. He will be filled with the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all is ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy’’ [10, pp. 2–3]. Further, in regard to scientific work, ‘‘the simple coexistence of two items of information is of relatively small value, unless these two items can be effectively combined in some mind or organ which is able to fertilize one by means of the other. This is the very opposite of the organization in which each member travels a preassigned path, and in which the sentinels of science, when they come to the end of their beats, present arms, do an about face, and march back in the direction from which they have come’’ [16, p. 126].
V. Norbert's Warning to the Future: Benefit and Harm
Much of Wiener’s writing regarding technology and society can be placed in the field of ethics. Wiener felt and often conveyed a sense of ethical responsibility. In this he confounds writers on the philosophy of technology such as Ellul who present ‘‘human techniques’’ as deterministic and despairs of the scientist/technologist addressing ethical issues . Wiener wrote of the implications for the scientist and engineer.
A certain precise mixture of religion, pornography, and pseudo science will sell an illustrated newspaper. A certain blend of wheedling, bribery, and intimidation will induce a young scientist to work on guided missiles or the atomic bomb [10, pp. 159–160].
For Wiener these challenges were existential: ‘‘[f]or the first time in history, it has become possible for a limited group of a few thousand people to threaten the absolute destruction of millions, and this without any highly specific immediate risk to themselves’’ [3, p. 300]. And it is here that he emphasized that scientists had to think hard about whom they would disclose their ideas to.
Beyond the threat of war, Wiener identified a separate concern related to his own technical work. Here the sense of responsibility of the professional is clear.
So far the moral problem of warfare had not concerned me directly. However, in the fall of 1944 a complex of events took place which had a very considerable effect on my later career and thought. I had already begun to reflect on the relation between the high-speed computing machine and the automatic factory... the automatic factory was not far off. I wondered whether I had not got into a moral situation in which my first duty might be to speak to others concerning material which could be socially harmful [3, p. 295]. I thus decided that I would have to turn from a position of the greatest secrecy to a position of the greatest publicity, and bring to the attention of all the possibilities and dangers of the new developments [3, p. 308].
Wiener’s writings contain many examples of humanitarian concerns across a wide range of topics, such as the following: ‘‘[t]he principal type of surgical intervention which has been practiced is known as prefrontal lobotomy, and consists in the removal or isolation of a portion of the prefrontal lobe of the cortex. It has recently been having a certain vogue, probably not unconnected with the fact that it makes the custodial care of many patients easier. Let me remark in passing that killing them makes their custodial care still easier’’ [10, p. 148].
Just as he questioned a naive faith in progress, for Wiener technology itself had both a human potential and an antihuman potential. ‘‘Thus the new industrial revolution is a twoedged sword. It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction’’ [16, p. 162].
He drew a personal responsibility from this, in a letter published in the January 1947 issue of Atlantic Monthly, titled ‘‘A scientist rebels,’’ and the basis on which Wiener can be described as a founder of information ethics :
The policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences... It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that the weapon will be used... If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples and I most certainly do not must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas .
Following his Atlantic Monthly statement, he proposed that medical and other humanitarian applications could provide an alternative vocation to military research. His own work included ‘‘my general interest in the philosophy of prosthesis. I have believed that much could be done with artificial limbs by realizing that the deprivation of the amputee is quite as much sensory as motor’’ [3, p. 287].
He also presented the view that even without a human–machine connection, machines impact humans: ‘‘[l]et us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor’’ [16, p. 162].
The debate over whether his contribution was humanistic or antihumanistic continues well after his death, such as in . Wiener’s discoveries meet his own prediction of the two-edged sword of technology. He was unusual among scientists in drawing attention to this.
By the 1960s much of the technology that Wiener and others laid the theoretical foundation for in the 1940s had appeared, at least in a rudimentary form. In the last of his books published in his lifetime (he died in 1964), which deals with the relationship between cybernetic technology and religion, Wiener makes a comment which is relevant in the first quarter of the 21st century: ‘‘[t]he world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves’’ [28, p. 69].
For Wiener, human fields of endeavor are multidisciplinary by nature. He criticized the ‘‘deification of the businessman’’ as inimical to human creativity. He described the richness and diverse of the many civilizations and cultures, and suggested that European and North American researchers should reach out to nonwestern cultures to renew human vitality after the two catastrophic world wars of the 20th century. ‘‘Megabuck science’’ and political orthodoxy ‘‘can be expected to end in lowering the intellectual water table and turning vast areas of the soul which need our cultivation into dead and useless deserts’’ [25, p. 33]. Interdisciplinarity can produce sustainable and interoperable solutions. It can foresee problems and it can go a long way to solving them. Arguably, interdisciplinary approaches lead to a more organized world and to enriched communities. And the question of whether I should continue to investigate a given idea or breakthrough raises ethical considerations that if viewed from a multidisciplinary perspective can cast light on whether further development might result in potential benefits or harms. Wiener argued that knowledge and wisdom are to be found in multiple sources and discoveries.
1 Julian Bigelow was later the chief engineer on mathematician John von Neumann’s project to build a pioneering digital computer at Princeton University .
2 It is important to note that a significant typographic error was made in Wiener’s Cybernetics  and carried forward in subsequent editions. The kappa in the Greek form of steersman [[‘‘see published paper in IEEE’’]] originally written correctly in the 1948 edition was wrongly replaced with a chi [[‘‘see published paper in IEEE’’]] in the 1961 second edition.
3Although Wiener’s philosophy evolved over time, we present quotations without context in this section and the next one, because his positions on the relationship between cybernetic machines and society remained fairly constant from 1947 to his last book in 1964.
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 C. D. Martin, ‘‘ENIAC: The press conference that shook the world,’’ IEEE Technol. Soc. Mag., vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 3–10, Winter 1995.
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 N. Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Boston, MA, USA: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
 K. Vonnegut, Player Piano, 2nd ed. New York, NY, USA: Delacorte Press, 1969.
 W. S. McCulloch, ‘‘Summary of the points of agreement reached in the previous nine conferences on cybernetics,’’ in Trans. 10th Conf. Cybern., New York, 1955, pp. 69–80.
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 J. Ellul, Translated by John Wilkinson, The Technological Society. New York, NY, USA: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.
 A. Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Chicago, IL, USA: Univ. Chicago Press, 1984.
 A. Feenberg, ‘‘Democratic rationalization,’’ in Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, D. M. Kaplan, Ed. Oxford, U.K.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, pp. 209–225.
 H. Marcuse, Eros and Civilization. Boston, MA, USA: Beacon Press, 1966.
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 T. Bynum, Computer and information ethics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Mar. 27, 2014. [Online]. Available: http:// plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/ ethics-computer/.
 N. Wiener, ‘‘A scientist rebels,’’ The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 179, p. 46, 1947.
 N. Wiener, God and Golem, Inc. Boston, MA, USA: MIT Press, 1964.
 A. Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago, IL, USA: Univ. Chicago Press, 2010.
 D. Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, Computing Before Cybernetics. Baltimore, MD, USA: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002.
 B. Peters, ‘‘Toward a genealogy of cold war communication sciences: The strange loops of Leo and Norbert Wiener,’’ Russian J. Commun., vol. 5, pp. 31–43, 2013.
Keywords: Cybernetics, History, Wiener, Norbert, interdisciplinary approach, Wiener cybernetics legacy
Citation: Greg Adamson, Ronald R. Kline, Katina Michael, M. G. Michael, "Wiener's Cybernetics Legacy and the Growing Need for the Interdisciplinary Approach", Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 103, No. 11, pp. 2208 - 2214, Nov. 2015.