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The Human Use of Human Beings
The Human Use of Human Beings
Cybernetics and Society

Only a few books stand as landmarks in social and scientific upheaval. Norbert Wiener's classic is one in that small company. Founder of the science of cybernetics--the study of the relationship between computers and the human nervous system--Wiener was widely misunderstood as one who advocated the automation of human life. As this book reveals, his vision was much more complex and interesting. He hoped that machines would release people from relentless and repetitive drudgery in order to achieve more creative pursuits. At the same time he realized the danger of dehumanizing and displacement. His book examines the implications of cybernetics for education, law, language, science, technology, as he anticipates the enormous impact--in effect, a third industrial revolution--that the computer has had on our lives.


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excerpt It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and com­ munication facilities, messages between man and ma­ chines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever­ increasing part. 16 on 11/28/2019, 3:07:13 AM

references Calculus ratiocinator on 11/28/2019, 3:10:48 AM

references Josiah Willard Gibbs on 11/28/2019, 3:11:33 AM

excerpt Every instrument in the repertory of th e scientific-instrument maker is a possible sense organ, and may be made to record its reading remotely through the intervention of appropriate electrical ap­paratus. 23 on 11/28/2019, 3:12:43 AM

excerpt This control of a machine on the basis of its actual performance rather than its expected performance is known as feedback, and involves sen­ sory members which are actuated by motor members and perform the function of tell-tales or monit01's­ that is, of elements which indicate a performance. 24 on 11/28/2019, 3:13:33 AM

excerpt In both of them, their performed action on the outer world, and not merely their intended action, is re­ ported back to the central regulatory apparatus. 27 on 11/28/2019, 3:15:32 AM

excerpt We are the slaves of our technical improvement and we can no more return a New Hampshire farm to the self-con­ tained state in which it was maintained in 1800 than we can, by taking thought, add a cubit to our stature or, what is more to the point, diminish it. We have modified our environment so radically that we must " now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new en- ;1 vironment. We can no longer live in the old one. 46 on 11/28/2019, 3:21:17 AM

excerpt The purpose of applause in the theater-and it is essential-is to establish in the performer's mind some modicum of two-way communication. 50 on 11/28/2019, 3:22:31 AM

excerpt Yet even this modified formless democracy is too anarchic for many of those who make efficiency their first ideal. These worshipers of efficiency would like to have each man move in a social orbit meted out to him from his childhood, and perform a function to which he is bound as the serf was bound to the clod. 50 on 11/28/2019, 3:23:58 AM

excerpt I repeat, feedback is a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past perform­ ance. If these results are merely used as numerical data for the criticism of the system and its regulation, we have the simple feedback of the control engineers. If, however, the information which proceeds backward from the performance is able to change the general method and pattern of performance, we have a process which may well be called learning. 61 on 11/28/2019, 3:28:56 AM

note Analogy Machines vs Digital Machines 65 on 11/28/2019, 3:30:37 AM

excerpt The concept of an undirected message spreading out until it finds a receiver, which is then stimulated by it, is not an unfamiliar one. Messages of this sort are used very frequently as alarms. 70 on 11/28/2019, 3:33:59 AM

excerpt Indeed, the very word riddle is derived from the root "to rede," or to puzzle out. Among many primitive people writing and sor­ cery are not far apart. 86 on 11/28/2019, 3:36:14 AM

excerpt To see and to give commands to the whole world is almost the same as being every­ where. 97 on 11/28/2019, 3:40:17 AM

references Aerial Board of Control on 11/28/2019, 3:40:45 AM

excerpt It will be well to reconsider Kipling's test of the importance of traffic in the modern world from the point of view of a traffic which is overwhelmingly not so much the transmission of human bodies as the transmission of human information. 104 on 11/28/2019, 3:43:14 AM

excerpt In the early days of modern invention, science was far ahead of the workman. The locksmith set the level of mechanical competence. A piston was considered to fit an engine-cylinder when, according to Watt, a thin sixpence could just be slipped between the two. 115 on 11/28/2019, 3:45:50 AM

excerpt Like so many Gadarene swine, we have taken unto us the devils of the age, and the compulsion of scientific warfare is driving us pell-mell, head over heels into the ocean of our own destruction. Or perhaps we may say that among the gentlemen who have made it their business to be our mentors, and who administer the new program of science, many are nothing more than apprentice sorcerers, fascinated with the incantation Which starts a devilment that they are totally unable to stop. 129 on 11/28/2019, 3:53:57 AM

excerpt This book argues that the integrity of the channels of internal communication is essential to the welfare of society. This internal communication is subject at the present time not only to the threats which it has faced at all times, but to certain new and especially serious problems which belong peculiarly to our age. One among these is the growing complexity and cost of communication. 131 on 11/28/2019, 3:54:26 AM

excerpt The movies may be quite inexpensive as far as con­ cerns the cost of showing each show to each spectator, but they are so horribly expensive in the mass that few shows are worth the risk, unless their success is certain in advance. It is not the question whether a show may excite a great interest in a considerable number of peo­ ple that interests the entrepreneur, but rather the ques­ tion of whether it will be unacceptable to so few that he can count on selling it indiscriminately to movie theaters from coast to coast. 132 on 11/28/2019, 3:55:29 AM

excerpt Thus we are in an age where the enormous per capita bulk of communication is met by an ever-thinning stream of total bulk of communica­ tion. More and more we must accept a standardized inoffensive and insignificant product which, like the white bread of the bakeries, is made rather for its keep­ ing and selling properties than for its food value. 132 on 11/28/2019, 3:56:51 AM

excerpt Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. 134 on 11/28/2019, 4:00:00 AM

excerpt when there is communication with­ out need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of be­ coming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plum­ met. 134 on 11/28/2019, 4:00:37 AM

excerpt to pursue the uphill fight against the prevailing tendency toward the commonplace and the banal. 134 on 11/28/2019, 4:01:01 AM

note Interesting anecdote about naval navigation. 138 on 11/28/2019, 4:03:28 AM

excerpt he two trades had very much in common. They both de­ manded the construction of accurate circles and ac­ curate straight lines, and the graduation of these in degrees or in inches. Their tools were the lathe and the dividing engine. These machine tools for delicate work are the ancestors of our present machine-tool in­dustry. 138 on 11/28/2019, 4:03:40 AM

excerpt It is an interesting reflection that every tool has a genealogy, and that it is descended from the tools by which it has itself been constructed. The clockmakers' lathes of the eighteenth century have led through a f clear historical chain of intermediate tools to the great turret lathes of the present day. 139 on 11/28/2019, 4:04:24 AM

excerpt These must be done through ma­ chines that have themselves been manufactured by other machines, and it is only through many stages of this that one reaches back to the original hand- or foot­ lathes of the eighteenth century. 139 on 11/28/2019, 4:04:49 AM

excerpt In­ deed, the factory system started before the machine system, as a means of introducing discipline into the highly undisciplined home industry of the individual workers, and of keeping up standards of production. 143 on 11/28/2019, 4:06:32 AM

excerpt The design of ma- chines involving such parts has been transferred from the domain of the skilled shopworker to that of the re- search-laboratory man; and in this he has all the avail- able tools of circuit theory to replace a mechanical ingenuity of the old sort. Invention in the old sense has been supplanted by the intelligent employment of cer­tain laws of nature. 146 on 11/28/2019, 4:08:46 AM

excerpt whether they were what are now called analogy machines, which work primarily by the meas­ urement of physical quantities, or digital machines, which work primarily by counting and arithmetic oper­ations. 151 on 11/28/2019, 4:10:56 AM

excerpt What the feedback and the vacuum tube have made possible is not the sporadic design of individual automatic mechanisms, but a general policy for the construction of automatic mechanisms of the most var­ied type. 153 on 11/28/2019, 4:12:13 AM

references Sequential analysis on 11/28/2019, 4:16:02 AM

excerpt That which can be done then by a technique so stand­ ardized that it can be put in the hands of a statistical computer who does not understand the logic behind it, may also be executed by a computing machine. In other words, except again at the highest levels, the ma­ chine takes care of the routine statistical controls, as well as of the production process. 158 on 11/28/2019, 4:16:41 AM

quote One of the most fascinating prospects thus opened is that of the rational conduct of human affairs, and in particular of those which interest communities and seem to present a certain statistical regularity, such as the hu­ man phenomena of the development of opinion. Can't one imagine a machine to collect this or that type of information, as for example information on production and the market; and then to determine as a function of the average psychology of human beings, and of the 'i quantities which it is possible to measure in a determined instance, what the most probable development of the situation might be? 178 on 11/28/2019, 4:25:18 AM

references La manipulation mécanique des réactions humaines créera on 11/28/2019, 4:28:18 AM

note Wiener is too dismissive of the criticism in La Monde. He discounts the dangers of autonomous processes because he is hyper aware of the technological constraints of the age. He views humans who might abuse autonomous systems as the danger. I think he got this one wrong, although I am sympathetic. Ironically, the critic would fit in perfectly as an OpEd in the NYTimes! on 11/28/2019, 4:34:43 AM

excerpt I have spoken of machines, but not only of machines having brains of brass and thews of iron. When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human be­ ings, 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. Whether we entrust our decisions to ma­ chines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right an­ swers to our questions unless we ask the right questions. 186 on 11/28/2019, 4:37:21 AM

excerpt Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions, if it does not possess the power of learning, will be completely literal­ minded. Woe to us if we let it decide our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of its action, and know fully that its conduct will be carried out on principles acceptable to us! On the other hand, the machine like the djinnee, which can learn and can make decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or will be acceptable to us. For the man who is not aware of this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back seated on the whirlwind. 185 on 11/28/2019, 4:48:57 AM


Norbert Wiener authored-of The Human Use of Human Beings on 11/28/2019, 3:06:10 AM