[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Dark Hero of the Information Age': The Original Computer Geek
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'Dark Hero of the Information Age': The Original Computer Geek
New York Times Book Review, 5.3.20
By CLIVE THOMPSON
DARK HERO OF THE INFORMATION AGE
In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics.
By Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman.
Illustrated. 423 pp. Basic Books. $27.50.
TO be a truly famous scientist, you need to have a hit single.
Einstein had E = mc2. Newton had the apple and gravity. Even the
lesser rock-star scientists have one shining achievement for which
they're known -- such as Niels Bohr's theory of the atom.
But there's another kind of scientist who never breaks through,
usually because while his discovery is revolutionary it's also
maddeningly hard to summarize in a simple sentence or two. He never
produces a catchy hit single. He's more like a back-room influencer:
his work inspires dozens of other innovators who absorb the idea,
produce more easily comprehensible innovations and become more famous
than their mentor could have dreamed. Find an influencer, and you'll
find a deeply bitter man.
Norbert Wiener -- the inventor of ''cybernetics'' -- is precisely this
type of scientist. Odds are that you are only dimly aware of
cybernetics, if at all. (A friend asked me, ''Isn't that like
Dianetics?'') ''Dark Hero of the Information Age,'' by the journalists
Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, intends to correct this, but their book
struggles with the circular tautologies of fame: it must continually
plead the case of why the guy ought to have been better known.
Cybernetics is the science of feedback -- how information can help
self-regulate a system. That includes everything from biological
mechanisms (like the human immune system) to artificial ones, like
thermostats that regulate a building's temperature. Even in the early
20th century, when Wiener did his work, feedback mechanics weren't
new; engineers had long been building steam engines that
self-regulated their speed. But Wiener's genius was to label the
mysterious ghost that powered feedback: information.
It's hard to imagine now, in our modern digital world -- where
''cyber'' is a prefix for everything from sex to pets -- but
''information'' as a discrete concept did not widely exist before
Wiener. (Early Bell engineers referred to the signal traveling over
telephone wires as ''the commodity to be transported by a telephone
system.'') By separating out information as a kind of Platonic solid
unto itself, Wiener created the idea that scientists could measure
information in a system and tweak it for optimal efficiency.
The idea resonated in every field. The anthropologist Margaret Mead
began studying cultural taboos as flows of self-regulating information
inside a society. Wiener used his feedback theory to create an
antiaircraft gun that tracked a plane in the air as if it were alive.
And neurologists started using cybernetic theory to explain mental
diseases as self-reinforcing patterns of behavior -- a brain that gets
stuck in a bad biochemical rut.
Wiener knew about those ruts himself, tortured as he was by lifelong
manic depression. Though he produced his defining works in
hypertalkative bursts of productivity, he would regularly plunge into
moods of near-suicidal intensity. The authors suggest Wiener's swings
were exacerbated by his oppressive upbringing: home-schooled by a
scold of a father, Wiener started college at the age of 11 in 1906,
earned his Harvard Ph.D. by 18 and, like most prodigies, remained a
socially awkward geek forever after. Myopic nearly to the point of
blindness, the rotund Wiener was famous for wandering the grounds of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a cigar, buttonholing
anyone he met and pouring out his latest theories in a rapid-fire
spray. (Some M.I.T. engineers even developed the ''Wiener Early
Warning System'' to avoid him by ducking away.)
For a while, Wiener seemed destined to be as celebrated as Einstein.
Like Einstein, he issued dark social warnings about the misuse of
science and technology, including his own. In his two most popular
books -- ''Cybernetics'' and ''The Human Use of Human Beings'' --
Wiener warned that mass media were concentrated in too few hands, and
were losing their power as a feedback device for society. Appalled by
the atom bomb, he defiantly refused to accept any government money for
research. (When he visited an M.I.T. professor who accepted military
money, he'd hover on the doorstep, refusing to walk into what he
called ''federal territory.'') Given that postwar research was
increasingly paid for by the military, this is partly why Wiener got
sidelined by history: he didn't participate in much of the seminal
military-financed work on computation, where his ideas might have been
But the real problem, the authors argue, was personal. At the crest of
his career, Wiener's life imploded, almost like a feedback system
falling out of equilibrium with itself. And this is where the book
really shines, because it offers a fascinating account of how a
personal crisis can destroy a scientific revolution.
The catastrophe emerged from Wiener's German-born wife, Margaret, and
their almost gothically weird relationship. Though Wiener was Jewish,
Margaret became an outspoken Nazi supporter during World War II. (She
kept a copy of ''Mein Kampf'' on a dresser at home.) She was even more
hostile to her daughters, and accused the elder of inspiring
''unnatural'' sexual feelings in her father. As Wiener's reputation
grew and he crisscrossed the globe on lecture circuits, Margaret
attempted to trigger his depressions with undercutting remarks.
At the peak of Wiener's fame, she told an audacious lie that destroyed
his relationship with his closest scientific collaborators. One of
Wiener's daughters had interned for a spring with the colleagues;
Margaret told Wiener that their daughter had had sex with several of
them. Wiener chose to believe the falsehood. He immediately cut off
all contact with his collaborators, never explained the accusation and
never spoke to them again.
And that, the authors contend, is the real reason cybernetics died.
Wiener's colleagues were shattered, and without his participation,
their explorations of his ideas quickly atrophied. One of Wiener's
former protégés, the young mathematical genius Walter Pitts, was so
scarred that ultimately he drank himself to death. By the time of
Wiener's death in 1964, there were few proselytizers left; Soviet
scientists were interested, but this only served to give cybernetics a
Of course, one could also argue that the science simply failed in the
court of ideas. Postwar scientists were obsessed with electronics;
Wiener's feedback studies, which careered from neurophysics to heavy
mechanics, seemed both antiquated and pointlessly ahead of their time.
In his final years, Wiener could see his relevance waning, and worried
that he was doomed to be remembered only in the footnotes of other
The authors seem to fret about this too, and they embark on an awkward
process common in the biographies of lesser-known scientists: they
continually attempt to reverse-engineer Wiener's importance by
mentioning the famous thinkers you really have heard of -- Marshall
McLuhan, Mead or James Watson and Francis Crick -- and painstakingly
noting how they incorporated Wiener's ideas into their own work. It's
a bit of a stretch at times. But you sympathize with their project,
and their subject. Wiener was both brilliant and personally
intriguing, an absent-minded professor straight out of central
casting. As a character, he was larger than life; as a scientist, he
was smaller than history.
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times
Magazine and also writes for Wired and Slate.
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