My Norbert Wiener story

It started with Tom Haymes, an excellent partner-in-crime who’s got the Houston Community College system abuzz with the New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar. I don’t always agree with Tom, but I always listen carefully–and then I usually agree. (That’s for you, Tom.) As I was revving up for this fall’s NMFS, I was talking and e-talking with Tom about the course and the syllabus, and he said to me “whatever you do, please put Licklider’s ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ back in the syllabus.” I’d taken Lick out, you see, to spend more time with Engelbart. I am in awe of Lick, but Doug’s vision changed my life, tip to toe, and I’ve been trying to convey that complex change to anyone who will listen, ever since.

But I thought about what Tom had said, and I realized he was right–but I still had the feeling that Lick was not at the next paradigm quite fast enough after Vannevar Bush. Lick’s essay, famous and important as it undeniably is, was not quite different enough from Bush’s, and it didn’t make my head explode the way Doug’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” did (and does). Without it, though, we were missing a step. With it, I was impatient for the fireworks. So I wondered, since Lick’s essay was relatively brief, whether there was an essay I could put into dialogue with it. I realized I was really pushing it to ask my colleagues to read more. (Heck, it’s pushing it to ask them to blog, and attend a seminar regularly, and get their feet wet in Delicious–my, that sounds poetic–and of course put up with me–but I digress.) But I wanted to try. So I read around in the cabinet of wonders called The New Media Reader, and I remembered having read a great deal about this Norbert Wiener person, and I thought I’d give his “Man, Machines, and the World About” a try.

Several months later I emerged from a Norbert Wiener binge.

It’s difficult, always difficult, to understand why something resonates, why it comes into one’s life at a particular time and in a particular way. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. (I always wanted to major in readiness.) So I suppose I was ready, and Norbert Wiener appeared.

I read several essays by Wiener this summer, besides “Men, Machines,” and his book “Invention: The Care And Feeding Of Ideas.” I felt invited to. What is that sense of invitation, when one feels a writer is eager for company, a stroll, an answering mind? It’s certainly the invitation I want my students to sense from me–and extend to each other. The way is steep and hard. We have to carry things we can’t pick up, truth be told, and we have to carry them anyway. A colleague, a companion can make all the difference.

Wiener’s approach in Invention was to champion the human spirit, to warn us that in the age to come we must use automation to enliven and cherish that spirit more fully, for everyone. The other option was clear: eliminate the human spirit in favor of productivity and efficiency, a process that Dickens spent a career limning and opposing, and one that sneaks into liberatory cultures too, so stealthy is its appeal, so insidious its spurious invitations. Learning management systems, anyone? I heard a presentation at a conference last weekend in Buffalo in which a teacher, as smiling and confident as a pastor greeting parishioners at the church door, shared with a group his mastery of “teacher presence” in his online course. His mastery? Yes. He had discovered one could re-use canned messages of concern and care and use the LMS to time their appearance in the students’ course spaces. That way, students would feel his “teacher presence” and be reassured that he was in fact paying attention to them. This was a labor-saving device, he explained, that he’d invented as a result of a growing and unmanageable set of courses he was responsible for teaching.

I understand about reusing course resources. That’s obviously not what’s happening here. The LMS functionality labeled “copy course” had turned malignant in this case, or so it seemed to me. To use Wiener’s metaphor, I smelled incense burning at the altar of the machine.

Ann and Jill have movingly recounted their fathers’ experience with the “copy commodity” ethos of the industrial age. We often–perhaps most often–see computers before us as the latest and most dangerous of these “copy commodity” affordances. Yet the writers in our anthology had other ideas, and for me they demonstrate that these machine can be media, even meta-media, extensions of ourselves that become, like culture itself, a means of augmenting and sharing our common humanity. But the way to that land is steep and difficult. Can the education we offer our children strengthen them for that journey? Can we strengthen ourselves for it? A companion, a colleague, can make all the difference.

Something about Wiener’s expansive mind, shared in a spirit of collegiality and invitation, makes me want to know him. Observations like this one, from Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas make me think I do, at least a little:

It is not the exception but the rule for new tools to be undervalued or at least misvalued…. [We need] what we may call the inverse process of invention…. It is just as truly a work of invention or discovery to find out what we are able to accomplish by the use of these new tools as it is to search for the tools which will make possible a specific new device or method.

Wiener goes on to tell the story of the electric motor as an example of a misvalued new tool. Victorian factories had run off of large steam or oil engines located on the factory floor. The machines, then, were powered by a labyrinthine and very dangerous series of belts and pulleys running every which way across and around the factory. Grease and oil flew everywhere. Workers were maimed and killed by snapping belts, by pulleys they didn’t see in time. Did the electric motor solve these issues? Not at first. They were greaseless, yes, but the factories simply substituted large electric motors for the large oil or steam engines. The belts and pulleys remained, deadly as ever–until one day someone figured out that motors could be made small and embedded in the machines. Ah. Goodbye belts and pulleys.

Somehow Wiener conveyed both the sadness at the enduring blindness of the designers and the optimism born of the fact that things did eventually change. Things did improve. A new idea did emerge. Can these computers we hold help us to help new ideas emerge more quickly? Those ideas always get here too late for some folks. Can we shorten that latency period? It seems as if we should. It seems as if we must.

I got so torqued up on Wiener this summer that I read a biography, Dark Hero of the Information Age. This passage stopped me in my tracks:

Back at MIT, word of Wiener’s death flashed down the infinite corridor and over to the plywood palace of the RLE [Research Laboratory of Electronics]. Work came to a halt as people gathered to share the news and their memories, and the institute’s flags were lowered to half staff in honor of the fallen institute professor who had roamed its halls for forty-five years.

That night, a select gropu met at Joyce Chen’s for one last session of Wiener’s supper club. Someone tore a sheet of filler paper out of a binder and scratched out a few words. Twenty-one people–including Wiener’s first graduate student Y. W. Lee, the founder of MIT’s Servomechanism Laboratory Gordon Brown, physicist Jerrold Zacharias who had been the Rad Lab’s liaison to Bell Labs’ fire control team during the war, the first director of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory Albert Hill, the founder of the RLE’s Communications Biophysics Lab Walter Rosenblith, the information theorist Robert Fano, Jerome Wiesner who had recently returned to MIT from Washington, MIT’s President Julius Stratton, Warren McCulloch, and Joyce Chen–signed their names to the simple statement of fact they would send on to [Wiener’s wife] Margaret:

We loved him.

3 thoughts on “My Norbert Wiener story

  1. Gardner,

    As you can tell I’m a little behind on my blog reading and I just ran across this today as I was putting together info for Friday’s session. I’m honored to be a burr in your saddle.

    I think one of the reasons that Wiener and Lick are so exciting to me is that at a fundamental level they were people who figured out how to operationalize the ideas of people like Engelbart. Without Lick’s support and ARPA funding SRI and the Mother of All Demos would never have come to pass. Wiener did the same thing in legitimizing computer science and cybernetics in the academic world – leading the host of acolytes mentioned in your post.

    I love big ideas and I love what Engelbart was saying in Augmenting Human Intellect and I have you to thank for introducing him to me in a way I did not fully comprehend when the NMC gave him the Fellows Award in 2009. (Coincidentally, that was the same conference where you introduced me to the New Media Seminar idea.)

    I am always excited by big ideas but to me a real fascination comes from figuring out how to turn those ideas into reality. Lick and Wiener were much better at that part of the equation than Engelbart, in my opinion.

    For me, personally, sustaining the impact of great ideas is much harder to achieve because that often involves cultural shifts on a large scale – something that few have managed to do. Lick did it with government research funding, Wiener did it with academic legitimacy and this is also something that I think Steve Jobs did better than most when it came to proselytizing technology to the world as a whole. So, for every Engelbart, you need a Lick and Jobs, for every Turing you need a Wiener, for every Berners-Lee you need a Zuckerberg. Yin and yang.

    I’m not saying I have their talents but I think I approach things a little more from a Jobs or Licklider side of the equation than you do. Perhaps that is why I am so insistent that their story is told as well. Maybe it’s also the difference in approaches between a social scientist and a linguist. Either way, we both win.

    Thanks again,


  2. @Tom,

    My pleasure.

    Also, and you knew this might be coming :), I can’t agree with you about Engelbart. He had a huge set of huge ideas, *and* he ran a lab with great precision (linked to vision) for the five years it took to get from “Augmenting Human Intellect” to the Mother of All Demos. He didn’t do it alone. Bill English was his first officer, the one who ran the operational part. But remember that Engelbart hired English, and it was only by insisting on the big idea that Doug got to the Mother of All Demos.

    And Lick was famously disorganized, so much so that he was once passed over for a re-hire because his assistants had had to fish overlooked mail out of his inbox. Wiener was also so far up in his own head that there was a running joke–usually affectionate–about his absentmindedness.

    So partly I think you pose a false dichotomy, and partly I think the “operational” folks you cite weren’t as crisp on that front as one might imagine. Either way, I find myself insisting more and more these days that the Big Idea must come first, middle, and last in any effort worth doing. Doug, Lick, Norbert, Steve, Alan, Tim, etc. did that with both vision and operational chops, but the vision is what matters most.

    Zuckerberg? Well, I’m just not sure he belongs in that gallery, frankly. But that’s another story.

    Cordially yours, as ever,

  3. Gardner,

    First of all, I want to thank you for getting my brain gestating on this. I am a victim of sorts to the medium of comments and I was not able to explain my point as elegantly as I would otherwise have liked to do. Based on your reply, it is clear to me that I didn’t express myself as well as I would have liked and this is a subtle point, to say the least. Comments are, unfortunately, a bit of a blunt instrument.

    After I submitted my original comment, I immediately recognized that this topic deserved a full blog and started working on it. I did some modifications based on your comments but I did finally get it posted this morning.

    It is here:

    On a separate note, since I didn’t address this in the blog: I am not a big Mark Zuckerberg fan but it is undeniable that he understood something about human nature that none of his competitors understood and also eluded many of the visionaries such as Tim Berners-Lee (who is not a big fan of Facebook, to say the least). Technology-wise, I agree that Facebook is quite uninspired but 750 million people have voted with their feet and that is a force in and of itself. For better or worse, Facebook has introduced a lot of people to the internet that Berners-Lee invented. Whether that counts as visionary or not is certainly a subject for debate.

    Thanks for tickling my brain. Now it hurts (Monty Python reference). 🙂


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