The Cyber-Cave

Reflections on the political, technological, cultural and economic trends of the world

Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener (1894-1946)


This book is about the communication between an organism and the environment; between a machine and its inputs.

-Wiener claims that Gibbs and Bolzmann are the two scientists most responsible for the downfall of Newtonian physics. Wiener describes the Newtonian conception of physics as a “tightly organized universe in which the whole future depends strictly upon the whole past”. However the introduction of statistics into physics showed that, by analysing the distribution of the particles of a given system, it is not certain that system with the same energy can be described by the same ‘fixed causal laws’.
Gibbs showed that we may be able to analyse the distribution of the particles, but not their initial conditions. Gibbs’ merit is to have taken this uncertainty and contingency into consideration.
-Wiener credits Gibbs with having done the first physics revolution since Newton, because Gibbs’ statistical mechanics changed the expectations that physicists had. Previously, according to Wiener, physics was about finding what will always happen according to a set of laws, but with Gibbs’ insights physics became a process of quantifying “what will happen with an overwhelming probability”. Wiener describes the shift from determinism to probability as if there is some form of underlying ‘irrationality’ in the world.

Gibbs’ innovation was to consider not one  world, but all the worlds which are possible answers to  a limited set of questions concerning our environment. His central notion concerned the extent to which answers that we may give to questions about one set of worlds are probable among a larger set of worlds. Beyond this, Gibbs had a theory that this probability tended naturally to increase as the universe grows older. The measure of this probability is called entropy,  and the characteristic tendency of entropy is to increase.”

As entropy increases, the universe is destined to change, to move towards greater chaos.
Wiener also talks about entropy in the context of information theory. (in information theory, a piece of information has more entropy the lower the probability you would expect of delivering valuable information)

For Wiener, cybernetics is a theory of communication between men and machines- more specifically on how machines respond to men’s instructions (command and control). Technically, this relationship between input and output is called feedback mechanism. Weiner claims our nervous system behaves like a feedback mechanism.
Wiener considers Leibniz as a predecessor to his theories due to his interest in computation and automation. Wiener claims that Leibniz’s ‘Calculus Ratiocinator’ is the “direct ancestor of modern mathematical logic”.

Wiener’s definition of ‘feedback’: “the property of being able to adjust future conduct by past performance” (since this definition is related to machines, Wiener may have anticipated the concept of machine learning). As an example of ‘mechanized learning’., Wiener imagines an angun that might be able to improve its precision by reviewing past data. Wiener claims that in feedback systems learning occurs when past performance not only changes future conduct, but can also change the method and pattern of future behaviour.

Wiener claims that “the nervous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they are devices which make decisions on the basis of decisions they have made in the past”. Some would disagree (for instance Roger Penrose) with Wiener’s statement by suggesting that a machine is algorithmic, whereas the brain is complex, non-linear and non-algorithmic; therefore the machine and the nervous system cannot be compared like that.

Wiener discusses the apparent contradiction between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. Organisms, in fact, may be anti-entropic by changing their behaviour on the basis of past patterns. Wiener’s evolutionist insight leads him into a critique of Leibniz’ philosophy: “the organism is not like the clockwork monad of Leibnitz with its pre-established harmony with the universe, but actually seeks a new equilibrium with the universe and its future contingencies. Its present is unlike its past and its future unlike its present. In the living organism as in the universe itself, exact repetition is absolutely impossible.”
Wiener describes life in our planet as a “lucky accident”.
On the fight between entropy and anti-entropic organism, Wiener has a brilliant take: “[life is] a local enclave in the general stream of increasing entropy, of increasing chaos and de-differentiation. Life is an is- land here and now in a dying world.”; organisms like human beings resist entropy with homeostasis, until they begin to decay more quickly than to reconstitute themselves. Wiener considers homeostasis as an example of negative feedback (since the body tries to balance the temperature at approximately 37 degrees celsius) in a automated machine.

Wiener has quite a forward-looking vision of climate change and of the idea of progress:

“The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history…This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be  an increased slavery to nature. For the more we get  out of the world the less we leave, and in the long run  we shall have to pay our debts at a time that may be  very inconvenient for our own survival. We are the slaves of our technical improvement and we can no more return a New Hampshire farm to the self-contained 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 environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions. It seems almost as if progress itself and our fight against the increase of entropy intrinsically must end in the downhill path from which we are trying to escape”

Wiener talks about the importance of communication and semantics in cybernetics (because ideally machines should be able to understand our instructions).
As an example of stimulus, response and feedback Wiener talks about Pavlov’s classical conditioning.
As examples of feedback mechanisms, Wiener talks about the achievements of electrical engineering and vacuum tubes.
Wiener says that after witnessing Bush’s computer for solving differential equations, he believed that soon there will be automated factories (which will imply job losses).

Wiener’s take on whether science is a good approximation for understanding the world:
“I have said that science is impossible without faith [not in religious sense]…without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science. No amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law”


-“The Human Use of Human Beings” by Norber Weiner (FREE ASSOCIATION BOOKS / LONDON / 1989)

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