This was a wonderful read. It was extremely insightful when it comes to the early development of modern cybernetic theory and how it paralleled the construction of the first modern computing machines.
The word cybernetics is derived from the Greek word for steersman, which is derived from the corrupt Latin for governor. This stands in stark contrast to the way it is thought of by many people today. The cyber- aspect of it leads many to believe it has some connection with computers, as in cyberspace, and technology in general. While it is, in our modern time, quite prevalent to see cybernetic concepts applied in the technological realm, it is of the utmost importance to realize that it is a GENERAL systems theory and can, was, and is applied as correctly to biological, ecological, economic, and any other kind of system.
One of the core concepts in general systems theory, or cybernetics, is feedback, both positive and negative. While positive feedback is rare, leading to runaway systems, negative feedback is used by our thermostats, cruise control, and even our very own nervous systems.
I find it interesting that phrases like "you're pushing my buttons" are probably derived from the kind of thinking put forth in this book. While this phrase usually means someone is making you angry, it could easily be interpreted that, by pushing the right buttons on the human organ you can make it play whatever tune you desire. The pied piper comes to mind.
Alice in Wonderland is presented no less than three times throughout the book. This is mentioned only because Carroll was a friend of Salisbury who worked with Milner and Rhodes to establish what Quiglley called 'The Round Table'. This might seem unrelated to cybernetics, but The Round Table and Milner Groups are the epitome of using the press as an input to control the social systems of their day. These ideas are still used presently. Additionally Weiner is a self proclaimed "student of Russell and owe much to his influence." There is only so much coincidence one can accept give the nature of all of these individuals.
We see that the development of control engineering and communication were inseparable and how this revelation should give us pause when we consider modern communication techniques, like the internet, cell-phones, text messages, etc might be, in fact I would say most certainly are, control mechanisms to reign in the masses. Couple this with ideas that statistical predictions about the short term can be applied to culture, and we can see that the data we so willingly part with, in the name of being social, is being used to construct these statistical models to predict everything about our society - from the clothing we wear, the food we eat, the leaders we elect, and anything else of little or great importance.
A few chapters were heavy on math. Chapter 3 was particularly difficult for me to follow.
In the early to mid 1940s a series of meetings and conferences were held, initially informally at Princeton and later under the auspices of the Josiah Macy Foundation. These conferences came to be known as the Macy Conferences. The main thrust of these meetings, put forth by Bigelow, Rosenblueth,and Wiener, was to write a joint paper on the problems of central inhibition in the nervous system. Others that were present when this idea was formulated include Rosenblueth and McCulloch.
Dr. McCulloch and Dr. Lorente de No of the Rockefeller Institute represented the physiologists. in a joint meeting 1943-44 at Princeton.
The later meetings were organized by Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith, included at around twenty people, and consisted of two all-day series of informal presentations, discussions, and meals.
McCulloch and Fremont-Smith quickly understood the psychological and sociological implications of the subject and have since called forth a number of leading psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists to contribute towards understanding the importance of information and communication mechanisms of organization that goes beyond the individual and into the community.
One of the first problems the group was to tackle was that of Gestalt, or of the perceptual formation of universals. For example, how are humans able to identify a square, no matter its size, color, or orientation, without difficulty. Kluver, Ericsson, and Lewin were among the psychologists enlisted to solve this problem.
Morgenstern was the main advisor of social economic theory, while Bateson and Mead were brought into the group to explore how the communication system of the individual, for example the nervous system, could be extrapolated to understand the communication in other social systems, such as games or economics. At the time, Weiner did not believe that there was enough long term statistical analysis of society to make much progress. This can no longer be said to be the case.
Dr. F. C. S. Northrup was interested in assaying the philosophical significance of the work.
Cybernetics theory has built on the view that engineering and biology can be seen in the same light. Organic machines if you will. There are some diseases that affect the brain's feedback mechanism that end up producing wild oscillations that can appear as seizures of sorts. Consider how much feedback you get when trying to do something as simple as picking up a pencil. Beyond the visual feedback, you will be able to sense where you arm is in relation to the target pencil. As you get closer you automatically slow down your arm and use the more intricate mechanism of you fingers. When you finally make contact with the pencil you unconsciously receive feedback telling you how hard or soft to grip.
This view of the biological system gives rise to the comparison of the brain being like a computer to that runs continuously, without ever reseting. This is even more acceptable a comparison in an age when simple learning machines were finally produced (checkers playing computers that could defeat their programmer within about 20 hours of 'learning'). Both computers and animals can now learn from their environments and adjust their actions accordingly within their individual lifespans.
The human and animal nervous system is subsequently seen as a computation and control system, with neurons being mimicked in the computer's mechanical relays. In both cases it is a binary signal.
These perspectives, for better or worse, have opened up a whole new world of tinkering with the nervous system and brain. "The various forms of shock treatment-electric, insulin, metrazol-are less drastic methods of doing a very similar thing [pre frontal lobotomy]. They do not destroy brain tissue or at least are not intended to destroy it,but they do have a decidedly damaging effect on the memory."
A less invasive, but still jarring conclusion can be seen in the fact that flickering lights and alternating currents can induce rhythms in the body. "If a light is flickered into the eye at intervals with a period near 1/10 second, the alpha rhythm of the brain is modified until it has a strong component of the same period as the flicker." Additionally, "some direct evidence that a purely electrical flicker may produce an effect similar to that of the visual flicker. This experiment has been carried out in Germany. A room was made with a conducting floor and an insulated conducting metal plate suspended from the ceiling. Subjects were placed in this room,and the floor and the ceiling were connected to a generator producing an alternating electrical potential which may have been at a frequency near 10 cycles per second. The experienced effect on the subjects was very disturbing, in much the same manner as the effect of a similar flicker is disturbing."
Social, Psychology, Sociology
A comparison between the individual and the community which they are apart of has been put forth. While the individual is essentially permanent with respect to their nervous system and sense organs, the community has a far more mutable topography. Where the nervous system acts to coordinate and communicate inside the body, the relationships between individuals coordinate and communicate within the community. In terms of the commonly used example: "All the nervous tissue of the beehive is the nervous tissue of some single bee. How then does the beehive act in unison, and at that in a very variable, adapted, organized unison? Obviously, the secret is in the intercommunication of its members." These would-be gods do love their beehives as a symbol for a regulated society.
By observing each others reactions to what the are interested in. "[the] social animals may have an active, intelligent,flexible means of communication long before the development of language."
The common man, herein called the fool, has been studied thoroughly enough to, as of the 1940s, be understood as acting in a completely predictable manner - like a rat in a maze. The manipulators use, not lies but, non-truths to guide the fool this way or that. The tools of the manipulator include religion, pornography, pseudo-science, wheedling, bribery, intimidation, radio fan ratings, straw votes, opinion samplings, statistics, and more. While these techniques had not yet been mastered, by fast forwarding to the present day we can see that they have progressed stunningly, if not to the level of mastery.
When these concepts are applied to larger swaths, communities, by the "Lords of Things as They Are" (oligarchy), entire societies can be brought to bear. Through wealth the oligarchy obtains a monopoly on the means of communication. These means of communication, the press, both as it concerns books and as it concerns news-papers, the radio, the telephone system, the telegraph, the posts, the theater, the movies, the schools, the church, and all of the more modern outcropping of these, can be seen collectively as the sole channel by which information is transmitted. The control of this channel is how the oligarchy maintains and extends its influence.
Once the proverbial ball gets rolling, momentum exerted by economic forces keeps it in motion. The book that does not sell will not get printed. The radio depends on advertisers and, "as everywhere, the man who pays the piper calls the tune."
This confluence of forces, the favoring of profitable communiques, the control in the hands of the wealthy class, and lastly that this power in and of itself attracts those ambitious, unscrupulous, individuals who would wield it. Thus, the public channels of communication end up being one of the most manipulative forces in the community, whereas they should, theoretically, be a source of illumination for those within the community.
These studies are governed only by the period they are studied in. Magic of yesteryear has given way to empirical science of today. Where once the Golem was described, now the general system is expounded.
Man studies himself and might conclude that the complex of abilities the brain is capable of might be nullified in part by considering it highly specialized nature. Compare the extremely developed brain to the great nose horns of the titanotheres, whose effectiveness waned to the point of encumbrance and eventual extinction. Could the human brain be following this same boundless path of self destruction?
The weakness of the human, intrinsic or psychological in nature, can be overcome, Weiner believes. "It is thus advantageous, as far as possible, to remove the human element from any elaborate chain of computation and to introduce it only where it is absolutely unavoidable, at the very beginning and the very end." Essentially offloading the performance to the machine and saving ourselves from overspecializing or irrational conclusions. Still, it seems that the overspecialization would continue, in the creation and understanding of the very machines we hope to create.
Many scientists hope that this field of study might lead to societal contributions that will outweigh the glaring abuses it will [has] wrought when placed in the hands of those that strive for control. Weiner concludes by stating, "I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope."
These scientists, driven by either curiosity or benefactor, laid the foundations of what can, in no uncertain terms, be called mind control.
Is Dr. John S. Barlow of the Massachusetts General Hospital any connection to John Perry Barlow?
Is Dr. F. C. S. Northrup, who was interested in assaying the philosophical significance of our work connected to the firm Northrup Grummen? (sp)
Books of interest
Gabor, D., "Electronic Inventions and Their Impact on Civilization," Inaugural Lecture, March 3, 1959, Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, England.
Sarnuel, A. L., "Some Studies in Machine Learning, Using the Game of Checkers,"I BM Journal of Research and Development, 3, 210-229 (1959).
Stanley-Jones, D., and K. Stanley-Jones, Kybernetics of Natural Systems, A Study in Patterns of Control, Pergamon Press, London. 1960.
Cold Spring Harbor Symposium, on Quantitative Biology, Volume XXV (Biological Clocks), The Biological Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, L.I., N.Y., 1960.