• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Importance of Norbert Wiener

When Norbert Wiener died a few months ago, one of the most original and significant—yet idiosyncratic—of contemporary scientists disappeared from the intellectual scene. He was entitled to go happy. He had lived fully and stylishly, with a flair not often found in the academic cloister. (But then M.I.T., on which he was based for forty years of his life, is nowadays scarcely a cloister.) He had the legitimate gratification of leaving behind him, not just a world-wide circle of admiring colleagues and pupils, but also a corpus of personal anecdotes motivated by the affection of those who knew him. And finally, he had reason to believe that his major innovations, both in thought and in mathematics, were by now securely established in the foundations of whole new sciences: cybernetics, information-theory, biophysics, and the rest.

There was only one fly in the ointment. By the time Wiener was approaching seventy, some people were already having second thoughts about his contribution. Had it really warranted all the earlier fuss? Were not the first claims about the significance and implications of cybernetics decidedly overdone? Had this initial enthusiasm perhaps been a temporary fad—something born of the scientists’ understandable recoil away from the military preoccupations of World War II and back to their chosen enterprise of extending human understanding? Like Edward Elgar (say) or John Galsworthy, Norbert Wiener lived long enough to sample the pains as well as the pleasures of becoming an historical figure in his own lifetime. The caravan was already moving on.

Those of us who believe in the permanent value of Wiener’s ideas are accordingly compelled to think over his achievement once again, and must try to present it more judiciously in the form of a balance-sheet, rather than a manifesto or company-prospectus. The time for hopes and promises is past. Now we must ask ourselves seriously just how many of those earlier I.O.U.s are in fact likely to be redeemed.

But first, the man: as an Englishman, I myself had little enough chance of meeting him, and I saw him in action not more than half-a-dozen times. Yet this was enough to leave in memory the impression of a unique and extraordinary man. He was (to use the word in an entirely innocent sense) the most peculiar American in my experience, and even in England I can liken him only to the late Sir Thomas Beecham. The similarities between the two men were no accident. True: they had a certain physical resemblance. Both of them were short, myopic, tubby. But their shared rotundity was more than a genetic coincidence: in both men, it marked out the cosmopolitan, the bon vivant. With it, there went a rotundity of expression in public conversation—I nearly said, monologue—which was too puckish to be called pompous, and an assumed air of prejudice and self-importance so extreme that it became a joy to observe. For so many of the barbs in which both men indulged were penetrating and well-placed; and, after all, on these occasions their tongues were never far from their cheeks:

The education of the average American child of the upper middle class is such as to guard him solicitously against the awareness of death and doom. He is brought up in an atmosphere of Santa Claus; and when he learns that Santa Claus is a myth, he cries bitterly. Indeed, he never fully accepts the removal of this deity from his Pantheon, and spends much of his later life in the search for some emotional substitute.

Wiener or Beecham? It could be either; and it in fact comes from the essay on “Progress and Entropy” in Wiener’s book, The Human Use of Human Beings.

Behind this common sententiousness lay similarities in childhood and upbringing also. Even more than Beecham, Norbert Wiener was a prodigy, whose talents and inclinations were cultivated by his father. The elder Wiener was Professor of Slavic Languages at Harvard and spared his son the hampering liberties of “life-enhancement” education. As a result, the boy was ready to enter Tufts College at the age of eleven, and he graduated Ph.D. from Harvard at eighteen. After seven more years of study and teaching in Europe and the US, he found his life’s niche at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and there he took root, gradually building up a solid though unspectacular reputation with papers on a variety of mathematical subjects—notably, on Fourier integrais, about which he published a book in 1933.

The Second World War opened Wiener’s eyes to the wider potentialities of his subject. He was set the task of analyzing the mathematical problems involved in linking guns directly to radar target-seekers; and, on carrying through this analysis, he at once saw that he was on the track of an entirely general theory of control-linkages, whose relevance would extend far beyond the military demands of fire-control. (This urge to pursue the possibilities of abstraction and generalization to their very limit is one mark of the great mathematical originator.) The result was “cybernetics”—i.e., the general theory of control and communication—and it was in this field that Wiener was to spend the second, and more striking half of his professional career.

Cybernetics is a subject with many ramifications. Its concepts lie behind the design of all those self-monitoring factory assemblies that we refer to collectively by the term “automation”; it has important connections with the operation of electronic computers; it has made significant inroads into physiology, notably in explaining the failures of muscular control occurring in ataxia, and in permitting the construction of artificial limbs controlled by the actual nerves of the amputated stump; and it is widely hoped—indeed, expected—to throw much light on brain-functioning, and on the operations of sensory perception and discrimination. (Those who are prepared to undertake a little vigorous mental gymnastics will find an excellent brief survey of the whole field in the new book on Brains, Machines, and Mathematics by Michael A. Arbib.)

How is one to isolate the precise novelties at the heart of the theory of cybernetics, or indicate justly the true implications of Wiener’s achievement? Naturally, one turns first to the printed documents for enlightenment; but these by themselves do little to help us. To the uninitiated, Wiener’s classic papers are unusually opaque. From Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius on, plenty of scientific classics have carried their importance on their faces: both the questions from which they start and the conclusions at which they arrive have a general significance which, being manifest, does not need to be underlined or explained. Wiener’s work is in a somewhat different case. His standard treatise on Time Series (1949) and the monograph on Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory (1958) will reveal nothing except to a trained mathematician. Even his one major book on Cybernetics (1948, with a second amplified edition in 1961), though far less technical in its general treatment, touches only intermittently on subjects which are self-evidently “important.” With nothing but these to go on, the average reader might be tempted to put Wiener’s work aside with a hidden suspicion that his reputation was inflated.

But to do this would be to miss the point. Some intellectual revolutions announce their arrival with trumpets and cymbals; but others creep in incognito (so to speak), so that it takes men some time to awaken to what has been done under their very eyes. One can cite as an example Sadi Carnot—another favored son of a famous father—that early-nineteenth-century prodigy who had just time to create a new style in physical thought before dying of cholera at the age of thirty-six. When Carnot’s Réflexions sur la Puissance Motrice du Feu (1824) were first published, those who noticed the book at all apparently took it to be merely one more contribution to the technology of steam-locomotives: after all, was it not specifically about heat-engines? Indeed, it was only ten years later, after Carnot’s death, that his fellow-scientists began to realize the theoretical implications of his ideas. Yet now, looking back from the mid-twentieth century, we can recognize the book as one of the founding papers of thermodynamics, and as the earliest clear origin of the famous “second law.” Carnot’s thermodynamics, developed subsequently by men like Clausius and Boltzmann, has long since ceased to be the mere theory of steam-traction: it has become a completely general façon de penser, part of the language of physical science. In the case of cybernetics, too, we must take care not to be misled, either by the historical origins of the new science, or by its mathematical technicalities. For the deeper significance of Wiener’s ideas (as I shall argue) lies not so much in what he explained, as in how he framed his explanations.

If we turn from Wiener’s mathematical treatises to his more popular books, how far do they help us to understand his long-term contribution? Speaking for myself, I have always found them something of a disappointment. As a popular writer, Wiener was continually tripping over his own public persona. If you want to relish him as an individual, well and good: his essays and memoirs are all highly personal—rich, unpredictable, opinionated. But if it is understanding you want, they are rather less than perfect: on the cold page, the idiosyncrasies which were so engaging in the living man become irritants. At his best, he was capable of a luminous intelligence and insight, but he rarely managed to stay at his best for long. Quirks and cranks keep breaking in. Where he could be magisterial, he becomes imperious; close argument lapses into argumentativeness; cogent illustrations turn into hobby-horse. The trouble was that the habits of monologue got the better of him, so that he lost the power, or the inclination, to present his sober authoritative judgements separately from a whole lot of irrelevant obiter dicta. To use a phrase of Matthew Arnold’s, his essays conspicuously lack that “central tone without which no philosopher can engage at the same time our interest, our affection, and our full respect.”

Where, then, are we to turn? There is a hint to be got (I believe) by looking at Wiener’s only novel, The Tempter (1959). This is a work of his last years: a sideline, comparable with Bertrand Russell’s solitary excursion into fiction. True: there is little in Wiener’s novel about the philosophical implications of cybernetics or anything like that. Yet in quite another way it is a very revealing document, for it enables us to see behind the grandiloquence of Wiener’s public manner to a more endearing personality within. As a novelist, he shows himself to be a nice-natured, good-hearted, but slightly naive human being, whose outstanding capacity as a mathematician is harnessed to about as much or as little moral profundity as most academics would claim. The story he tells is an improving one. It concerns an electrical engineer who contrives, for reasons of commercial advantage connected with a patent claim, to divert intellectual credit (and cash) from a crotchety English recluse to a Johnny-come-lately Mexican-born professor at a pretentious New England college—and who is subsequently stricken with remorse. The book carries a touching dedication:

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print