More About Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics . . .
The Story Behind the Story of
“Dark Hero of the Information Age”
For three decades, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have been tracking the human impact of the scientific revolution Norbert Wiener ignited at the midpoint of the twentieth century, and Wiener’s breakthrough science and ardent activism for “the human use of human beings” have informed every aspect of their collaborated work.
Norbert Wiener, lecturing at MIT in the 1950s.
(Photo: Courtesy of MIT Museum)
Using the new conceptual tools Wiener brought forth in his new science of cybernetics, which he defined as the science of “communication and control in the animal and the machine,” Conway and Siegelman’s award-winning research and writings have illuminated the power of information and human communication, and all the new technologies associated with those ubiquitous modern processes, to change the mind, the body, and the life of societies worldwide—both for better and for worse.
The co-authors are two of America’s foremost experts on the mind-altering communication practices of destructive cults, fundamentalist sects, and extremist political movements. Now, after spending years in the trenches of controversy, they have gone back to the scientific foundations of their work and our time: back to the seminal events that gave birth to the information age and the story of its remarkable founding father.
Their new book, DARK HERO OF THE INFORMATION AGE: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, tells the story of Norbert Wiener’s brilliant science and the dazzling technology it unleashed. In their eight-year undertaking, the authors uncovered the hidden dimensions of Wiener’s personal saga and the human dimensions of his science, which have been largely overlooked amid the frenzy of technological development. And they traced the origins of Wiener’s fierce fight for “the human use of human beings” that blazed the way for later generations.
As a graduate student at the University of Oregon in the 1960s and 1970s, Conway pioneered one of the first interdisciplinary programs in communication. In her graduate work, she applied the new technical concepts and humanistic principles set down by Wiener and his contemporaries to model human relationships in the new terms of information and communication. Then she left the ivory tower to pursue her work in the laboratory of everyday life.
Siegelman is an alumnus of two of Wiener’s alma maters: Harvard, where he graduated with honors in philosophy in 1973; and Trinity College, Cambridge, where as a distinguished Fiske Scholar he delved into the ideas that transformed twentieth-century philosophy and science during the years when Wiener was the upstart pupil of Trinity’s Bertrand Russell. He followed Wiener’s trail through those two meccas of modern philosophy. Then, as Wiener had sixty years earlier, he too fled the field of armchair philosophy in favor of more meaningful real-world investigations.
From their inquiries into the mass suicide at Jonestown in the 1970s, to the firestorm at Waco in the 1990s, and the explosion of radical Islamic terrorism in the twenty-first century, the two communication researchers have taken Wiener’s science and social concerns forward. And their research has taken them into wider arenas of technological and social change: from booming high-tech enclaves in Silicon Valley, to besieged Midwest factory towns, to communities nationwide in the throes of runaway growth and large-scale corporate downsizing and offshore outsourcing.
In the thousands of interviews they have conducted and the many miles they have traveled, they have seen up close the human consequences of the information age revolution. They have seen the fulfillment of Wiener’s sober warnings in precisely the ways he foresaw and in others he never imagined. They believe that the ongoing epidemic of “snapping” and the turn by populations worldwide to simplistic faiths and reactionary movements is one ominous indicator that people are struggling—and, in many places, failing—to make sense of the complexities of life and the information coming at them every moment. This is one reason why they set out to tell Wiener’s story: to introduce people to cybernetics and other tools of modern thought that Wiener and his peers developed to help scientists and nonscientists alike cope with the challenges of life in the new technological age.
With a sense of urgency, they tracked down the central figures in Wiener’s life, including his two daughters and the surviving members of his inner circle, from whom they learned the truth about Wiener’s legendary eccentricities, his troubled inner states, and his turbulent professional relations. They learned of the deep personal bonds that were formed, and then tragically broken, among Wiener, his family members, and his closest colleagues in a great professional rift that affected all their lives and the course of the information age itself.
Conway and Siegelman sought out experts on Wiener’s work in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, and across Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Their findings placed Wiener at the center of every major development of the infant information age: the birth of modern telecommunications, the first electronic computers, and the first intelligent automated machines. They were struck by Wiener’s uncanny visions of the future that are only now coming to pass on a global scale: his prophetic predictions that computers and automation would unleash waves of unemployment in manufacturing and service industries; that financial crises would be caused by the unprecedented speed of information technology and the intangible nature of information itself; and his dark warning that the new technology is “a two-edged sword and sooner or later will cut you deep.”
They unearthed classified documents that revealed the U.S. government’s extreme, and often bungling, reactions to Wiener’s social activism and his science. They found irony in reports of the FBI’s secret investigations into Wiener’s alleged “subversive activities”—and in the fact that his FBI file was still circulating through the government when Wiener received the National Medal of Science from President Lyndon Johnson at the White House in 1964. They also obtained classified records detailing the CIA’s decade-long campaign to counter the embrace of cybernetics by scientists and government officials in the Soviet Union, which came to a head at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Conway and Siegelman were even more surprised—as many of their readers will be—to learn of Wiener’s own secret spiritual excursions. Their book reveals that Wiener, a descendant of renowned Eastern European rabbis and religious scholars—and purportedly of the greatest Hebrew sage of all time, Moses Maimonides—in his later years became a professed believer in reincarnation and the “bearded student” of a Hindu swami. Wiener’s lifelong interest in the cultures of the East also drew him to India in the 1950s where, at the request of the Indian government, he helped chart the course of that nation’s emergence as a technological power, which has put its scientists and technicians in the front ranks of today’s global economy.
In their work on Dark Hero, both authors were touched deeply by Wiener’s humanity, by his self-professed “universal humanism,” and his personal outreach to people in advanced and developing nations. What they found in their search for Norbert Wiener, Conway and Siegelman believe, is a true and urgently needed hero for the information age. Their hope is that their new work will give readers worldwide an intimate look at the revolutionary science, history, and personalities that have shaped every aspect of our daily lives in the twenty-first century, and leave them with Wiener’s wisdom, warnings, and ethical guidelines for human survival in a global information society.