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The Human Use of Human Beings

"First of all, as you read further,..." -Publius

"It was an initial idea that we had for The Divsion Bell.
To do with boats ... It is called 'The Boatman'." -Storm Thorgerson

Cybernetics and Society
Cybernetics and Society, 1954  
Norbert Wiener is often cited as the main founder of cybernetics. Cybernetics and Society (aka The Human Use of Human Beings) was written as an introduction to the science for a popular audience. Cybernetics is defined in the book as the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine. The word cybernetics comes from the Greek word for "steersman", as in the captain of the ship. (also: "governor, pilot, or rudder") Government derives from the same word. Cybernetics now means many different things to many people, but to Wiener it was a new way of thinking, and a tool for dealing with challenges faced by humanity. A truly universal science. The ideas in the book have had a huge impact on science, thought, and culture in the second half of the 20th century. (More on that later) You can access an online version of the entire book here.

"But while the universe as a whole, tends to run down, there are local enclaves of whose direction seems opposed to that of the universe at large... Life finds its home in these enclaves."

The tendency in the universe as a whole, and in any closed system, is to move from a state of order and organization to a state of chaos and disorder through time. (in physics this is expressed in the second law of thermodynamics, or the law of entropy) As chaos and disorder increase within a closed system, entropy is said to increase. Though the general tendency is toward greater disorder in the universe, pockets of temporarily increasing order exist. As order and organization temporarily increase, progress is said to take place.

FEEDBACK
Feedback is the answer.  
The key to progress is the process of feedback - in its most simple form, two-way communication. This is true for living organisms, organizations, the earth, (if viewed as a complex self-regulating system) as well as for some automatic machines. (such as the digital computer) The two-way flow of information is the key to progress in any form: growth, learning, evolution, governance, travel to a destination, etc. Note: this is absolutely true. Feedback is prevalent everywhere in our world, on so many levels, in so many ways. The functioning of a government, progress in an online community, music-making in a rock band, communities and civilizations, are all analogous from a simple cybernetic point of view, as each achieves order, organization, progress through feedback.

"When I control the actions of another person, I communicate a message to him,... if my control is to be effective I must take cognizance of any messages from him which may indicate that the order is understood and has been obeyed."

Feedback is an essential ingredient of control. In order to keep the ship on course, the steersman (captain) must be able to see the results of his steering and correct course as necessary. Furthermore, in order to get anywhere in particular, the steersman must have some goal (destination) to steer to. (purpose) This is a basic example of the process of feedback at work leading to progress.

"It is easy to make a simple machine which will run toward the light or run away from it, and if such machines also contain lights of their own, a number of them together will show complicated forms of social behavior..."

Wiener saw analogies between the human nervous system and computing machines. Some machines are also able to utilize feedback to achieve goals, like people. A tropism machine is a simple example of a machine that exhibits goal oriented behavior. The machine is programmed to either run toward the light or run away from it. A simple automaton.

"Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise."

The basic unit of communication is the Message. Messages are subject to the forces of chaos in the form of noise. Just as living individuals are subject to the advance of entropy and eventual death, messages in a communication system are subject to deterioration due to noise. The living individual, like a message, consists of a pattern. (DNA was later discovered) Signal is the physical form the message takes. Through the metaphor of the message we might see all manifestations of progress as message.

"where man's word goes, and where his power of perception goes, to that point his control and in a sense his physical existence is extended."

The boundaries of humans extend beyond the flesh. Boundaries are defined by the flow of information through feedback. This idea gave rise to the concept of the cyborg. (cybernetic organism) In a sense, we are all cyborgs. This thinking also predicted concepts of informational space, and virtual environments - cyberspace.

"Speech is the greatest interest and most distinctive achievement of man."

Language is the cornerstone of human progress. Language is the basis of human relationships, groups of people, communities, civilizations, our systems of knowledge, etc. Without language we would be more like our closest relatives, the apes. Human beings have an innate drive and need to communicate.

"We have thus established the basis in man for the simplest element in his communication: namely, the communication of man with man by the immediate use of language, when two men are face to face with one another. The inventions of the telephone, the telegraph, and other similar means of communication have shown that this capacity is not intrinsically restricted to the immediate presense of the individual, for we have many means to carry this tool of communication to the ends of the earth."

Communication technologies and man-machine communication have further enhanced human progress.

"It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever increasing part."

See here for more quotes from Norbert Wiener.

FEEDBACK
Feedback is the answer.  
The advancement of communication technologies and infrastructure, including "high-speed computing machines", will continue to serve human progress if utilized effectively. These very technologies can also be used as instruments of control. It is crucial that technologies benefit the many and not the few, at the expense of the many. People must be aware of their purposes and goals and not blindly accept those imposed on them. Open, free, and organized communication is the key to optimizing the growth and lifespan of humanity. This vision inspired work that eventually led to the development of the Internet.

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