The socialism of Norbert Wiener
By Greg Adamson, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
These profoundly radical words from Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) echo Malcolm X’s call to address structural racism in society “by any means necessary”. Yet Wiener is hardly known as a revolutionary. In fact, by the beginning of the 21st century his name was hardly known at all. Given that he is arguably the foremost 20th century thinker and commentator on the relationship between technology and society, this is unfortunate.
Norbert Wiener was a child prodigy, a postdoctoral student of Bertrand Russell, and a prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) academic. Following World War II, Wiener founded the field he called cybernetics, publishing a book by that name in 1948 that made him a global celebrity. Cybernetics has since entered the English language through words such as cyborg (cybernetic organism), cyberspace, cybersecurity, cyber-physical, and many variations. Significant thinkers who reflect his influence include Jawaharlal Nehru, Margaret Mead, Kurt Vonnegut, Marshall McLuhan, Amar Bose, Philip K Dick, and Donna Haraway. Technology fields he significantly influenced include artificial intelligence, control systems theory, chaos theory, measurement theory, and filter theory (used for many purposes, including the measurement of gravitational waves). Terms he popularized include system, black box, and feedback.
Wiener was also a highly aware social critic. He was a founder of the field of computer ethics (which is increasingly important politically), a thoughtful anti-racist, an anti-imperialist in foreign policy, and a commentator on environmental destruction, which he linked to capitalism. He spent much of the 1950s raising awareness about the effect of automation on jobs, including personally approaching trade unions and discussing the implications of technological change on entire fields of work. His disappearance from popular discourse shortly after his death in 1964 can in large part be traced to his call for scientists to reject military funding, part of his larger attack on what he termed “megabuck science”.
Much of Wiener’s writing on technology and society concerns the field of ethics. This is highly relevant in the current era of trillion-dollar social media monopolies. Wiener’s writings on manipulation are far more sweeping than those of most modern commentators, reflecting his “systems” approach to society, as well as to technology:
This policy of lies—or rather, of statements irrelevant to the truth—will make him buy a particular brand of cigarettes; that policy will, or so the party hopes, induce him to vote for a particular candidate—any candidate—or to join in a political witch hunt. A certain precise mixture of religion, pornography, and pseudo-science will sell an illustrated newspaper. A certain blend of wheedling, bribery, and intimidation will induce a young scientist to work on guided missiles or the atomic bomb (1948, p.186).
Along with other leading intellectuals, Wiener was appalled by the United States’ use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in 1945. He was unusual among technologists, however, in generalizing this concern as a theory stating that technologists have an individual ethical responsibility for the uses made of their work. In a letter published as “A scientist rebels” in the January 1947 Atlantic Monthly he writes:
The policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the established custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may inquire of him. The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends with the responsibility for having put unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use. It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that the weapon will be used… If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples—and I most certainly do not—I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas (1947).
Wiener also made an observation that continues to haunt military organisations today: “… in the long run, there is no distinction between arming ourselves and arming our enemies” (1954). Even if the enemy is unable to spy, steal, coerce, observe or in some other way discover the design of the weapon, its very existence proves the weapon’s feasibility. The cost of weapons development is largely spent establishing such feasibility. Applying that knowledge to then build the weapon requires far less effort.
Wiener was also fiercely critical of the international division of labor that relegated old technologies and inferior jobs to the Third World. Working with Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis at the Indian Statistical Institute, he actively sought to assist India in developing modern industrial techniques, and his influence can be seen in the success of the Indian IT industry:
The automatic factory makes its demands on human efforts not at the bottom but at the very high level of the scientist-engineer and at the relatively high level of the small group of highly skilled trouble shooters and maintenance workers. It is quite in the cards that India can supply both of these within a matter of decades ... (1956, p.354-56)
Wiener and politics
What were Wiener’s political views? While declaring his atheism at the age of five (1953, p.42), he took care to avoid political labels. His own term, cybernetics, created and defined by himself, provided no hint. Wiener refused to engage in red-baiting and attacking Communists, and threatened to resign from MIT if they sacked a colleague for Communist affiliations. At the height of the Cold War he wrote:
That after the defeat of Nazism the Communists have become the chief fear of the West and that they have behaved with much of the tyranny of the aggressors that they have replaced does not change in the least the fact that some of the things they stood for in the period between the wars belong to the attitudes of every decent man (1956, p.219).
Under Stalin in the post-war period, Soviet science was entangled with the pseudoscience of Lysenko. This drove a wedge between the Soviet Union and Western scientists. Until the mid-1950s cybernetics was attacked as a “bourgeois perversion … to transform workers into an extension of the machine” (Conway & Siegelman, 2005, p.315). Wiener summed up his view as follows: “The thesis which I wish to maintain is neither pro- nor anticommunist but antirigidity” (1964, p.84). Cybernetics later achieved significant attention in the Soviet Union, while struggling with bureaucratic governmental structures (Gerovitch 2002). Beyond the Soviet Union, one of the most successful early cybernetic applications was in Chile under President Salvador Allende, led by English business theorist Stafford Beer (Medina 2011). Halted by the coup in 1973, the communication network provided early internet-style connectivity in coordinating national production in the face of anti-government industry sabotage.
Given that Wiener himself refrained from using standard political labels, it is necessary to look at Wiener’s approach to political and societal events to classify his views. His views were thoroughly documented. A child prodigy, Wiener suffered bouts of depression throughout his life. In the 1950s he was advised to explore autobiographical writing, prompting two books, Ex-prodigy and I am a mathematician. Combining his blunt style of popular writing and his extensive thinking on social issues, Wiener expresses his views in unambiguous terms.
On discrimination, he wrote: “With my wide acquaintance among scholars of many races and many countries, I had not been able to discern that scientific ability and moral discipline were the peculiar property of those of blanched skin and English speech” (1956, p.301). He argued this view as part of his wider perspective: “I do not pretend to assign a normative value either to language or religion or race or nationalism, and least of all to mores” (1953, p.9).
Beyond asserting the value of all people and cultures, Wiener attacked racism in his own country. Speaking about the goals of communication in a social sense he wrote: “I will not say that this ideal of communication is attained in the United States. Until white supremacy ceases to belong to the creed of a large part of the country it will be an ideal from which we fall short” (1954, p.50).
In much of his work, Wiener expressed anti-racist views based on his personal interactions with others:
I had read enough of Kipling to know the English imperialist attitude, and I already had enough Hindu friends to realize how bitterly this attitude was resented. My Chinese friends spoke with me very frankly concerning the aggressions of the Western nations in China, and I had only to use my eyes and ears to know something of the situation of the Negro in this country, particularly if he aspires to be something more than a farm hand or an unskilled worker (1953, p.154-55).
In the first volume of his autobiography, Wiener described the evolution of his views on prejudice, after discovering at 15 that he was Jewish. This example shows both his naivety, and the consistency of his thought once he determined a path of investigation. The conclusion he reached was one based on humanist principle rather than self-interest:
The net result was that I could only feel at peace with myself if I hated anti-Jewish prejudice as prejudice without having the first emphasis on the fact that it was directed against the group to which I belonged. I felt anything less than this as a demand for special privilege by myself and by those about me. But in resisting prejudice against the Oriental, prejudice against the Catholic, prejudice against the immigrant, prejudice against the Negro, I felt that I had a sound basis on which to resist prejudice against the Jew as well. For a long time I had been interested in my fellow students from the Orient and from other foreign countries, and I now saw their problems as parallel to my own and, in many cases, far deeper and more difficult (1953, p.155).
He did not equate opposition to prejudice against Jews with support for Zionism. He summarized his disagreement with the founding of the state of Israel by citing his father: “My father foresaw the difficulties which have arisen since then from the superimposition of a Jewish colony upon a Moslem background” (1953, p.56).
By the conclusion of World War II, Wiener’s views had moved from personal experience and general concern to an outspoken position that remains profound nearly seven decades later:
Now we hear news statements to the effect that when the United States used the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, it took a calculated risk. Who, may I ask, were the actuaries who determined this risk? To employ the atomic bomb involved an estimate not merely of its killing power, but of its emotional impact on the Japanese and, even more, of its emotional impact on all those members of non-European races who were quite sure that the United States would employ it differently against Asiatics and blacks (1993, pp.113-14).
Here he shows us the method he applied to technology and social questions, and which provided the basis of his radical views: “If a theorem merely looks grotesque or unusual and if your maximum effort cannot discover any contradiction, do not cast it aside. If the only thing that seems to be wrong about a proof is its unconventionality, then dare to accept it, unconventionality and all” (1956, p. 359).
Wiener and the progressive movement
Wiener’s concerns, particularly regarding the future of work under capitalism, were widely, if briefly, cited in contemporary progressive publications. For example, references to Wiener during his lifetime on the Marxists.org web site (http://marxists.org) website are universally positive. Wiener on several occasions engaged with the union movement in the United States over the impending impact of automation. He approached a leader of the typographers’ union with a warning that the profession would be automated in a generation (which it was) but was basically ignored. He later commented, “The union official comes too directly from the workbench, and is too immediately concerned with the difficult and highly technical problems of shop stewardship, to be able to entertain any very forward-looking considerations of the future of his own craft” (1956, p.308).
His writing and the novel way he approached the topic of technology and society made him an authority “for the left”, but not considered “of the left”. Helen Yaffe cites Ernesto Che Guevara writing in 1962 regarding Soviet economic planning: “For a long time cybernetics was considered a reactionary science or pseudo-science... [but] it is a branch of science that exists and should be used”. Art Preis in the US Militant similarly cited Wiener in pointing out the failure of capitalism to provide society the benefits of technology. Ken Coates favorably described Wiener’s concern for the waste of human capacity in modern industry. Marxist economist Ernest Mandel favorably cited Wiener in his economic writings, although he incorrectly ascribes to Wiener the theory that “machines will eventually make decisions independently of any judgment by men” (1971, p. 204). Reading Wiener’s work cited by Mandel (The human use of human beings) we find a sentiment identical to Mandel’s:
The [threat of automatic machinery] is not frightening because of any danger that it may achieve autonomous control over humanity. It is far too crude and imperfect to exhibit a one-thousandth part of the purposive independent behaviour of the human being. Its real danger, however, is the quite different one that such machines, though helpless by themselves, may be used by a human being or a block of human beings to increase their control over the rest of the human race ... (1954, p.180-81).
Wiener has been criticized as anti-human for asserting that “as objects of scientific inquiry, humans do not differ from machines” (Rosenblueth & Wiener, 1950). For Wiener, however, the universe, biological life, animals, humans, the mind, society, and machines all exist within a single reality. As a dialectician and a materialist, he asserted that there could be no rigid separation between any of these categories. This is not an anti-human approach but a deeply humanistic one.
Regarding machinery he wrote: “I have spoken of machines, but not only of machines having brains of brass and thews of iron. When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine” (1954, p.185).
Wiener stated that automated technology by its mere existence impacts humans: “Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor” (1954, p.162). This depressing forecast can also be read as a call to action, a declaration that a future with production dominated by smart machines is a dangerous prospect.
Wiener’s progressive influence on technologists
The relationship between technology and society is important to any analysis of the world today. Since the 1960s we have seen thinkers within the anti-nuclear and broader environmental movements provide deep and insightful analysis of technology. As technology continues to evolve, particularly in the field known as artificial intelligence (AI), we need a clear understanding of how such technology is changing the world. This impacts social justice: how do we avoid the adoption of technology in a legal system that automates the racism, sexism, and class bias of past judicial decisions? It relates to the long-standing question of control of media: How do we respond to the power of the first trillion-dollar companies, those in social media? Much of it concerns the power of the state: AI has the potential to allow a small elite to coerce the behaviours of the whole of society, eliminating a human police force or army. The progressive community cannot effectively recognize or address these issues if it is isolated from the community of technology workers.
As AI technologies continue to displace hundreds of millions of jobs, the existence of human workers becomes optional. Within AI discussions the phrase “human in the loop” generally relates to human approval of an action (or the lack of approval), such as in the case of killing by autonomous weapons. However, it has a broader social relevance: should we choose a future in which humans remain engaged in the world, or not? This is more than a preference to see a person rather than a screen at a supermarket check-out counter. It has become an existential question, well described by Wiener: ‘‘The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves’’ (1964, p. 69). If it is immediately profitable to remove humans from a process and leave problems for later, then we can expect such removal to be the default response of profit-motivated organisations. The interests of the labor movement in maintaining its existence align with the interests of humanity in maintaining responsibility for its future. For example, can humanity survive being “managed” by AI technology, as workers in Amazon warehouses are today? As one worker described, “It’s like leaving your house and just running and not stopping for anything for 10 straight hours, just running” (Dzieza, 2020),
The past decade has seen a rise in Wiener’s influence among technology professionals. The issues which Wiener raised, including the future of work in a world of automation, ethical challenges in the design and use of artificial intelligence technologies, technology in relation to racism and to unequal opportunities for national development, and the capitalist destruction of the environment, all require a deep understanding of how technology interacts with society. Beyond specific technologies, there are wider concerns of living with technology, or, to draw from Wiener’s term, living in cyberspace. While not physical, this space exists (in a materialist sense) and is an important field of human endeavor.
Many of Wiener’s ideas were far ahead of their time. His most cited paper, “The Homogenous Chaos”, was published in 1938, but its concepts could not be implemented until the late 1990s, when polynomial chaos expansion (PCE) began to replace Monte Carlo sampling (Kim et al, 2013). His discussions of artificial intelligence and enslavement are just beginning to gain traction in discussions on the future of work. Some of his philosophical work, including his materialist approach to teleology, remains virtually unexamined. Similarly, there is little attention given to Wiener’s criticism of megabuck science, his criticism of the effects of military funding on technology choices, and his suggestion that technologists have a responsibility for the uses of their work, not just in weaponry but in job-destroying technologies and elsewhere. As well as drawing on his insights, the progressive movement should be actively encouraging the exploration of his discoveries and theories at all levels of education. Among researchers we should also encourage the examination and further development of his work.
A positive example exists in the response of the technology community itself. The world’s largest association of technology professionals, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), with 420,000 members in 160 countries, has several programs related to his work. These include a conference series, “IEEE Conferences on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century”, and two awards named after him, one for his technology contributions and the other for his societal contributions. The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) has promoted his work on technology and society.
Wiener is highly respected in the technology community. For such a figure to have also written from a radical perspective on many of the world’s political challenges makes his work a unique point of intersection between the community of technology professionals and the progressive community.
Greg Adamson is a former president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, and chair of the conference series IEEE Conferences on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century.
Coates, K. (1973). The quality of life and workers’ control. Proceeding of First International Sociological Conference on Participation and Self-Management, Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia.
Conway, F., & Siegelman, J. (2004). Dark hero of the information age: In search of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics. Basic Books
Dzieza, J. (2020). How hard will the robots make us work? The Verge, Feb. 27. https://www.theverge.com/-2020/2/27/21155254/automation-robots-unemployment-jobs-vs-human-google-amazon
Gerovitch, S. (2002). From newspeak to cyberspeak: A history of Soviet cybernetics. The MIT Press.
Kim. K.K., Shen, D.E., Nagy, Z.K., & Braatz, R.D. (2013). Wiener's Polynomial Chaos for the Analysis and Control of Nonlinear Dynamical Systems with Probabilistic Uncertainties [Historical Perspectives]. IEEE Control Systems Magazine, 33(5), 58-67.
Mandel, E. (1971). The formation of the economic thought of Karl Marx (tr. B. Pearce). Monthly Review Press. (Originally published in French in 1967 by François Maspéro.)
Marxists.org. (2021). Survey of items including “Norbert Wiener”, 18 Feb. http://www.marxists.org.
Medina, E. (2011). Cybernetic revolutionaries: Technology and politics in Allende’s Chile. The MIT Press.
Preis, A. (1950). What socialism offers to the American people. The Militant, 14 Aug, 2.
Rosenblueth, A., & Wiener, N. (1950). Purposeful and non-purposeful behavior. Philosophy of Science, 17(4), 318-326.
Wiener, N. (1938). The Homogeneous Chaos. American Journal of Mathematics, 60(4), 897–936.
– (1947). A scientist rebels. Atlantic Monthly, January.
– (1948). Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and the machine. John Wiley & Sons; Hermann et Cie.
– (1953). Ex-prodigy: My childhood and youth. The MIT Press.
– (1954). The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society. Houghton Mifflin.
– (1956). I am a mathematician: The later life of a prodigy. The MIT Press.
– (1964). God and Golem, Inc. The MIT Press.
– (1993). Invention: The care and feeding of ideas. The MIT Press.
Yaffe, H. (2007). Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara: Rebel against Soviet Political Economy. Paper at the Economic History Review Conference booklet, University of Exeter, England.