Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Our Cybernetic Future 1954: Entropy and Anti-Entropy

Jerry Stratton, December 14, 2022

Chesterton: No machine can lie: “No machine can lie,” said Father Brown, “nor can it tell the truth.”—G.K. Chesterton; G. K. Chesterton; computer logic

Having dealt with someone at the far cusp of the personal computer revolution, and someone at its conception, I’d like to look at someone in between. Like Vannevar Bush1, Norbert Wiener did not use personal computers. They didn’t exist. Nor was there anything remotely like the Internet. But it was the Internet’s potential for degrading human communication that frightened him. Or, more generally, the vast speed-up of the coming communications technology divorced from any acknowledgment that communication is always subject to degradation and that progress is not natural.

Norbert Wiener feared a faster and faster world with less and less content, because of a culture that more and more denies the existence of entropy. Entropy originated as a term from physics, for the level of disorder and randomness in a system. It’s the second law of thermodynamics, which, in simpler terms, means that everything tends toward disorder. Order requires that some form of work be added to the system. You can think of entropy as a measure of how jumbled up a jigsaw puzzle is. But the universe is not just a jigsaw puzzle that must be put back together—applying work to reduce the entropy in the puzzle. The universe is a jigsaw puzzle that continually falls apart, as if it were on a glass table in an earthquake. Work is required not just to keep it from getting more disordered, but to keep it from mixing up with the table, too.

Wiener published The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society in 1954. What Wiener wanted to bring to public attention was the meaning of life, communication, and being human in a world where communications and computers were speeding up just as Vannevar Bush had promised us they would. New forms of communication would soon connect far more people for far more uses than previously imaginable.

Norbert Wiener was one of the founders, if not the founder, of the field of Cybernetics. He defined Cybernetics as:

… the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society, the development of computing machines and other such automata, certain reflections upon psychology and the nervous system, and a tentative new theory of scientific method.

When he writes “messages” he means “communications”, which is also subject to entropy—that is, a natural tendency to become more disordered. His focus in this book is the never-ending potential for society to backslide into barbarism—to succumb to entropy. The form he sees this happening is a turning away from science—especially the scientific method—and a denial that entropy exists. Further, he sees society pretending that progress, rather than entropy, is automatic, and that progress does not require work. Confidence in the right side of history, government experts declaring themselves to “be” science, a belief in science by consensus… these are not the sign of a civilization with decreasing entropy.

The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.

Progress requires commitment. It requires the application of energy—of work. Only entropy is natural.2

Norbert Wiener playing a game: Norbert Wiener playing a game.; Norbert Wiener

Gonzalo Torres, showing his father Leonardo’s autonomous chess machine to Norbert Wiener. Ironically, entropy has hit this photo hard: we know very little about it, not even when it was taken.

I’ve owned this book for as long as I can remember; it’s possible that I picked it up in high school or even earlier at one of the street-long book sales that small towns used to have. When I first bought it I found it fascinating, provocative, and far beyond my ability as a young teen to understand. It requires an adult understanding of the world—and especially of the scientific and engineering worlds.

Entropy is a measure of disorganization. Wiener’s insight was to contrast entropy with information, and to apply the idea of entropy to scientific, technological, and social progress. For Wiener, information is a measure of organization and entropy is its enemy. But entropy was becoming more and more difficult not just for children but for adults to grasp, because entropy is an uncomfortable concept:

The best we can hope for the role of progress in a universe running downhill as a whole is that the vision of our attempts to progress in the face of overwhelming necessity may have the purging terror of Greek tragedy. Yet we live in an age not over-receptive to tragedy.

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.

It is unlikely that Wiener would see a world of participation trophies and science is my religion as progress. As parents, we hide what he called entropy more and more from our children. As children, we grow into adults who are less and less able to acknowledge entropy, let alone commit to the never-ending fight against it. Heinlein famously echoed this in his quote about bad luck.3 I subconsciously stole the concept and almost Wiener’s actual words for my own FlameWar: The Passion of the Electric Messiah:

We’ve been outracing our mythology for three centuries, but it is a shadow we cannot replace. We’ve been crying bloody tears at the lack of it, frantically trying to reattach it with whatever comes to hand. But in our frenzy we are never asked the right question until too late: “Man, why are you crying?”

Not asking, we choose our Lord, but we never decide upon Him. We are fickle subjects, and we choose a fickle God.

In Wiener’s take, we worship progress as if it were a Santa Claus, without any sense of how unnatural progress is without the hard work of applying the scientific method. For most of man’s history, technological progress has been anemic at best.

One of Columbus’ sailors would have been a valuable able seaman aboard Farragut’s ships. Even a sailor from the ship that took Saint Paul to Malta would have been quite reasonably at home as a forecastle hand on one of Joseph Conrad’s barks. A Roman cattleman from the Dacian frontier would have made quite a competent vaquero to drive longhorn steers from the plains of Texas to the terminus of the railroad, although he would have been struck with astonishment with what he found when he got there.

We expect progress to save us. We have forgotten that it is up to us to save progress. Progress is always under siege by the forces of entropy. Like Kipling’s Gods of the Market Place, barbarism—entropy—requires no commitment. That makes it more desirable. We always seem ready to believe that fire will not burn and water will not drown.

If we pretend that history’s natural curve is away from entropy, entropy will win and we will fall back into barbarism.

Like John Kemeny, Wiener’s focus was on communication, especially communication between man and machine and, using machines, communication between people and between groups. Nature actively thwarts all of these communications. Further, it actively levels all of these communications, making them meaningless.

Wiener Crater: Wiener Crater on the moon.; Norbert Wiener; The Moon; craters

Norbert Wiener has a crater named after him on the moon.

In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency, as Gibbs has shown us, for entropy to increase.

… the integrity of the channels of internal communication is essential to the welfare of society.

The natural process when we don’t take measures to preserve communication—to preserve the transfer of knowledge both spatially (from place to place) and temporally (from generation to generation) is to lose it. Wiener warns, as Eisenhower did in his farewell warning4, about our increasing reliance on what is essentially science by committee run by bureaucratic experts.

Without any doubt, we possess the world’s most highly developed technique of combining the efforts of large numbers of scientists and large quantities of money toward the realization of a single project. This should not lead us to any undue complacency concerning our scientific position, for it is equally clear that we are bringing up a generation of young men who cannot think of any scientific project except in terms of large numbers of men and large quantities of money.

Norbert Wiener predicted the effects of social media long before they existed:

…when there is communication without need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of becoming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plummet.

… the people who have elected communication as a career so often have nothing more to communicate.

Communication without communication, merely for social prestige. Wiener would not be surprised at the popularity of Twitter among a self-selected elite.

He also made the less obvious point about the use of computing power to replace jobs, that:

…the machine pays no favorites between manual labor and white-collar labor. Thus the possible fields into which the new industrial revolution is likely to penetrate are very extensive, and include all labor performing judgments of a low level, in much the same way as the displaced labor of the earlier industrial revolution included every aspect of human power.

He probably considered this obvious, but it’s still something a lot of people haven’t seemed to figure out: once you’ve stopped being original, your job is subject to automation. This is true whether you’re a farmhand or a journalist—or a scientist or artist. There have been many computer-generated papers accepted to peer-review journals; and even as I write this the creative world is being stunned by the quality of computer-generated artwork.

The final part of his definition of cybernetics is his “new theory” of the scientific method. Traditionally, the scientific method means testing predictions based on a theory; if the test shows the prediction was wrong, then the theory is wrong. Wiener proposes an additional requirement that went without saying before, that “science is impossible without faith”. The faith that he’s talking about is “faith that nature is subject to law”. Without that faith, it makes no sense to test predictions.5

For all we know, the world from the next moment on might be something like the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland, where the balls are hedgehogs which walk off, the hoops are soldiers who march to other parts of the field, and the rules of the game are made from instant to instant by the arbitrary decree of the Queen.

We can never know that physical laws are not arbitrary. But progress requires that we have faith that they are not, that they do not change according to point of view.6

It is to a world like this that the scientist must conform in totalitarian countries, no matter whether they be those of the right or of the left. The Marxist Queen is very arbitrary indeed, and the fascist Queen is a good match for her.

The scientific method is our greatest weapon against entropy. Faith in an ultimate truth is necessary for the scientific method. If, instead, we believe that math is merely white culture, that gravity is racist, or that biology is a social construct, then we banish ourselves and our descendants to lives that are nasty, brutish, and short7.

Einstein’s dictum concerning the directness of God is itself a statement of faith and that faith is a necessary for science to work; a society that disregards that faith in favor of the ideological concerns “is ultimately bound to ruin itself”…

Once we deny that nature is subject to law, it follows that we must also deny the scientific method. We no longer value reproducibility in science. Wiener warned us that this would lead not just to a loss of scientific progress but also of freedom. When we pretend that scientific laws change according to what’s fair and not fair, it becomes natural that civil laws also become unpredictable for the same purpose.

Besides the general principles of justice, the law must be so clear and reproducible that the individual citizen can assess his rights and duties in advance, even where they appear to conflict with those of others. He must be able to ascertain with a reasonable certainty what view a judge or a jury will take of his position. If he cannot do this, the legal code, no matter how well intended, will not enable him to lead a life free from litigation and confusion.

Thus it is the first duty of the law to see that the obligations and rights given to an individual in a certain stated situation be unambiguous. Moreover, there should be a body of legal interpretation which is as far as possible independent of the will and the interpretation of the particular authorities consulted. Reproducibility is prior to equity, for without it there can be no equity.

Predictable laws are the basis for civilization. Backsliding from the scientific method to a science and society based on tribal consensus, social prestige divorced from accomplishment, and outcomes rather than equal treatment guarantees a victory for entropy and a regression into barbarism, both technological and social.

Bill Moyers famously said that while Marshall McLuhan knew that modern communications would make a global village of the world, he didn’t know the global village would be Beirut.8 Norbert Weiner did know, and warned us in 1954.

In response to Our Cybernetic Future 1972: Man and Machine: In 1972, John G. Kemeny envisioned a future where man and computer engaged in a two-way dialogue. It was a future where individual citizens and consumers were neither slaves nor resources to be mined.

  1. It’s very likely that Wiener was heavily influenced by Vannevar Bush’s predictions about the future of computers and computerized communications.

  2. For a while, documentaries about how quickly our buildings and infrastructure would disappear in a world without us were popular; compare those to the abandoned sections of Detroit, Baltimore, or St. Louis—or even some parts of New York City.

  3. Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as “bad luck.” — Robert A. Heinlein (Time Enough for Love)

  4. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. — President Dwight D. Eisenhower (President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address)

  5. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. — Richard Feynman (The Character of Physical Law)

  6. This was Einstein’s insight that allowed him to discover the laws of relativity. Ironically, the law of relativity is that only those things are relative that are necessary for physical laws to not be relative.

  7. Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. — Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan)

  8. It strikes me that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that television has made a global village of the world… but he didn’t know the global village would be Beirut. — Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth)

  1. <- As We May Blog