Are we masters of technology or has it mastered us, asks Will Selfby Will Self / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Written by Norbert Wiener, an MIT mathematician, and published in 1948, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine is the book which first brought the term “cybernetics” to public attention. Synthesised from the Ancient Greek kubernan (meaning to steer, navigate or govern) the coinage has resonated ever since, giving rise to all sorts of odd, cyber-prefixed neologisms—my personal favourite being the chain of American-style confectioners dubbed Cybercandy. Wiener, a famously eccentric character, had been driven to develop an overarching theory of the machine by two vital problems that had arisen during the Second World War.
The first was the need for an automated system that would allow British anti-aircraft gunners to hit German bombers—and by extension make it possible for any gunner to hit a fast and erratically moving target; and the second was the dropping of the nuclear bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima in 1945. Wiener, like many scientists of his generation, responded to the split-second incineration of 125,000 Japanese civilians with horror: he had an epiphany in which he saw a future of deadly conflict dominated—and perhaps even initiated—by sophisticated machines. But again, in common with so many scientists of the era, Wiener had already tried to bring about just such a future, by creating a machine that would massively enhance our ability to locate, aim and unerringly deliver military ordanance.
This Janus-faced—or perhaps, more properly, Manichean—inspiration was thereby encrypted into the cybernetics blueprint from the outset: on the one hand this was intended to be a general theory of how all possible—not just actual—machines might work, with a view to assisting those intent on building them. On the other hand, it was a minatory account of how interaction between humans and human-like machines might lead to the latter becoming firmly ensconced in the driving seat. Given 2016 has already seen the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car, now might seem like the ideal time to take stock and calmly examine the last 70 years of human-machine interaction—possibly with the ulterior motive of discovering whether it’s a “who” or a “what” in control.