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Re: <nettime> RE: cybernetics and the Internet
Newmedia on Tue, 13 Jun 2006 13:29:25 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> RE: cybernetics and the Internet


Brian/Ken/etal:

>In particular I'm wondering where it might be possible to
>consult the 1951 edition of Wiener's "The Human Use of Human
>Beings." Was the entire book altered? Or only a key chapter?
>If so, could that chapter be scanned and distributed? Mark
>Stahlman refers to an alteration, but doesn't say exactly
>what it concerns.

It was completely changed.  The 1950 edition and 1954 edition are practically 
different books.  Since it was the 1954 edition that got translated (in a 
dozen or more languages) and made it to paperback, very few seem to have read the 
first edition.  

Hopefully there are enough copies in libraries and available on abebooks.com 
that interested researchers can find and read the original.  When I first 
pointed out the changes to David Bennehum (a star of nettime's last-fling Beauty 
and the East and at that time a tireless early-cybernetic researcher), he 
planned a scanning and a detailed DIFF analysis.  I've lost track of David, so I 
don't know how far he got on this project.  Anyone know his whereabouts?

Wiener was my "godfather," so I have done some work on his life, interviewed 
many who knew him, talked to family members, etc.  The recent biography "Dark 
Hero of the Information Age" was published by Basic Books -- to whom I 
proposed a biography at about the same time these authors got their book contract.  
(Hey, that's how it works in NYC. <g>)  

What the authors "Flo and Jim" -- whose previous collaborations (leaving out 
ghostwrites) were on cults and the religious right -- produced on Wiener is a 
fundamental fuckup of a book.  They correctly focus on Wiener's complete break 
with Cybernetics in the early 1950's -- which is obviously the event that 
screams for an explanation.  But they pass off a stupid "pschosexual" analysis 
about Warren McCullough "spoiling" Wiener's daughter as the root cause.  Just 
dumb or deliberate falsification?  

Given the fact that Wiener had been for many years a sharp critic of the 
organization of scientific research -- often on basic moral grounds and leading to 
mulitple attempts to resign from MIT -- and that he refused to cooperate with 
Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Kurt Lewin (and many others) in their 
"control" projects, you have to wonder about the "politics" of this deeply flawed 
book.  I'll withhold final judgement until I go over it with the authors . . . 
but you can see where I'm leaning.

Wiener thought in terms of decades or perhaps centuries.  I believe that he 
thought he could "warn" people about where our technology was taking us in the 
1948-52 time period.  The MIT archives are filled with his correspondence with 
the UAW's Walter Reuther (and others) about the consequences of robots for 
the labor movement, among other topics.  At some point, after giving scores of 
speeches and writing his warnings in the Saturday Evening Post and wherever he 
could, he stopped.  Stopped cold.

My conclusion is that he decided it was too late.  There was no one to talk 
to anymore.  Humanity had already given up to the "machines."  Humanity had 
already "disappeared."  There were no humans left to humanely use humans anymore. 
 So, he rewrote the book and withdrew from cybernetics.

I believe that Marshall McLuhan had a similiar experience.  His "Mechanical 
Bride" was his attempt at warning people about galloping dehumanization.  His 
acceptance of the Ford Foundation grant to produce "Explorations" at UofT was 
his capitulation.

Wiener shifted into what I call his "genius project" -- which is completely 
misrepresented (really missed altogether) by "Flo and Jim."  He figured that 
whatever was happening then was only temporary and that eventually humanity 
would "re-appear."  Maybe it would take a few generations.  Maybe longer.  But the 
"genius" -- someone who somehow knows without having any teachers -- would 
inevitably resurface humanity's storehouse of reconnaisance.

Yes, he studied with a swami.  Yes, he took in all the world's cultures.  
Because he was trying to understand how genius had functioned over past millenia.

His closest collaborator in this period was Giorgio Desantillana -- who isn't 
mentioned by "Flo and Jim."  Giorgio was a well known historian of science.  
My father became his protege and, I believe, was "assigned" to study the 
genius Ptolemy -- to which my father then devoted his life.  How did Ptolemy 
"discover" astrology, cartography, musicology and much more (circa 150 AD) without 
any apparent or established body of knowledge or teachers?  Was this a model 
for what might occur at some time in the future?  When humanity re-appeared?

In my opinion, McLuhan's creativity "probes" probably had a similiar intent.  
See if anyone was still alive out there?  Today or maybe a century later?

Desantillana's "Hamlet's Mill" (1969) is the primary statement of Wiener's 
genius project.  Wiener had died in 1964.  Desantillana died shortly after the 
book was pubished.  The publishing was a fiasco with many of the notes lost or 
destroyed.  My father was a primary resource for the book and, following its 
publication, sold his Ptolemy rare-books collection to the Univ. of Texas.  
(Where I recently read through them.)  He got depressed and died in 1975.

So, what's left?  You and me?

Barely alive -- like the rest of us.  Naked as the day we were born, you 
might say.

Mark Stahlman
New York City


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