This is one of the fundamental documents of our time, a period
characterized by the concepts of ‘information’ and ‘communications’. Norbert Wiener, a child prodigy and a great mathematician,
coined the term ‘cybernetics’ to characterize a very general science
of ‘control and communication in the animal and machine’. It
brought together concepts from engineering, the study of the
nervous system and statistical mechanics (e.g. entropy). From these
he developed concepts that have become pervasive through science
(especially biology and computing) and common parlance: ‘information’, ‘message’, ‘feedback’ and ‘control’. He wrote, ‘the
thought of every age is reflected in its technique . . . If the
seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are the age of clocks,
and the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries constitute the age
of steam engines, the present time is the age of communication and
In this volume Norbert Wiener spells out his theories for the
general reader and reflects on the social issues raised by the
dramatically increasing role of science and technology in the new
age – the age in which we are now deeply and problematically
embroiled. His cautionary remarks arc as relevant now as they were
when the book first appeared in the 1950s.
Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), Professor of Mathematics at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1919 onwards, wrote
numerous books on mathematics and engineering. Having developed methods useful to the military during World War Two, he
later refused to do such work during the Cold War, while proposing
non-military models of cybernetics.
With a new Introduction bj1
Steve J. Heims
‘an association in which the free development of each is the
condition of the free development of all’
Published in Great Britain 1989 by
Free Association Books
26 Freegrove Road
London N7 9RQ
First published 1950; 1954, Houghton Mifflin
Introduction © Steve J. Heims 1989
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Wiener, Norbert, 1894-1964
The human use of human beings: cybernetics
and society
I. Cybernetics. Sociological perspectives
I. Title
ISBN 1-85343-075-7
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
Bookcraft, Midsomer Nonon, Avon
To the memory of my father
formerly Professor of Slavic Languages
at Harvard University
my closest mentor and dearest antagonist
Part of a chapter has already appeared in the Philosop~J’ of Science
The author wishes to acknowledge permission which the publishe1
of this journal has given him to reprint the material.
Cybernetics in History
Progress and Entropy
Rigidity and Learning: Two Patterns
of Communicative Behavior
The Mechanism and History of
Organization as the Message
Law and Communication
Communication, Secrecy, and Social
Role of the Intellectual and the
The First and the Second Industrial
Some Communication Machines
and Their Future
Language, Confusion, and Jam
NoRBERT WIEI’ER, born in 1894, was educated at Tufts College,
Massachusetts, and Harvard University, Massachusetts, where he
received his Ph.D. at the age of nineteen. He continued his studies
at Cornell, Columbia, in England at Cambridge University, then at
Gottingen and Copenhagen. He taught at Harvard and the University of Maine and in 1919 joined the staff of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, where he was Professor of Mathematics.
He was joint recipient of the Bocher Prize of the American
Mathematical Society in 1933, and in 1936 was one of the seven
American delegates to the International Congress of Mathematicians in Oslo. Dr Wiener served as Research Professor of
Mathematics at the National Tsing Hua University in Peking in
1935-36, while on leave from MIT. During World War II he
developed improvements in radar and Navy projectiles and devised
a method of solving problems of fire control.
In the years after World War II Wiener worked with the Mexican
physiologist Arturo Rosenblueth on problems in biology, and
formulated the set of ideas spanning several disciplines which came
to be known as ‘cybernetics’. He worked with engineers and
medical doctors to develop devices that could replace a lost sensory
mode. He analysed some non-linear mathematical problems and,
with Armand Siegel, reformulated quantum theory as a stochastic
process. He also became an articulate commentator on the social
implications of science and technology. In 1964 Wiener was
recipient of the US National Medal of Science.
His published works include The Fourier Integral a11d Cettain ofIts
Applications (1933); Cybemetics (1948); Extrapolation and Interpolation
and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series with Engineering Applications
(1949); the first volume of an autobiography, Ex-Prodigy: My
Childhood and Youth (1953); Tempter (1959); and Cod and Colem
(1964). Wiener’s published articles have been assembled and edited
by P. Masani and republished in four volumes as Norbert Utlener:
Collected Works (1985).
STEVE J. HEIMS received his doctorate in physics from Stanford
University, California. He engaged in research in the branch of
physics known as statistical mechanics and taught at several North
American universities. In recent years he has devoted himself to
studying various contexts of scientific work: social, philosophical,
political and technological. He is the author of John von Neumann
and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and
Death (MIT Press, 1980). Currently he is writing a book dealing
with the characteristics of social studies in the USA during the
decade following World War II.
Steve J. Heims
G.H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician and author of
A Mathematicians Apology, reflecting on the value of
mathematics, insisted that it is a ‘harmless and innocent
occupation’. ‘Real mathematics has no effects on war’, he
explained in a book for the general public in 1940. ‘No one
has yet discovered any warlike purpose to be served by the
theory of numbers or relativity … A real mathematician has
his conscience clear.’ Yet, in fact, at that time physicists were
already actively engaged in experiments converting matter
into energy (a possibility implied by the Theory of Relativity)
in anticipation of building an atomic bomb. Of the younger
generation which he taught, Hardy wrote, ‘I have helped to
train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same
kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I
have helped them to it, as useless as my own … ‘
Norbert Wiener took issue with his mentor. He thought
Hardy’s attitude to be ‘pure escapism’, noted that the ideas of
number theory are applied in electrical engineering, and that
‘no matter how innocent he may be in his inner soul and in
his motivation, the effective mathematician is likely to be a
powerful factor in changing the face of society. Thus he is
really as dangerous as a potential armourer of the new
scientific war of the future.’ The neat separation of pure and
applied mathematics is only a mathematician’s self-serving
Wiener came to address the alternative to innocence namely, taking responsibility. After he himself had during
World War II worked on a mathematical theory of prediction
intended to enhance the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire, and
developed a powerful statistical theory of communication
which would put modern communication engineering on a
rigorous mathematical footing, any pretence of harmlessness
was out of the question for him. From the time of the end of
the war until his death in 1964, Wiener applied his
penetrating and innovative mind to identifying and elaborating on a relation of high technology to people which is benign
or, in his words, to the human – rather than the inhuman use of human beings. In doing so during the years when the
cold war was raging in the United States, he found an
audience among the generally educated public. However,
most of his scientifi.c colleagues- offended or embarrassed by
Wiener1s views and especially by his open refusal to engage in
any more work related to the military – saw him as an
eccentric at best and certainly not to be taken seriously except
in his undeniably brilliant, strictly mathematical, researches.
Albert Einstein, who regarded Wiener’s attitude towards the
military as exemplary, was in those days similarly made light
of as unschooled in political matters.
Undaunted, Wiener proceeded to construct a practical and
comprehensive attitude towards technology rooted in his
basic philosophical outlook, and presented it in lucid
language. For him technologies were viewed not so much as
applied science, but rather as applied social and moral
philosophy. Others have been critical of technological
developments and seen the industrial revolution as a mixed
blessing. Unlike most of these critics, Wiener was simultaneously an irrepressibly original non-stop thinker in
mathematics, the sciences and high technology and equally an
imaginative critic from a social, historical and ethical
perspective of the uses of his own and his colleagues,
handiwork. Because he gave rather unchecked rein to both of
these inclinations, Wiener1s writings generate a particular
tension and have a special fascination.
Now, four decades later, we see that the tenor of his
comments on science, technology and society were on the
whole prophetic and ahead of his time. In the intervening
years his subject matter, arising out of the tension between
technical fascination and social conscience, has become a
respectable topic for research and scholarship. Even leading
universities have caught up with it and created courses of
study and academic departments with names such as ‘science
studies,, ‘technology studies, or ‘science, technology and
society’. His prediction of an imminent ‘communication
revolution’ in which ‘the message’ would be a pivotal notion,
and the associated technological developments would be in
the area of communication, computation and organization,
was dear-sighted indeed.
The interrelation between science and society via technologies is only one of the two themes underlying The Human
Use of Human Beings. The other derives as much from
Wiener’s personal philosophy as from theoretical physics.
Although he was a mathematician, his personal philosophy
was rooted in existentialism, rather than in the formal-logical
analytical philosophy so prominent in his day and associated
with the names of Russell, Moore, Ramsey, Wittgenstein and
Ayer. For Wiener life entailed struggle, but it was not the
class struggle as a means to social progress emphasized by
Marxists, nor was it identical with the conflict Freud saw
between the individual and society. In his own words:
We are swimming upstream against a great torrent of disorganization, which tends to reduce everything to the heat death of
equilibrium and sameness described in the second law of thermodynamics. What Maxwell, Bolzmann and Gibbs meant by this heat
death in physics has a counterpart in the ethic of Kierkegaard, who
pointed out that we live in a chaotic moral universe. In this, our
main obligation is to establish arbitrary enclaves of order and
system. These enclaves will not remain there indefinitely by any
momentum of their own after we have once established them …
We arc not fighting for a definitive victory in the indefinite future. It
is the greatest possible victory to be, to continue to be, and to have
been … This is no defeatism, it is rather a sense of tragedy in a
world in which necessity is represented by an inevitable disappearance of differentiation. The declaration of our own nature and the
attempt to build an enclave of organization in the face of nature’s
overwhelming tendency to disorder is an insolence against the gods
and the iron necessity that they impose. Here lies tragedy, but here
lies glory too.
Even when we discount the romantic, heroic overtones in that
statement, Wiener is articulating what, as he saw and
experienced it, makes living meaningful. The adjective
‘arbitrary’ before ‘order and system’ helps to make the
statement appropriate for many; it might have been made by
an artist as readily as by a creative scientist. Wiener’s outlook
on life is couched in the language of conflict and heroic
struggle against overwhelming natural tendencies. But he was
talking about something very different from the ruthless
exploitation, even destruction, of nature and successfully
bending it to human purposes, which is part of the legacy,
part of the nineteenth-century heroic ideal, of Western man.
Wiener in his discussion of human purposes, recognizing
feedbacks and larger systems which include the environment,
had moved far away from that ideal and closer to an ideal of
understanding and, both consciously and effectively, of
collaborating with natural processes.
I expect that Wiener would have welcomed some more
recent developments in physics, as his thinking was already at
times tending in that direction. Since his day developments in
the field of statistical mechanics have come to modify the
ideas about how orderly patterns- for example, the growth of
plants and animals and the evolution of ecosystems – arise in
the face of the second law of thermodynamics. As Wiener
anticipated, the notions of information, feedback and nonlinearity of the differential equations have become increasingly important in biology.
But beyond that, Ilya Prigogine and his co-workers in
Belgium have more recently made a convincing case that
natural systems which are either far from thermodynamic
equilibrium initially, or which fluctuate, may not return to
equilibrium at all (G. Nicolis and I. Prigogine, SelfOrganization in No11equilibrium Systems, 1977). Instead they
continue to move still further away from equilibrium towards
a different, increasingly complex and orderly, but nevertheless stable pattern -not necessarily static, but possibly cyclic.
According to the American physicist Willard Gibbs’ way of
thinking, the stable state of a system – equilibrium – is
independent of its detailed initial conditions, yet that
simplification ·no longer holds for systems finding stability far
from equilibrium. This is an explicit mechanism quite
different from that of a ‘Maxwell demon’ (explained in
Chapter 2), the mechanism assumed necessary in Wiener’s
day. It is more nearly related to Wiener’s notion of positive
feedback, which he tended to see as only disruptive and
destructive, rather than as leading to complex stable structures. The results obtained by the Prigogine group show the
creation of orderly patterns – natural countertrends to the
tendency towards disorganization – to be stronger and more
ordinary and commonplace than a sole reliance on mechanisms of the Maxwell-demon type would suggest. Sensitivity to
initial conditions is also a prominent feature of ‘chaos theory’,
currently an active field of research.
If, however, we now extend Wiener’s analogy from
statistical mechanics and incorporate the findings of the
Prigogine group – according to which natural and spontaneous mechanisms other than just the Maxwell demon
generate organization and differentiation – this suggests a
shift in emphasis from ‘the human fight against the increase
of entropy to create local enclaves of order’ to a more
co-operative endeavour which to a considerable extent occurs
naturally and of its own accord. It is a subtle shift that can,
however, make large differences. Yet to be explored, these
differences appear to echo disagreements that some modern
feminists, neo-Taoists and ecologists have with classical
Greek concepts of the heroic and the tragic.
Wiener’s status, which he strongly prized, was that of an
independent scientifically knowledgeable intellectual. He
avoided accepting funds from government agencies or
corporations that might in any way compromise his complete
honesty and independence. Nor did he identify himself with
any political, social or philosophical group, but spoke and
wrote simply as an individual. He was suspicious of honours
and prizes given for scientific achievement. After receiving
the accolade of election to the National Academy of Sciences,
he. resigned, lest membership in that select, exclusive body of
sclentists corrupt his autonomous status as outsider vis-a-vis
the American scientific establishment He was of the tradition
in which it is the intellectual’s respon~ibility to speak truth to
power. This was in the post-war years, when the US
government and many scientists and science administrators
were celebrating the continuing partnership between government and science, government providing the funds and
scientists engaging in research. Wiener remained aloof and
highly critical of that peacetime arrangement. More precisely,
he tried to stay aloof, but he would not separate himself
completely because for many years he remained a professor at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an institution
heavily involved in that partnership. As was his nature, he
continued to talk to colleagues about his own fertile ideas,
whether they dealt with mathematics, engineering or social
The Human Use of Human Beings, first published in 1950,
was a sequel to an earlier volume, Cybernetics: Or Control and
Communication in the Animal and the Machine. That earlier
volume broke new ground in several respects. First of all, it
was a report on new scientific and technical developments of
the 1940s, especially on information theory, communication
theory and communications technology, models of the brain
and general-purpose computers. Secondly, it extended ideas
and used metaphors from physics and electrical engineering
to discuss a variety of topics including neuropathology,
politics, society, learning and the nature of time.
Wiener had been an active participant in pre-war interdisciplinary seminars. After the war he regularly took part in a
series of small conferences of mathematicians and engineers,
which were also attended by biologists, anthropologists,
sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, in which the set
of ideas subsumed under cybernetics was explored in the
light of these various disciplines. At these conferences
Wiener availed himself of the convenient opportunity to
become acquainted with current research on a broad range of
topics outside of his speciality.
Already in his Cybernetics Wiener had raised questions
about the benefits of the new ideas and technologies,
concluding pessimistically,
there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of
man and society which is offered by this new field of work may
anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we arc making
to the concentration of power. I write in 1947, and I am compelled
to say that it is a very slight hope.
The book was a rarity also in that, along with the technical
material, he discussed ethical issues at length. The Human Use
ofHuman Beings is a popularization of Cybernetics (omitting the
forbidding mathematics), though with a special emphasis on
the description of the human and the social.
The present volume is a reprint of the second (1954)
edition, which differs signifi.cantly from the original hardcover edition. The notable reorganization of the book and the
changes made deserve attention. In the first edition we read
that ‘the purpose of this book is both to explain the
potentialities of the machine in fields which up to now have
been taken to be purely human, and to warn against the
dangers of a purely selfish exploitation of these possibilities in
a world in which to human beings human things are
all-important.’ After commenting critically about patterns of
social organization in which all orders come from above, and
none return (‘an ideal held by many Fascists, Strong Men in
Business, and Governmenf), he explains, ‘I wish to devote
this book [fi.rst edition] to a protest against this inhuman use
of human beings! The second edition, in contrast, as stated
in the Preface, is organized around Wiener’s other major
theme, ‘the impact of the Gibbs ian point of view on modern
life, both through the substantive changes it has made in
working science, and through the changes it has made
indirectly in our attitude to life in general.’ The second
edition, where the framework is more philosophical and less
political, appears to be presented in such a way as to make it
of interest not only in 1954, but also for many years to come.
The writing and the organization are a bit tighter and more
orderly than in the first edition. It also includes comment on
some exemplifications of cybernetics (e.g., the work of Ross
Ashby) that had come to Wiener’s attention only during the
early 1950s. Yet, even though several chapters are essentially
unchanged, something was lost in going from the first to the
second edition. I miss the bluntness and pungency of some of
the comments in the earlier edition, which apparently were
‘cleaned up’ for the second.
The cause celebre in 1954 in the USA was the Oppenheimer
case. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had directed
the building of atom bombs during World War II, had
subsequently come to disagree with the politically dominant
figures in the government who were eager to develop and
build with the greatest possible speed hydrogen bombs a
thousand times more powerful than the atom bombs which
had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer
urged delay, as he preferred that a further effort be made to
negotiate with the Soviet Union before proceeding with such
an irreversible escalation of the arms race. This policy
difference lay behind the dramatic Oppenheimer hearings,
humiliating proceedings at the height of the anti-Communist
‘McCarthy era’ (and of the US Congressional ‘On-American
Activities Committee’), leading to, absurdly, the labelling of
Oppenheimer as a ‘security risk’.
In that political atmosphere it is not surprising for a
publisher to prefer a different focus than the misuse of the
latest technologies, or the dangers of capitalist exploitation of
technologies for profit. Wiener himself was at that time going
on a lecture tour to India and was then occupied with several
other projects, such as writing the second volume of his
autobiography, the mathematical analysis of brain waves,
sensory prosthesis and a new formulation of quantum theory.
He did not concern himself a great deal with the revision of a
book he had written several years earlier – it would be more
characteristic of him to write a new book or add a new
chapter, rather than revise a book already written- although
he must have agreed to all revisions and editorial changes.
At the end of the book, in both editions, Wiener compares
the Catholic Church with the Communist Party, and both
with cold war government activities in capitalist America. The
criticisms of America in these last few pages of the first
edition (see Appendix to this Introduction) are, in spite of one
brief pointed reference to McCarthyism, largely absent in the
second edition. There are other differences in the two
editions. The chapter ‘Progress and Entropy’, for example, is
much longer in the first edition. The section on the history of
inventions within that chapter is more detailed. The chapter
also deals with such topics as the depletion of resources and
American dependence on other nations for oil, copper and
tin, and the possibility of an energy-crisis unless new
inventions obviate it. It reviews vividly the progress in
medicine and anticipates new problems, such as the increasing use of synthetic foods that may contain minute quantities
of carcinogens. These and other discursive excursions,
peripheral to the main line of argument of the book, are
omitted in the present edition.
The Human Use ofHuman Beings was not Wiener’s last word
on the subject. He continued to think and talk and write. In
1959 he addressed and provoked a gathering of scientists by
his reflections and analysis of some moral and technical
consequences of automation (Science, vol. 131, p. 1358,
1960), and in his last book (God and Go/em, Inc., 1964) he
returned to ethical concerns from the perspective of the
creative scientist or engineer.
It was Wiener’s lifelong obsession to distinguish the human
from the machine, having recognized the identity of patterns
of organization and of many functions which can be
performed by either, but in The Human Use ofHuman Beings it
is his intention to place his understanding of the people/
machines identity/dichotomy within the context of his
generous and humane social philosophy. Cybernetics had
originated from the analysis of formal analogies between the
behaviour of organisms and that of electronic and mechanical
systems. The mostly military technologies new in his day,
which today we call ‘artificial intelligence’, highlighted the
potential resemblance between certain elaborate machines
and people. Academic psychology in North America was in
those days still predominantly behaviourist. The cybernetic
machines -such as general-purpose computers- suggested a
possibility as to the nature of mind: mind was analogous to
the formal structure and organization, or the software aspect,
of a reasoning-and-perceiving machine that could also issue
instructions leading to actions. Thus the long-standing
mind-brain duality was overcome by a materialism which
encompassed organization, messages and information in
addition to stuff and matter. But the subjective – an
individual’s cumulative experience, sensations and feelings,
including the subjective experience of being alive – is
belittled, seen only within the context of evolutionary theory
as providing information useful for survival to the organism.
If shorn of Wiener’s benign social philosophy, what
remains of cybernetics can be used within a highly mechanical and dehumanizing, even militaristic, outlook. The fact
that the metaphor of a sophisticated automaton is so heavily
employed invites thinking about humans as in effect
machines. Many who have learned merely the technical
aspects of cybernetics have used them, and do so today, for
ends which Wiener abhorred. It is a danger he foresaw,
would have liked to obviate and, although aware of how little
he could do in that regard, valiantly tried to head off.
The technological developments in themselves are impressive, but since most of us already have to bear with a glut
of promotional literature it is more to the point here to frame
discussion not in the promoters’ terms (what the new
machine can do), but in a more human and social framework:
how is the machine affecting people’s lives? Or still more
pointedly: who reaps a benefit from it? Wiener urged
scientists and engineers to practise ‘the imaginative forward
glance’ so as to attempt assessing the impact of an innovation,
even before making it known.
However, once some of the machines or techniques were
put on the market, a younger generation with sensitivity to
human and social impacts could report empirically where the
shoe pinches. Even though such reports may not suffice to
radically change conventional patterns of deployment of
technologies, which after all express many kinds of political
and economic interests, they at least document what happens
and help 😮 educate the public. As long as their authors avoid
an a priori pro-technology or anti-technology bias, they
effectively carry on where Wiener left off. Among such
reports we note Joseph Weizenbaum’s description of the
human damage manifested in the ‘compulsive programmer’,
which poses questions about appropriate and inappropriate
uses of computers (Computer Power and Human Reason, 1976).
Similarly David Noble has documented how the introduction
of automation in the machine-tool industry has resulted in a
deskilling of machinists to their detriment, and has described
in detail the political process by which this deskilling was
brought about (Forces of Production, 1984).
These kinds of’inhuman’ uses seem nearly subtle if placed
next to the potentially most damaging use, war. The growth of
communication-computation-automation devices and systems had made relatively small beginnings during World War
II, but since then has been given high priority in US
government-subsidized military research and development,
and in the Soviet Union as well; their proliferation in military
contexts has been enormous and extensive. A proper critique
would entail an analysis in depth of world politics, and
especially the political relations of the two ‘superpowers’.
Wiener feared that he had helped to provide tools for the
centralization of power, and indeed he and his fellow
scientists and engineers had. For instance, under the Reagan
government many billions of dollars were spent on plans for a
protracted strategic nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The
technological ‘challenge’ was seen to be the development of
an effective C-cubed system (command, control and communication) which would be used to destroy enemy political
and command centres and at the same time, through a
multitude of methods, prevent the destruction of the
corresponding American centres, leaving the USA fully in
command throughout the nuclear war and victorious. Some
principled scientists and engineers have, in a Wienerian
spirit, refused to work on, or have stopped working on, such
mad schemes, or on implementing the politicians’ ‘StarWars’ fantasies.
We have already alluded to Wiener’s heavy use of
metaphors from engineering to describe the human and the
social, and his neglect of the subjective experience. In the
post-war years American sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and psychologists tried harder than ever to be
seen as ‘scientific’. They readily borrowed the engineers’
idiom and many sought to learn from the engineers’ or
mathematicians’ thinking. Continental European social
thinkers were far more inclined to attend to the human
subject and to make less optimistic claims about their
scientific expertise, but it required another decade before
European thought substantially influenced the positivistic or
logical-empiricist predilections of the mainstream of American social scientists.
A major development in academic psychology, prominent
and well-funded today, relies strongly on the concept of
information processing and models based on the computer. It
traces its origins to the discussions on cybernetics in the
post-war years and the wartime work of the British psychologist Kenneth Craik. This development, known as ‘cognitive
science’, entirely ignores background contexts, the culture,
the society, history, subjective experience, human feelings
and emotions. Thus it works with a highly impoverished
model of what it is to be human. Such models have, however,
found their challengers and critics, ranging from the journalist Gordon Ratray Taylor (The Natural History ofMind, 1979)
to the psychologist James]. Gibson, the latter providing a far
different approach to how humans know and perceive (The
Perception of the Visual World, 1950; The Senses Considered as
Perceptual Systems, 1966; The Ecological Approach to Visual
Perception, 1979).
If we trace the intellectual history of current thinking in
such diverse fields as cellular biology, medicine, anthropology, psychiatry, ecology and economics, we find that in each
discipline concepts coming from cybernetics consitute one of
the streams that have fed it. Cybernetics, including information theory, systems with purposive behaviour and automaton
models, was part of the intellectual dialogue of the 1950s and
has since mingled with many other streams, has been absorbed
and become part of the conventional idiom and practice.
Too many writings about technologies are dismal, narrow
apologetics for special interests, and not very edifying. Yet the
subject matter is intrinsically extremely varied and stimulating
to an enquiring mind. It has profound implications for our
day-to-day lives, their structure and their quality. The social
history of science and technology is a rich resource, even for
imagining and reflecting on the future. Moreover the topic
highlights central dilemmas in every political system. For
example, how is the role of ‘experts’ in advising governments
related to political process? Or how is it possible to reconcile,
in a capitalist economy within a democratic political structure,
the unavoidable conflict between public interest and decision
by a popular vote, on the one hand, and corporate decisions
as to which engineering projects are profitable, on the other?
We are now seeing the rise of a relatively new genre of
writing about technologies and people which is interesting,
concrete, open, exploratory and confronts political issues
head-on. We need this writing, for we are living in what Ellul
has appropriately called a technological society. Within that
genre, Wiener’s books, as well as some earlier writings by
Lewis Mumford, are among the few pioneering works that
have become classics. The present reissue of one of these
classics is cause for rejoicing. May it stimulate readers to
think passionately for themselves about the human use of
human beings with the kind of intellectual honesty and
compassion Wiener brought to the subject.
Steve J. Heims
Boston, October 1988
What follows are two documents from Norbert Wiener’s
-an open letter published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine,
January 1947 issue; and
-the concluding passages of The Human Use ofHuman Beings,
lst edition, Houghton-Mifflin, 1950, pp. 228-9.
A Scu.NTisT RHRF.t.s
The letter which follows was addressed by one of our
ranking mathematicians to a research scientist of a great
aircraft corporation, who had asked him for the technical
account of a certain line of research he had conducted in the
war. Professor Wiener’s indignation at being requested to
participate in indiscriminate rearmament, less than two years
after victory, is typical of many American scientists who
served their country faithfully during the war.
Professor of Mathematics in one of our great Eastern
institutions, Norbert Wiener was born in Columbia, Missouri, in 1894, the son of Leo Wiener, Professor of Slavic
Languages at Harvard University. He took his doctorate at
Harvard and did his graduate work in England and in
Gottingen. Today he is esteemed one of the world’s foremost
mathematical analysts. His ideas played a significant part in
the development of the theories of communication and
control which were essential in winning the war.
-The Editor, Atlantic Monthly
Sir:I have received from you a note in which you state that you
are engaged in a project concerning controlled missiles, and
in which you request a copy of a paper which I wrote for the
National Defense Research Committee during the war.
As the paper is the property of a government organization,
you are of course at complete liberty to turn to that government organization for such information as I could give you. If
it is out of print as you say, and they desire to make it available
for you, there are doubtless proper avenues of approach to
When, however, you turn to me for information concerning
controlled missiles, there are several considerations which
determine my reply. In the past, the comity of scholars has
made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any
person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these
facts: the policy of the government itself during and after the
war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has
made it 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 enquire of him. The interchange of ideas
which is one of the great traditions of science must of course
receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an
arbiter of life and death.
For the sake, however, of the scientist and the public, these
limitations should be as intelligent as possiple. The measures
taken during the war by our military agencies, in restricting
the free intercourse among scientists on related projects or
even on the same project, have gone so far that it is clear that
if continued in time of peace this policy will lead to the total
irresponsibility of the scientist, and ultimately to the death of
science. Both of these are disastrous for our ci¥ilization, and
entail grave and immediate peril for the public.
I realize, of course, that I am acting as the censor of my
own ideas, and it may sound arbitrary, but I will not accept a
censorship in which I do not participate. The experience of
the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has
indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist
ends by putting 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 that weapon will be used. In that respect the
controlled missile represents the still imperfect supplement to
the atom bomb and to bacterial warfare.
The practical use of guided missiles can only be to kill
foreign civilians indiscriminately, and it furnishes no protection whatsoever to civilians in this country. I cannot conceive
a situation in which such weapons can produce any effect
other than extending the kamikaze way of fighting to whole
nations. Their possession can do nothing but endanger us by
encouraging the tragic insolence of the military mind.
If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or
poisoning of defenceless peoples- and I most certainly do not
– I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I
disclose my scientific ideas. Since it is obvious that with
sufficient effort you can obtain my material, even though it is
out of print, I can only protest pro fonna in refusing to give you
any information concerning my past work. However, I rejoice
at the fact that my material is not readily available, inasmuch
as it gives me the opportunity to raise this serious moral issue.
I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may
do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists.
I am taking the liberty of calling this letter to the attention
of other people in scientific work. I believe it is only proper
that they should know of it in order to make their own
independent decisions, if similar situations should confront
Norbert Wiener
I have indicated that freedom of opinion at the present time
is being crushed between the two rigidities of the Church and
the Communist Party. In the United States we are in the
process of developing a new rigidity which combines the
methods of both while partaking of the emotional fervour of
neither. Our Conservatives of all shades of opinion have
somehow got together to make American capitalism and the
fifth freedom of the businessman supreme throughout all the
Our military men and our great merchant princes have
looked upon the propaganda technique of the Russians, and
have found that it is good. They have found a worthy
counterpart for the GPU in the FBI, in its new role of
political censor. They have not considered that these
weapons form something fundamentally distasteful to
humanity, and that they need the full force of an overwhelming faith and belief to make them even tolerable. This faith
and belief they have nowhere striven to replace. Thus they
have been false to the dearest part of our American traditions,
without offering us any principles for which we may die,
eXcept a merely negative hatred of Communism. They have
succeeded in being un-American without being radical. To
this end we have invented a new inquisition: the Inquisition of
Teachers’ Oaths and of Congressional Committees. We have
synthesized a new propaganda, lacking only one element
which is common to the Church and to the Communist Party,
and that is the element of Belief. We have accepted the
methods, not the ideals of our possible antagonists, little
realizing that it is the ideals which have given the methods
whatever cogency they possess. Ourselves without faith, we
presume to punish heresy. May the absurdity of our position
soon perish amidst the Homeric laughter that it deserves.
It is this triple attack on our liberties which we must resist,
if communication is to have the scope that it properly
deserves as the central phenomenon of society, and if the
human individual is to reach and to maintain his full stature.
It is again the American worship of know-how as opposed to
know-what that hampers us. We rightly see great dangers in
the totalitarian system of Communism. On the one hand, we
have called in to combat these the assistance of a totalitarian
Church which is in no respect ready to accept, in support of
its standards, milder means than those to which Communism
appeals. On the other hand, we have attempted to synthesize
a rigid system to fight fire by fire, and to oppose Communism
by institutions which bear more than a fortuitous resemblance
to Communistic institutions. In this we have failed to realize
that the element in Communism which essentially deserves
our respect consists in its loyalties and in its insistence on the
dignity and the rights of the worker. What is bad consists
chiefly in the ruthless techniques to which the present phase
of the Communist revolution has resorted. Our leaders show
a disquieting complacency in their acceptance of the ruthlessness and a disquieting unwillingness to refer their acts to any
guiding principles. Fundamentally, behind our counterruthlessness there is no adequate basis of real heartfelt
assent. Let us hope that it is still possible to reverse the tide of
the moment and to create a future America in which man can
live and can grow to be a human being in the fullest and
richest sense of the word.
The beginning of the twentieth century marked
more than the end of one hundred-year period and the
start of another. There was a real change of point of
view even before we made the political transition from
the century on the whole dominated by peace, to the
half century of war through which we have just been
living. This was perhaps first apparent in science, although it is quite possible that whatever has affected
science led independently to the marked break which
we find between the arts and literature of the nineteenth and those of the twentieth centuries.
Newtonian physics, which had ruled from the end of
the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth
with scarcely an opposing voice, described a universe
in which everything happened precisely according to
law, a compact, tightly organized universe in which the
whole future depends strictly upon the whole past.
Such a picture can never be either fully justified or
fully rejected experimentally and belongs in large
measure to a conception of the world which is supplementary to experiment but in some ways more universal than anything that can be experimentally
verified. We can never test by our imperfect experiments whether one set of physical laws or another can
be verified down to the last decimal. The Newtonian
view, however, was compelled to state and formulate
physics as if it were, in fact, subject to such laws. This
is now no longer the dominating attitude of physics,
and the men who contributed most to its downfall were
Bolzmann in Germany and Gibbs in the United States.
These two physicists undertook a radical application
of an exciting, new idea. Perhaps the use of statistics
in physics which, in large measure, they introduced
was not completely new, for Maxwell and others had
considered worlds of very large numbers of particles
which necessarily had to be treated statistically. But
what Holzmann and Gibbs did was to introduce statistics into physics in a much more thoroughgoing way,
so that the statistical approach was valid not merely
for systems of enormous complexity, but even for systems as simple as the single particle in a field of force.
Statistics is the science of distribution, and the distribution contemplated by these modern scientists was
not concerned with large numbers of similar particles,
but with the various positions and velocities from
which a physical system might start. In other words,
under the Newtonian system the same physical laws
apply to a variety of systems starting from a variety of
positions and with a variety of momenta. The new statisticians put this point of view in a fresh light. They
retained indeed the principle according to which certain systems may be distinguished from others by their
total energy, but they rejected the supposition according to which systems with the same total energy may
be clearly distinguished indefinitely and described forever by fixed causal laws.
There was, actually, an important statistical reservation implicit in Newton’s work, though the eighteenth
century, which lived by Newton, ignored it. No physical measurements are ever precise; and what we have
to say about a machine or other dynamic system really
concerns not what we must expect when the initial positions and momenta are given with perfect accuracy
(which never occurs), but what we are to expect when
they are given with attainable accuracy. This merely
means that we know, not the complete initial conditions, but something about their distribution. The functional part of physics, in other words, cannot escape
considering uncertainty and the contingency of events.
It was the merit of Gibbs to show for the first time a
clean-cut scientific method for taking this contingency
into consideration.
The historian of science looks in vain for a single line
of development. Gibbs’ work, while well cut out, was
badly sewed, and it remained for others to complete
the job that he began. The intuition on which he based
his work was that, in general, a physical system belonging to a class of physical systems, which continues to
retain its identity as a class, eventually reproduces in
almost all cases the distribution which it shows at any
given time over the whole class of systems. In other
words, under certain circumstances a system runs
through all the distributions of position and momentum
which are compatible with its energy, if it keeps running long enough.
This last proposition, however, is neither true nor
possible in anything but trivial systems. Nevertheless,
there is another route leading to the results which
Gibbs needed to bolster his hypothesis. The irony of
history is that this route was being explored very thoroughly in Paris at exactly the time when Gibbs was
working in New Haven; and yet it was not until 1920
that the Paris work met the New Haven work in a fruitful union. I had, I believe, the honor of assisting at the
birth of the first child of this union.
Gibbs had to work with theories of measure and
probability which were already at least twenty-five
years old and were grossly inadequate to his needs. At
the same time, however, Borel and Lebesgue in Paris
were devising the theory of integration which was to
prove apposite to the Gibbsian ideas. Borel was a mathematician who had already made his reputation in the
theory of probability and had an excellent physical
sense. He did work leading to this theory of measure,
but he did not reach the stage in which he could close
it into a complete theory. This was done by his pupil
Lebesgue, who was a very different sort of person. He
had neither the sense of physics nor an interest in it.
Nonetheless Lebesgue solved the problem put by
Borel, but he regarded the solution of this problem as
no more than a tool for Fourier series and other
branches of pure mathematics. A quarrel developed
between the two men when they both became candidates for admission to the French Academy of Sciences, and only after a great deal of mutual
denigration, did they both receive this honor. Borel,
however, continued to maintain the importance of
Lebesgue’s work and his own as a physical tool; but I
believe that I myself, in 1920, was the first person to
apply the Lebesgue integral to a specific physical problem-that of the Brownian motion.
This occurred long after Gibbs’ death, and his work
remained for two decades one of those mysteries of science which work even though it seems that they ought
not to work. Many men have had intuitions well ahead
of their time; and this is not least true in mathematical
physics. Gibbs’ introduction of probability into physics
occurred well before there was an adequate theory of
the sort of probability he needed. But for all these gaps
it is, I am convinced, Gibbs rather than Einstein or
Heisenberg or Planck to whom we must attribute the
first great revolution of twentieth century physics.
This revolution has had the effect that physics now
no longer claims to deal with what will always happen,
but rather with what will happen with an overwhelming probability. At the beginning in Gibbs’ own work
this contingent attitude was superimposed on a Newtonian base in which the elements whose probability
was to be discussed were systems obeying all of the
Newtonian laws. Gibbs’ theory was essentially new,
but the permutations with which it was compatible
were the same as those contemplated by Newton.
What has happened to physics since is that the rigid
Newtonian basis has been discarded or modified, and
the Gibbsian contingency now stands in its complete
nakedness as the full basis of physics. It is true that
the books are not yet quite closed on this issue and
that Einstein and, in some of his phases, De Broglie,
still contend that a rigid deterministic world is more
acceptable than a contingent one; but these great scientists are fighting a rear-guard action against the overwhelming force of a younger generation.
One interesting change that has taken place is that
in a probabilistic world we no longer deal with quantities and statements which concern a specific, real universe as a whole but ask instead questions which may
find their answers in a large number of similar universes. Thus chance has been admitted, not merely as
a mathematical tool for physics, but as part of its warp
and weft.
This recognition of an element of incomplete determinism, almost an irrationality in the world, is in a
certain way parallel to Freud’s admission of a deep irrational component in human conduct and thought. In
the present world of political as well as intellectual
confusion, there is a natural tendency to class Gibbs,
Freud, and the proponents of the modern theory of
probability together as representatives of a single tendency; yet I do not wish to press this point. The gap
between the Gibbs-Lebesgue way of thinking and
Freud’s intuitive but somewhat discursive method is
too large. Yet in their recognition of a fundamental element of chance in the texture of the universe itself,
these men are close to one another and close to the
tradition of St. Augustine. For this random element,
this organic incompleteness, is one which without too
violent a :Sgure of speech we may consider evil; the
negative evil which St. Augustine characterizes as incompleteness, rather than the positive malicious evil of
the Manichaeans.
This book is devoted to the impact of the Gibbsian
point of view on modern life, both through the substantive changes it has made in working science, and
through the changes it has made indirectly in our attitude to life in general Thus the following chapters
contain an element of technical description as well as
a philosophic component which concerns what we do
and how we should react to the new world that confronts us.
I repeat: Gibbs’ innovation was to consider not one
world, but all the worlds which are possible answers to
a limited set of questions concerning our environment.
His central notion concerned the extent to which answers that we may give to questions about one set of
worlds are probable among a larger set of worlds. Beyond this, Gibbs had a theory that this probability
tended naturally to increase as the universe grows
older. The measure of this probability is called entropy,
and the characteristic tendency of entropy is to increase.
As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed
systems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate
and lose their distinctiveness, to move from the least
to the most probable state, from a state of organization
and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state of chaos and sameness. In Gibbs’ universe
order is least probable, chaos most probable. But while
the universe as a whole, if indeed there is a whole universe, tends to run down, there are local enclaves
whose direction seems opposed to that of the universe
at large and in which there is a limited and temporary
tendency .for organization to increase. Life finds its
home in some of these enclaves. It is with this point of
view at its core that the new science of Cybernetics
began its development. 1
1 There are those who are skeptical as to the precise
identity between entropy and biological disorganization. It
will be necessary for me to evaluate these criticisms sooner
or later, but for the present I must assume that the differences lie, not in the fundamental nature of these quantities,
but in the systems in which they are observed. It is too
much to expect a final, clear~cut definition of entropy on
which all writers will agree in any less than the closed,
isolated system.
Since the end of World War II, I have been working
on the many ramifications of the theory of messages.
Besides the electrical engineering theory of the transmission of messages, there is a larger field which includes not only the study of language but 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. This larger theory of messages is
a probabilistic theory, an intrinsic part of the movement that owes its origin to Willard Gibbs and which
I have described in the introduction.
Until recently, there was no existing word for this
complex of ideas, and in order to embrace the whole
field by a single term, I felt constrained to invent one.
Hence “Cybernetics,” which I derived from the Greek
word kubemetes, or “steersman,” the same Greek word
from which we eventually derive our word “governor.”
Incidentally, I found later that the word had already
been used by Ampere with reference to political
science, and had been introduced in another context
by a Polish scientist, both uses dating from the earlier
part of the nineteenth century.
I wrote a more or less technical book entitled
Cybernetics which was published in 1948. In response
to a certain demand for me to make its ideas acceptable
to the lay public, I published the first edition of The
Human Use of Human Beings in 1950. Since then the
subject has grown from a few ideas shared by Drs.
Claude Shannon, Warren Weaver, and myself, into an
established region of research. Therefore, I take this
opportunity occasioned by the reprinting of my book
to bring it up to date, and to remove certain defects
and inconsequentialities in its original structure.
In giving the definition of Cybernetics in the original
book, I classed communication and control together.
Why did I do this? When I communicate with another
person, I impart a message to him, and when he communicates back with me he returns a related message
which contains information primarily accessible to him
and not to me. When I control the actions of another
person, I communicate a message to him, and although
this message is in the imperative mood, the technique
of communication does not differ from that of a message
of fact. Furthermore, 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
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 everincreasing part.
When I give an order to a machine, the situation is
not essentially different from that which arises when
I give an order to a person. In other words, as far as my
consciousness goes I am aware of the order that has
gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come
back. To me, personally, the fact that the signal in its
intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather
than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any
case greatly change my relation to the signal. Thus the
theory of control in engineering, whether human or
animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of
Naturally there are detailed differences in messages
and in problems of control, not only between a living
organism and a machine, but within each narrower
class of beings. It is the purpose of Cybernetics to develop a language and techniques that will enable us
indeed to attack the problem of control and communication in general, but also to find the proper repertory
of ideas and techniques to classify their particular
manifestations under certain concepts.
The commands through which we exercise our control over our environment are a kind of information
which we impart to it. Like any form of information,
these commands are subject to disorganization in
transit. They generally come through in less coherent
fashion and certainly not more coherently than they
were sent. 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.
Much of this book concerns the limits of communication within and among individuals. Man is immersed
in a world which he perceives through his sense organs.
Information that he receives is co-ordinated through
his brain and nervous system until, after the proper
process of storage, collation, and selection, it emerges
through effector organs, generally his muscles. These
in turn act on the external world, and also react on the
central nervous system through receptor organs such
as the end organs of kinaesthesia; and the information
received by the kinaesthetic organs is combined with
his already accumulated store of information to influence future action.
Information is a name for the content of what is
exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it,
and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of
receiving and of using information is the process of
our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life
make greater demands on this process of information
than ever before, and our press, our museums, our
scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and
textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process
or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live
with adequate information. Thus, communication and
control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even
as they belong to his life in society.
The place of the study of communication in the history of science is neither trivial, fortuitous, nor new.
Even before Newton such problems were current in
physics, especially in the work of Fermat, Huygens,
and Leibnitz, each of whom shared an interest in
physics whose focus was not mechanics but optics, the
communication of visual images.
Fermat furthered the study of optics with his principle of minimization which says that over any sufficiently short part of its course, light follows the path
which it takes the least time to traverse. Huygens developed the primitive form of what is now known as
“Huygens’ Principle” by saying that light spreads from
a source by forming around that source something like
a small sphere consisting of secondary sources which
in turn propagate light just as the primary sources do.
Leibnitz, in the meantime, saw the whole world as a
collection of beings called “monads” whose activity
consisted in the perception of one another on the basis
of a pre-established harmony laid down by God, and it
is fairly clear that he thought of this interaction largely
in optical terms. Apart from this perception, the monads had no “windows,” so that in his view all mechanical interaction really becomes nothing more than a
subtle consequence of optical interaction.
A preoccupation with optics and with message,
which is apparent in this part of Leibnitz’s philosophy,
runs through its whole texture. It plays a large part in
two of his most original ideas: that of the Characteristica Universalis, or universal scientific language, and
that of the Calculus Ratiocinator, or calculus of logic.
This Calculus Ratiocinator, imperfect as it was, was
the direct ancestor of modern mathematical logic.
Leibnitz, dominated by ideas of communication, is,
in more than one way, the intellectual ancestor of the
ideas of this book, for he was also interested in machine
computation and in automata. My views in this book are
very far from being Leibnitzian, but the problems with
which I am concerned are most certainly Leibnitzian.
Leibnitz’s computing machines were only an offshoot
of his interest in a computing language, a reasoning
calculus which again was in his mind, merely an extention of his idea of a complete artificial language.
Thus, even in his computing machine, Leibnitz’s preoccupations were mostly linguistic and communicational.
Toward the middle of the last century, the work of
Clerk Maxwell and of his precursor, Faraday, had attracted the attention of physicists once more to optics,
the science of light, which was now regarded as a form
of electricity that could be reduced to the mechanics
of a curious, rigid, but invisible medium known as the
ether, which, at the time, was supposed to permeate
the atmosphere, interstellar space and all transparent
materials. Clerk Maxwell’s work on optics consisted in
the mathematical development of ideas which had
been previously expressed in a cogent but non-mathematical form by Faraday. The study of ether raised
certain questions whose answers were obscure, as, for
example, that of the motion of matter through the ether.
The famous experiment of Michelson and Morley, in
the nineties, was undertaken to resolve this problem,
and it gave the entirely unexpected answer that there
simply was no way to determine the motion of matter
through the ether.
The first satisfactory solution to the problems aroused
by this experiment was that of Lorentz, who pointed
out that if the forces holding matter together were conceived as being themselves electrical or optical in
nature, we should expect a negative result from the
Michelson-Morley experiment. However, Einstein in
1905 translated these ideas of Lorentz into a form in
which the unobservability of absolute motion was rather
a postulate of physics than the result of any particular
structure of matter. For our purposes, the important
thing is that in Einstein’s work, light and matter are
on an equal basis, as they had been in the writings
llefore Newton; without the Newtonian subordination
of everything else to matter and mechanics.
In explaining his views, Einstein makes abundant
use of the observer who may be at rest or may be
moving. In his theory of relativity it is impossible to
introduce the observer without also introducing the
idea of message, and without, in fact, returning the
emphasis of physics to a quasi-Leibnitzian state, whose
tendency is once again optical. Einstein’s theory of relativity and Gibbs’ statistical mechanics are in sharp
contrast, in that Einstein, like Newton, is still talking
primarily in terms of an absolutely rigid dynamics not
introducing the idea of probability. Gibbs’ work, on
the other hand, is probabilistic from the very start, yet
both directions of work represent a shift in the point
of view of physics in which the world as it actually
exists is replaced in some sense or other by the world
as it happens to be observed, and the old naive realism
of physics gives way to something on which Bishop
Berkeley might have smiled with pleasure.
At this point it is appropriate for us to review certain
notions pertaining to entropy which have already been
presented in the introduction. As we have said, the
idea of entropy represents several of the most important departures of Gibbsian mechanics from Newtonian mechanics. In Gibbs’ view we have a physical
quantity which belongs not to the outside world as
such, but to certain sets of possible outside worlds, and
therefore to the answer to certain specific questions
which we can ask concerning the outside world.
Physics now becomes not the discussion of an outside
universe which may be regarded as the total answer
to all the questions concerning it, but an account of
the answers to much more limited questions. In fact,
we are now no longer concerned with the study of all
possible outgoing and incoming messages which we
may send and receive, but with the theory of much
more specific outgoing and incoming messages; and it
involves a measurement of the no-longer infinite amount
of information that they yield us.
Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the
external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible
to interpret the information carried by a message as
essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative
logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable
the message, the less information it gives. Cliches, for
example, are less illuminating than great poems.
I have already referred to Leibnitz’s interest in
automata, an interest incidentally shared by his contemporary, Pascal, who made real contributions to the
development of what we now know as the desk addingmachine. Leibnitz saw in the concordance of the time
given by clocks set at the same time, the model for the
pre-established harmony of his monads. For the technique embodied in the automata of his time was that of
the clockmaker. Let us consider the activity of the little
figures which dance on the top of a music box. They
move in accordance with a pattern, but it is a pattern
which is set in advance, and in which the past activity
of the figures has practically nothing to do with the
pattern of their future activity. The probability that
they will diverge from this pattern is nil. There is a
message, indeed; but it goes from the machinery of
the music box to the figures, and stops there. The figures themselves have no trace of communication with
the outer world, except this one-way stage of communication with the pre-established mechanism of the music
box. They are blind, deaf, and dumb, and cannot vary
their activity in the least from the conventionalized
Contrast with them the behavior of man, or indeed
of any moderately intelligent animal such as a kitten.
I call to the kitten and it looks up. I have sent it a
message which it has received by its sensory organs,
and which it registers in action. The kitten is hungry
and lets out a pitiful wail. This time it is the sender of
a message. The kitten bats at a swinging spool. The
spool swings to its left, and the kitten catches it with
its left paw. This time messages of a very complicated
nature are both sent and received within the kitten’s
own nervous system through certain nerve end-bodies
in its joints, muscles, and tendons; and by means of
nervous messages sent by these organs, the animal is
aware of the actual position and tensions of its tissues.
It is only through these organs that anything like a
manual skill is possible.
I have contrasted the prearranged behavior of the
little figures on the music box on the one hand, and the
contingent behavior of human beings and animals on
the other. But we must not suppose that the music box
is typical of all machine behavior.
The older machines, and in particular the older attempts to produce automata, did in fact function on a
closed clockwork basis. But modern automatic machines such as the controlled missile, the proximity
fuse, the automatic door opener, the control apparatus
for a chemical factory, and the rest of the modern
armory of automatic machines which perform military
or industrial functions, possess sense organs; that is,
receptors for messages coming from the outside. These
may be as simple as photoelectric cells which change
electrically when a light falls on them, and which can
tell light from dark, or as complicated as a television
set. They may measure a tension by the change it produces in the conductivity of a wire exposed to it, or
they may measure temperature by means of a thermocouple, which is an instrument consisting of two distinct metals in contact with one another through which
a current Haws when one of the points of contact is
heated. Every instrument in the repertory of the
scientific-instrument maker is a possible sense organ,
and may be made to record its reading remotely
through the intervention of appropriate electrical apparahls. Thus the machine which is conditioned by
its relation to the external world, and by the things
happening in the external world, is with us and has
been with us for some time.
The machine which acts on the external world by
means of messages is also familiar. The automatic photoelectric door opener is known to every person who has
passed through the Pennsylvania Station in New York,
and is used in many other buildings as well. When a
message consisting of the interception of a beam of
light is sent to the apparatus, this message actuates the
door, and opens it so that the passenger may go through.
The steps between the actuation of a machine of
this type by sense organs and its performance of a
task may be as simple as in the case of the electric
door; or it may be in fact of any desired degree of
complexity within the limits of our engineering techniques. A complex action is one in which the data
introduced, which we call the input, to obtain an effect
on the outer world, which we call the output, may
involve a large number of combinations. These are
combinations, both of the data put in at the moment
and of the records taken from the past stored data
which we call the memory. These are recorded in the
machine. The most complicated machines yet made
which transform input data into output data are the
high-speed electrical computing machines, of which I
shall speak later in more detail. The determination of
the mode of conduct of these machines is given through
a special sort of input, which frequently consists of
punched cards or tapes or of magnetized wires, and
which determines the way in which the machine is going to act in one operation, as distinct from the way in
which it might have acted in another. Because of the
frequent use of punched or magnetic tape in the control, the data which are fed in, and which indicate the
mode of operation of one of these machines for combining information, are called the taping.
I have said that man and the animal have a kinaesthetic sense, by which they keep a record of the
position and tensions of their muscles. For any machine
subject to a varied external environment to act effectively it is necessary that information concerning the
results of its own action be furnished to it as part of the
information on which it must continue to act. For example, if we are running an elevator, it is not enough
to open the outside door because the orders we have
given should make the elevator be at that door at the
time we open it. It is important that the release for
opening the door be dependent on the fact that the
elevator is actually at the door; otherwise something
might have detained it, and the passenger might step
into the empty shaft. This control of a machine on the
basis of its actual performance rather than its expected
performance is known as feedback, and involves sensory members which are actuated by motor members
and perform the function of tell-tales or monitorsthat is, of elements which indicate a performance. It
is the function of these mechanisms to control the mechanical tendency toward disorganization; in other
words, to produce a temporary and local reversal of
the normal direction of entropy.
I have just mentioned the elevator as an example of
feedback. There are other cases where the importance
of feedback is even more apparent. For example, a
gun-pointer takes information from his instruments of
observation, and conveys it to the gun, so that the
latter will point in such a direction that the missile will
pass through the moving target at a certain time. Now,
the gun itself must be used under all conditions of
weather. In some of these the grease is warm, and the
gun swings easily and rapidly. Under other conditions
the grease is frozen or mixed with sand, and the gun
is slow to answer the orders given to it. If these orders
are reinforced by an extra push given when the gun
fails to respond easily to the orders and lags behind
them, then the error of the gun-pointer will be decreased. To obtain a performance as uniform as possible, it is customary to put into the gun a control feedback element which reads the lag of the gun behind
the position it should have according to the orders
given it, and which uses this difference to give the gun
an extra push.
It is true that precautions must be taken so that the
push is not too hard, for if it is, the gun will swing past
its proper position, and will have to be pulled back in a
series of oscillations, which may well become wider
and wider, and lead to a disastrous instability. If the
feedback system is itself controlled-if, in other words,
its own entropic tendencies are checked by still other
controlling mechanisms-and kept within limits sufficiently stringent, this will not occur, and the existence
of the feedback will increase the stability of performance of the gun. In other words, the performance will
become less dependent on the frictional load; or what
is the same thing, on the drag created by the stiffness
of the grease.
Something very similar to this occurs in human action.
If I pick up my cigar, I do not will to move any specific
muscles. Indeed in many cases, I do not know what
those muscles are. What I do is to turn into action a
certain feedback mechanism; namely, a reflex in which
the amount by which I have yet failed to pick up the
cigar is turned into a new and increased order to the
lagging muscles, whichever they may be. In this way,
a fairly uniform voluntary command will enable the
same task to be performed from widely varying initial positions, and irrespective of the decrease of contraction due to fatigue of the muscles. Similarly, when
I drive a car, I do not follow out a series of commands
dependent simply on a mental image of the road and
the task I am doing. If I find the car swerving too much
to the right, that causes me to pull it to the left. This
depends on the actual performance of the car, and not
simply on the road; and it allows me to drive with
nearly equal efficiency a light Austin or a heavy truck,
without having formed separate habits for the driving
of the two. I shall have more to say about this in the
chapter in this book on special machines, where we
shall discuss the service that can be done to neuropathology by the study of machines with defects in performance similar to those occurring in the human
It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the
living individual and the operation of some of the newer
communication machines are precisely parallel in their
analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback. Both of them have sensory receptors as one stage
in their cycle of operation: that is, in both of them
there exists a special apparatus for collecting information from the outer world at low energy levels, and
for making it available in the operation of the individual or of the machine. In both cases these external
messages are not taken neat, but through the internal
transforming powers of the apparatus, whether it be
alive or dead. The information is then turned into a
new form available for the further stages of performance. In both the animal and the machine this performance is made to be effective on the outer world.
In both of them, their performed action on the outer
world, and not merely their intended action, is reported back to the central regulatory apparatus. This
complex of behavior is ignored by the average man,
and in particular does not play the role that it should
in our habitual analysis of society; for just as individual physical responses may be seen from this point of
view, so may the organic responses of society itself. I
do not mean that the sociologist is unaware of the existence and complex nature of communications in
society, but until recently he has tended to overlook the
extent to which they are the cement which binds its
fabric together.
We have seen in this chapter the fundamental unity
of a complex of ideas which until recently had not
been sufficiently associated with one another, namely,
the contingent view of physics that Gibbs introduced
as a modification of the traditional, Newtonian conventions, the Augustinian attitude toward order and
conduct which is demanded by this view, and the
theory of the message among men, machines, and in
society as a sequence of events in time which, though
it itself has a certain contingency, strives to hold back
nature’s tendency toward disorder by adjusting its
parts to various purposive ends.
As we have said, nature·s statistical tendency to disorder, the tendency for entropy to increase in isolated
systems, is expressed by the second law of thermodynamics. We, as human beings, are not isolated systems. We take in food, which generates energy, from
the outside, and are, as a result, parts of that larger
world which contains those sources of our vitality. But
even more important is the fact that we take in information through our sense organs, and we act on information received
Now the physicist is already familiar with the signif:
icance of this statement as far as it concerns our relations with the environment. A brilliant expression of
the role of information in this respect is provided by
Clerk Maxwell, in the form of the so-called “Maxwell
demon,” which we may describe as follows.
Suppose that we have a container of gas, whose temperature is everywhere the same. Some molecules of
this gas will be moving faster than others. Now let us
suppose that there is a little door in the container that
let~ the gas into a tube which runs to a heat engine,
and that the exhaust of this heat engine is connected
by another tube back to the gas chamber, through another door. At each door there is a little being with the
power of watching the on-coming molecules and of
opening or closing the doors in accordance with their
The demon at the first door opens it only for highspeed molecules and closes it in the face of low-speed
molecules coming from the container. The role of the
demon at the second door is exactly the opposite: he
opens the door only for low-speed molecules coming
from the container and closes it in the face of highspeed molecules. The result is that the temperature
goes up at one end and down at the other thus creating
a perpetual motion of “the second kind,: that is, a
perpetual motion which does not violate the first law
of thermodynamics, which tells us that the amount of
energy within a given system is constant, but does
violate the second law of thermodynamics, which tells
us that energy spontaneously runs down hill in temperature. In other words, the Maxwell demon seems to
overcome the tendency of entropy to increase.
Perhaps I can illustrate this idea still further by considering a crowd milling around in a subway at two
turnstiles, one of which will only let people out if they
are observed to be running at a certain speed, and the
other of which will only let people out if they are
moving slowly. The fortuitous movement of the people
in the subway will show itself as a stream of fast-moving
people coming from the first turnstile, whereas the second turnstile will only let through slow-moving people.
If these two turnstiles are connected by a passageway
with a treadmill in it, the fast-moving people will have
a greater tendency to turn the treadmill in one direction than the slow people to tum it in the other, and we
shall gather a source of useful energy in the fortuitous
milling around of the crowd.
Here there emerges a very interesting distinction
between the physics of our grandfathers and that of
the present day. In nineteenth century physics, it
seemed to cost nothing to get information. The result is
that there is nothing in Maxwell’s physics to prevent
one of his demons from furnishing its own power source.
Modern physics, however, recognizes that the demon
can only gain the information with which it opens or
closes the door from something like a sense organ
which for these purposes is an eye. The light that
strikes the demon’s eye is not an energy-less supplement of mechanical motion, but shares in the main
properties of mechanical motion itself. Light cannot be
received by any instrument unless it hits it, and cannot
indicate the position of any particle unless it hits the
particle as well. This means, then, that even from a
purely mechanical point of view we cannot consider
the gas chamber as containing mere gas, but rather gas
and light which may or may not be in equilibrium. If
the gas and the light are in equilibrium, it can be shown
as a consequence of present physical doctrine that the
Maxwell demon will be as blind as if there were no
light at all. We shall have a cloud of light coming from
every direction, giving no indication of the position and
momenta of the gas particles. Therefore the Maxwell
demon will work only in a system that is not in equilibrium. In such a system, however, it will turn out
that the constant collision between light and gas particles tends to bring the light and particles to an equilibrium. Thus while the demon may temporarily reverse the usual direction of entropy, ultimately it too
will wear down.
The Maxwell demon can work indefinitely only if
additional light comes from outside the system and
does not correspond in temperature to the mechanical
temperature of the particles themselves. This is a
situation which should be perfectly familiar to us, because we see the universe around us reflecting light
from the sun, which is very far from being in equilibrium with mechanical systems on the earth. Strictly
speaking, we are confronting particles whose temperature is so or oo· F. with a light which comes from a
sun at many thousands of degrees.
In a system which is not in equilibrium, or in part
of such a system, entropy need not increase. It may,
in fact, decrease locally. Perhaps this non-equilibrium
of the world about us is merely a stage in a downhill
course which will ultimately lead to equilibrium. Sooner
or later we shall die, and it is highly probable that the
whole universe around us will die the heat death, in
which the world shall be reduced to one vast temperature equilibrium in which nothing really new ever
happens. There will be nothing left but a drab uniformity out of which we can expect only minor and
insignificant local fluctuations.
But we are not yet spectators at the last stages of
the world’s death. In fact these last stages can have
no spectators. Therefore, in the world with which we
are immediately concerned there are stages which,
though they occupy an insignificant fraction of eternity, are of great significance for our purposes, for in
them entropy does not increase and organization and
its correlative, information, are being built up.
What I have said about these enclaves of increasing
organization is not confined merely to organization as
exhibited by living beings. Machines also contribute
to a local and temporary building up of information,
notwithstanding their crude and imperfect organization compared with that of ourselves.
Here I want to interject the semantic point that such
words as life, purpose, and soul are grossly inadequate
to precise scientific thinking. These terms have gained
their significance through our recognition of the unity
of a certain group of phenomena, and do not in fact
furnish us with any adequate basis to characterize this
unity. Whenever we find a new phenomenon which
partakes to some degree of the nature of those which
we have already termed “living phenomena,” but does
not conform to all the associated aspects which define
the term “life,” we are faced with the problem whether
to enlarge the word “life” so as to include them, or
to define it in a more restrictive way so as to exclude
them. We have encountered this problem in the past
in considering viruses, which show some of the tend~
encies of life-to persist, to multiply, and to organizeCYBERNETICS AND SOCIETY
but do not express these tendencies in a fully-developed form. Now that certain analogies of behavior are
being observed between the machine and the living
organism, the problem as to whether the machine is
alive or not is, for our purposes, semantic and we are
at liberty to answer it one way or the other as best suits
our convenience. As Humpty Dumpty says about some
of his more remarkable words, “I pay them extra, and
make them dow hat I want.”
If we wish to use the word “life” to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the
current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do
so. However, we shall then include many astronomical
phenomena which have only the shadiest resemblance
to life as we ordinarily know it. It is in my opinion,
therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets
such as “life,” ”soul,” “vitalism,” and the like, and say
merely in connection with machines that there is no
reason why they may not resemble human beings in
representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.
When I compare the living organism with such a
machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific
physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we
ordinarily know it are the same as those of life-imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes, which perhaps
may also be exemplified in many other ways which we
should naturally term neither biological nor mechanical.
While it is impossible to make any universal statements concerning life-imitating automata in a field
which is growing as rapidly as that of automatization,
there are some general features of these machines as
they actually exist that I should like to emphasize. One
is that they are machines to perform some definite task
or tasks, and therefore must possess effector organs
(analogous to arms and legs in human beings) with
which such tasks can be performed. The second point
is that they must be en rapport with the outer world
by sense organs, such as photoelectric cells and thermometers, which not only tell them what the existing
circumstances are, but enable them to record the performance or nonperformance of their own tasks. This
last function, as we have seen, is called feedback, the
property of being able to adjust future conduct by past
performance. Feedback may be as simple as that of the
common reflex, or it may be a higher order feedback,
in which past experience is used not only to regulate
specific movements, but also whole policies of behavior. Such a policy-feedback may, and often does,
appear to be what we know under one aspect as a
conditioned reflex, and under another as learning.
For all these forms of behavior, and particularly for
the more complicated ones, we must have central decision organs which determine what the machine is to
do next on the basis of information fed back to it, which
it stores by means analogous to the memory of a living
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 such as have been described by Dr. Grey
Walter in his book, The Living Brain. At present the
more complicated machines of this type are nothing
but scientific toys for the exploration of the possibilities of the machine itself and of its analogue, the nervous system. But there is reason to anticipate that the
developing technology of the near future will use some
of these potentialities.
Thus the nervous system and the automatic machine
are fundamentally alike in that they are devices which
make decisions on the basis of decisions they have
made in the past. The simplest mechanical devices will
make decisions between two alternatives, such as the
closing or opening of a switch. In the nervous system,
the individual nerve fiber also decides between carrying an impulse or not. In both the machine and the
nerve, there is a specific apparatus for making future
decisions depend on past decisions, and in the nervous
system a large part of this task is done at those extremely complicated points called “synapses” where a
number of incoming nerve fibers connect with a single
outgoing nerve fiber. In many cases it is possible to
state the basis of these decisions as a threshold of action
of the synapse, or in other words, by telling how many
incoming fibers should fire in order that the outgoing
fibers may fire.
This is the basis of at least part of the analogy between machines and living organisms. The synapse in
the living organism corresponds to the switching device in the machine. For further development of the
detailed relationship between machines and living
organisms, one should consult the extremely inspiring
books of Dr. Walter and Dr. W. Ross Ashby. 1
The machine, like the living organism, is, as I have
said, a device which locally and temporarily seems to
resist the general tendency for the increase of entropy.
By its ability to make decisions it can produce around
it a local zone of organization in a world whose general
tendency is to run down.
The scientist is always working to discover the order
and organization of the universe, and is thus playing
a game against the arch enemy, disorganization. Is this
devil Manichaean or Augustinian? Is it a contrary force
opposed to order or is it the very absence of order
itself? The difference between these two sorts of demons
will make itself apparent in the tactics to be used
against them. The Manichaean devil is an opponent,
1 W. Ross Ashby, Design for a Brain, Wiley, New York,
1952, and W. Grey Walter, The Limng Brain, Norton, New
York, 1953·
like any other opponent, who is detennined on victory
and will use any trick of craftiness or dissimulation to
obtain this victory. In particular, he will keep his policy
of confusion secret, and if we show any signs of beginning to discover his policy, he will change it in order
to keep us in the dark. On the other hand, the Augustinian devil, which is not a power in itself, but the
measure of our own weakness, may require our full
resources to uncover, but when we have uncovered it,
we have in a certain sense exorcised it, and it will not
alter its policy on a matter already decided with the
mere intention of confounding us further. The Manichaean devil is playing a game of poker against us
and will resort readily to bluffing; which, as von Neumann explains in his Theory of Games, is intended not
merely to enable us to win on a bluff, but to prevent the
other side from winning on the basis of a certainty
that we will not bluff.
Compared to this Manichaean being of renned malice, the Augustinian devil is stupid. He plays a difficult
game, but he may be defeated by our intelligence as
thoroughly as by a sprinkle of holy water.
As to the nature of the devil, we have an aphorism
of Einstein’s which is more than an aphorism, and is
really a statement concerning the foundations of scientinc method. ‘”The Lord is subtle, but he isn’t simply
mean.” Here the word ‘”Lord” is used to describe those
forces in nature which include what we have attributed to his very humble servant, the Devil, and
Einstein means to say that these forces do not bluff.
Perhaps this devil is not far in meaning from Mephistopheles. When Faust asked Mephistopheles what he
was, Mephistopheles replied, ‘”A part of that force
which always seeks evil and always does good.” In
other words, the devil is not unlimited in his ability
to deceive, and the scientist who looks for a positive
force determined to confuse us in the universe which
he is investigating is wasting his time. Nature offers
resistance to decoding, but it does not show ingenuity
in finding new and undecipherable methods for jamming our communication with the outer world.
This distinction between the passive resistance of
nature and the active resistance of an opponent suggests a distinction between the research scientist and
the warrior or the game player. The research physicist
has all the time in the world to carry out his experiments, and he need not fear that nature will in time
discover his tricks and method and change her policy.
Therefore, his work is governed by his best moments,
whereas a chess player cannot make one mistake without finding an alert adversary ready to take advantage
of it and to defeat him. Thus the chess player is governed more by his worst moments than by his best
moments. I may be prejudiced about this claim: for I
have found it possible myself to do effective work in
science, while my chess has been continually vitiated
by my carelessness at critical instants.
The scientist is thus disposed to regard his opponent
as an honorable enemy. This attitude is necessary for
his effectiveness as a scientist, but tends to make him
the dupe of unprincipled people in war and in politics.
It also has the effect of making it hard for the general
public to understand him, for the general public is
much more concerned with personal antagonists than
with nature as an antagonist.
We are immersed in a life in which the world as a
whole obeys the second law of thermodynamics: confusion increases and order decreases. Yet, as we have
seen, the second law of thermodynamics, while it may
be a valid statement about the whole of a closed
system, is definitely not valid concerning a non-isolated
part of it. There are local and temporary islands of
decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as
a whole tends to increase. and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress. What can we say about the general direction of
the battle between progress and increasing entropy in
the world immediately about us?
The Enlightenment, as we all know, fostered the
idea of progress, even though there were among the
men of the eighteenth century some who felt that this
progress was subject to a law of diminishing returns,
and that the Golden Age of society would not differ
very much from what they saw about them. The crack
in the fabric of the Enlightenment, marked by the
French Revolution, was accompanied by doubts of
progress elsewhere. Malthus, for example, sees the cui~
ture of his age about to sink into the slough of an un~
controlled increase in population, swallowing up all
the gains so far made by humanity.
The line of intellectual descent from Malthus to Dar~
win is clear. Darwin’s great innovation in the theory of
evolution was that he conceived of it not as a
Lamarckian spontaneous ascent from higher to higher
and from better to better, but as a phenomenon in
which living beings showed (a) a spontaneous tend~
ency to develop in many directions, and (b) a tend~
ency to follow the pattern of their ancestors. The
combination of these two effects was to prune an over~
lush developing nature and to deprive it of those or~
ganisms which were ill-adapted to their environment,
by a process of “natural selection.” The result of this
pruning was to leave a residual pattern of forms of
life more or less well adapted to their environment.
This residual pattern, according to Darwin, assumes
the appearance of universal purposiveness.
The concept of a residual pattern has come to the
fore again in the work of Dr. W. Ross Ashby. He uses
it to explain the concept of machines that learn. He
points out that a machine of rather random and hap~
hazard structure will have certain near-equilibrium
positions, and certain positions far from equilibrium,
and that the near-equilibrium patterns will by their
very nature last for a long time, while the others will
appear only temporarily. The result is that in Ashby’s
machine, as in Darwin’s nature, we have the appearance of a purposefulness in a system which is not purposefully constructed simply because purposelessness
is in its very nature transitory. Of course, in the long
run, the great trivial purpose of maximum entropy will
appear to be the most enduring of all. But in the intermediate stages an organism or a society of organisms will tend to dally longer in those modes of activity
in which the different parts work together, according to
a more or less meaningful pattern.
I believe that Ashby’s brilliant idea of the unpurposeful random mechanism which seeks for its own
purpose through a process of learning is not only one of
the great philosophical contributions of the present
day, but will lead to highly useful technical developments in the task of au…
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