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1948 Fifty Years Ago

February 2024
2min read

The Geeks Have a Word for It

As 1948 came to an end, America’s intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals were avidly discussing the book that would launch a thousand compound words, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine , by Norbert Wiener. The book had come out in the fall but took a while to catch on as readers struggled with its daunting mix of mathematical notation (which pops up without warning around page 60), formal logic, metaphysics, neurophysiology, psychopathology, electronics, and socialism, all set forth in orotund sentences of baffling length and complexity. Like the latter-day Goedel, Escher, Bach and The Name of the Rose, Cybernetics became known as a book that millions bought and dozens finished. In time, however, enough readers either fought their way through or skipped the hard parts to make Cybernetics the hottest thing in faculty lounges, coffeehouses, and dormitory rooms across the country.

Wiener was a former child prodigy who had graduated from Tufts in 1909 at the age of fourteen. As a boy he had had the good fortune to be overshadowed by an even greater whiz kid, William James Sidis, who lectured at Harvard on four-dimensional bodies in 1910 at age eleven. Unlike Wiener, Sidis soon tired of academic life and fled from public view, and however abstruse Cybernetics may seem, it cannot help being more interesting than Sidis’s only publication, a three-hundred-page treatise on streetcar transfers. Wiener went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard (after getting kicked out of Cornell) in 1913 and eventually ended up in the mathematics department at MIT. Cybernetics brought together decades’ worth of his scattershot notions about intelligent machines, feedback, causality, geometry, perception, and just about everything else.

Nowadays critics tend to agree that Wiener was a much better thinker than writer. One biographer calls Cybernetics “a collection of misprints, wrong mathematical statements, mistaken formulas, splendid but unrelated ideas, and logical absurdities.” Another says: “In retrospect it is hard to understand what all the fuss was about.” Despite its flaws, Cybernetics remains influential among those stout souls with the patience to disentangle Wiener’s worthwhile thoughts from the morass. Still, the book’s most pervasive legacy is the first half of its title.

As the inventor of a new field, Wiener had the privilege of naming it. Since his ideas were all related (quite loosely in some cases) to the concept of control and guidance, he came up with a word based on the Greek kubernetes , meaning “helmsman” or “steersman.” Wiener later learned that comparable terms had been used in the 184Os by the French physicist André-Marie Ampère (cybernetique) and a Polish writer named Trentowski (cypernetyki) . Further inquiry discovered a similar word in one of Plato’s dialogues.

The usefully vague neologism spread rapidly, and in the 1950s and 1960s it seemed to appear in the title of every book with pretensions of deepness: Psycho-Cybernetics, Philosophy and Cybernetics , even The Cybernetic ESP Breakthrough . Like the more recent postmodern , the word was slippery enough to apply to almost any situation, and if it was used with sufficient assurance, readers or listeners would blame themselves when they didn’t understand what it meant.

Compounds began to spring up too, such as cybernation (control by machines), cyborg (a human-machine hybrid, contracted from cybernetic organism ), and the cyberpunk school of science fiction. But it took the Internet to make a prefix denoting control grow completely out of control. Once everyone had heard all the puns that could be made from the phrase information superhighway, cyber - became the favorite way to indicate that something was related to computers. Hackers were said to be in cyberspace instead of the more precise but less impressive wasting time with video games . A tabloid headline used cyberslut to describe a woman accused of making adulterous assignations via the Internet. The 1998 Manhattan telephone directory lists more than fifty businesses that start with the prefix, including the menacing Cybergrrl and the mysterious Cyberitalian. There is no telling how Wiener, who died in 1964, would have reacted to the modern bastardization of the word he coined. It’s likely, though, that he would have taken enthusiastically to Cyberspace, whose constant jumping from topic to topic can be every bit as engrossing and annoying as his book.

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