What I see as the most beneficial part of reading Norbert Wiener’s 1950 book The Human Use of Human Being: Cybernetics and Society is a really strong counterpoint to much of the literature and film which I have been consuming which runs counter to his central thesis: that automation holds real benefits for society. Unlike the other sources which we have read, this is a primary source document, not a history, directly dealing with a counter-argument to what Kurt Vonnegut is doing in Player Piano, that is, analyzing the meaning of productive communication and discussing ways for humans and machines to cooperate, with the potential to amplify human power and release people from the repetitive drudgery of manual labor, in favor of more creative pursuits. Thus, Wiener is taking the plot of Player Piano and telling it as a positive story, where the people in “The Homestead” have leisure time to pursue a higher order of activity, rather than lowering themselves to the manual labor that the machines can do for them.  The thesis of the book is 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 ever-increasing part.” This idea of message transmission between humans and machines, a sort of co-op of living in harmony with machines, fits with the general theme of the 1950s, that we all come together to create progress. When it comes down to it, that is what the entirety of this book is, it is an argument for the “progress” of human society, in all facets, not just in automation, and technologies related to corporate America and production.

Wiener is a huge fan of the progress narrative to technology, science and medicine, which i think really comes back to the fact that he was the forerunner in the field of study of cybernetics, and really a champion of those ideas. He has this idea that robotics will be at the forefront of medicine, helping the handicap, changing the function of the brain for impaired individuals, fundamentally changing our senses. He is an advocate for enhancing the human body to the point where it seems difficult to even call it a human body. I found this to be very interesting, since I am so interested in identities, it seems at its heart, Wiener is working to change what it means to be human. This fits with the idea that machines are meant to interact in harmony with people, and remove them from the monotony of every day living. It really reminded me of my reading of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, whom I have found to be a great counterpoint in fiction to the technological views of Kurt Vonnegut. He is much more positive in his outlook on machines than Vonnegut is, even though they are writing at about the same time (I, Robot was released in 1950, and Player Piano was released in 1952). However, I do not want to go so far as to say that Wiener was a particularly big fan of automatons, in the same way that Asimov was.

Wiener is skeptical of automatons, mainly due to human beings and their treatment of such machinery. If you have machines which can learn and think and interact in a nearly human way, they can escape our control, or we might even become entirely dependent or controlled by them. There is danger in trusting too much in machines because they have not yet learned to think abstractly. The case of Charlie Checker in Player Piano would seem to agree with this point by Wiener, though Vonnegut is trying to make the point that machines can never fully replace humans in that instant, because the machine is incapable of beating a man in a game of checkers (incidentally, the machine is still being run by a man, so it is hard to call it an automaton). All of that being said though, Weiner’s views on automation replacing human labor really are a great counterpoint to Vonnegut’s views on labor intensive jobs. They also seem to fit with the views of the businessmen which we discussed last week in Invisible Hands who were actively trying to deunionize, though maybe not entirely try to get rid of human workers all together. Vonnegut believed that men took pride and got their self-worth from working, no matter what that work was, while the corporations and Weiner would seem to disagree on that point.