Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine


~800 words


Last modified: February 18th, 12,019 HE

Certainly the enzyme and the living organism are alike metastable: the stable state of an enzyme is to be deconditioned, and the stable state of a living organism is to be dead.

Dr Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine

Dr Norbert Wiener’s seminal 1948 work, which birthed the field of cybernetics, addresses the prevalence of information theory and feedback loops within biological organisms. Wiener begins with a lengthy introduction which details the formation of the nascent field and those who were instrumental in doing so.

Wiener describes the differences between Newtonian astronomy, with its predictable paths and atomic elements, and meteorology, with its complex interactions and chaos, adding that whilst …most sciences lie in an intermediate position…most are rather nearer to meteorology than to astronomy.

I confess that I skipped some of the initial, maths-heavy chapters, but I don’t think that the remainder of the book was damaged by my doing so. As he moved from biological organisms to computer systems, Wiener appears to prefigure the Unix Philosophy:

In the mechanical or electrical construction of computing machines, there are a few maxims which deserve consideration. One is that mechanisms which are relatively frequently used, such as multiplying or adding mechanisms, should be in the form of relatively standardized assemblages adapted for one particular use and no other, while those of more occasional use should be assembled for the moment of use out of elements also available for other purposes.

In the penultimate chapter, Wiener applies his cybernetic theory of feedback loops to psychopathology, though he acknowledges that he is …not a psychopathologist nor a psychiatrist, and lack[s] any experience in a field where the guidance of experience is the only trustworthy one. Despite this, he makes an observation that I found quite interesting in relation to our contemporary political polarisation:

In a system containing a large number of neurons, circular processes can hardly be stable for long periods of time. Either, as in the case of memories belonging to the specious present, they run their course, dissipate themselves, and die out, or they comprehend more and more neurons in their system, until they occupy an inordinate part of the neuron pool. This is what we should expect to be the case in the malignant worry which accompanies anxiety neuroses. In such a case, it is possible that the patient simply does not have the room, the sufficient number of neurons, to carry out [their] normal process of thought…Furthermore, the permanent memory becomes more and more deeply involved, and the pathological process which occurred at first at the level of the circulating memories may repeat itself in a more intractable form at the level of the permanent memories. Thus what started as a relatively trivial and accidental reversal of stability may build itself up into a process totally destructive to the ordinary mental life.

In the final chapter, Wiener discusses the impact of information and language on society, writing that the race (meaning the human species) …is really too broad a term for the scope of most communal information and that [p]roperly speaking, the community extends only so far as there extends an effectual transmission of information. I was left thinking of something I wrote a while ago when he writes that, [l]ike the wolf park, although let us hope to a lesser extent, the State is stupider than most of its components.

Finally, Wiener issues a warning about those who try to control the inherent anarchy of society:

There is another group of those who see nothing good in the anarchy of modern society, and in whom an optimistic feeling that there must be some way out has led to an overvaluation of the possible homeostatic elements in the community. Much as we may sympathize with these individuals and appreciate the emotional dilemma in which they find themselves, we cannot attribute too much value to this type of wishful thinking. It is the mode of thought of the mice when faced with the problem of belling the cat. Undoubtedly it would be very pleasant for us mice if the predatory cats of this world were to be belled, but—who is going to do it? Who is to assure us that ruthless power will not find its way back into the hands of those most avid for it?