Thursday, September 30, 2010

Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert Wiener and Cybernetic Anxiety

Cybernetics, the science of communication and automatic control systems in both machines and living things, was originally theorized by mathematician Norbert Weiner. As a jumping point, Katherine Hayles cites Gregory Bateson's quote, "is a blind man's cane part of him?" to simplify the concept of cybernetics as systems we use to progress in life. Cybernetics addresses the issue, can humans make a system for machines that replicates the mechanical workings of living organisms?

For scientists, it was hard to identify certain variables and stimuli that occur in nature to organisms compared with machines. Wiener's solution to this was using analogy to easier recognize similarities in the operations of a machine to situations with organic life. An analogy he uses to point out organisms adapting to different external stimuli constantly is a doctor writing a lover letter to his wife. If he kept on typing "I love you" everyday on his typewriter, he would eventually be frozen because of frequency he does this, the mechanical functions of the body would eventually freeze. But because of random external stimuli that humans face everyday, the mechanical workings of our bodies allow us to compensate for the differences we face everyday day. Hayles cites Bateson on defining information, in that if there is no difference, there is no information.

The human body is compared to a machine by Wiener in that it works as an informational system. All the parts of our body have functions to carry information to one part to another in order for the parts to function like machines in a factory. Upon discovering this though, it is realized that our bodies are just systems that adapt to external stimuli such as pheromones from other organisms. Rather than a completely autonomous system, the human organism is just a permeable membrane in which hormonal information flows.

The tone of this essay seems at first to side with the possibility that cybernetics can reach a autonomous state, of machines that is. Through Weiner's extended research, it seemed less as well received by his colleagues as his research progresses, perhaps because of general randomness that occurs in nature. "The embodied metaphors of language are crucial to understanding the ways in which Wiener's construction of the cybernetic body and the body of cybernetics both privilege and imperil the autonomous humanistic subject." These random variables, particularly concerning emotion, make thinking of cybernetics much too loopy I find. There is always something that can go wrong in nature, it will be some time when we can accurately capture all of that to convey to machines.

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