Wiener: Ideas

Norbert Wiener, 1894-1964. Mathematician, born in Columbus, Mo. Professor at MIT, 1919-60. Books include Cybernetics (1948), The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), Ex-Prodigy (1953), I Am a Mathematician (1956), and God & Golem, Inc. (1964).
-- from Webster's New Biographical Dictionary, 1983

A bureaucracy and a factory are automated machines in Wiener's view. The whole world -- even the universe -- could be seen as one big feedback system subject to the relentless advance of entropy, which subverts the exchange of messages that is essential to continued existence (Wiener, 1954). This concept of interdependent communications systems, coupled with Wiener's assertion that a machine that changes its responses based on feedback is a machine that learns, indicates the distinction between media and cybermedia.

Since Wiener's time, cybernetics as a discipline experienced a rapid rise (in the 1960s) and a swift decline, but it appears to be on the upswing again because of a broadened perspective. The original foundation of cybernetics was limited to the observation of the states of a system, with the drawback being that the states observed -- and defined -- were wholly dependent on an observer who was construed as impartial and having no effect on the observed system.

"New" or "second order" cybernetics includes the observer as a participant in and part of the observed system; the focus has shifted from communication and control to interaction (Pask, 1992). Another interesting aspect of the new cybernetics is the application of elements of chaos theory to how systems create and re-create their own boundaries, acknowledging that "stability" is not the same as "homeostasis."

The dominant communications media do not respond directly to feedback from their audiences, do not deliver what the audience wants or needs at the moment when the audience wants or needs it -- in short, they are not interactive. They are also basically discrete; if they complement one another, it is accidental, and more often they merely duplicate one another's information. There is no way for the audience easily to call up and compare media sources; people are bombarded with messages and find themselves unable to sort, store, and evaluate them effectively. Cybermedia would be a medium that responded to its audience. It would deliver useful information in reply to the messages it received from that audience.

Related ideas at other Web sites:

A brilliant new book synthesizes cybernetics and the cyborg: How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (University of Chicago, 1999) -- it's really good! The author, Katherine Hayles, manages to present a number of complex elements (postmodern discourse, embodiment, first- and second-order cybernetics, Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, and more) in a thoroughly coherent way.

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Cybermedia, by Mindy McAdams
Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Mindy McAdams. All Rights Reserved.
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