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Norbert Wiener’s concept of feedback, or, how “behavior is scanned for its result, and that the success or failure of this result modifies future behavior” (69/1950) forms a central platform for the book, especially in Wiener’s justification of technological predictive air defense networks. What fascinates me about The Human Use of Human Beings is how Wiener conceives of his own text as being a machine undergoing a kind of feedback. This is, well, foreshadowed in the primacy Wiener affords human language, but is drawn into sharper relief throughout the highly speculative portion “The First and Second Industrial Revolution.” While imagining how labor relations and a technologized workforce might appear in the future, Wiener pens a remarkable metaphor that has a factory-floor crisis stand in as a destined technological dystopia: “an emergency is likely to be so serious and costly that its possibilities should have been considered in advance, rather than left to the excited judgment of somebody on the spot. If a policy can be thought out in advance, it can be committed to a taping which would regulate the conduct to be followed in accordance with the readings of the instrument” (184-5). Feedback becomes feedforward for Wiener, or really, his own work becomes a kind of forecasting. This speculation is a prophylactic theoretical move, where his own theories act like moral lifelines to a future that he both creates and foresees as something that could be grim.

 

Then, my question is: What is the work being done by this book qua machine? If cybernetics is “the relation between the animal and the machine […] in which the machine functions as an index of what performance may be expected from it” (67), what were the social effects expected of this book? How were the ‘success or failure’ of the cybernetic project measured in feedback at this historical moment, and how is this linked to the history of the Bush Differential Analyzer—a computing machine taken up by military researchers to autonomously destroy enemy humans and machines?

 

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