Talking the Machine Back into the Bottle

Quinn WarnickNew Media Seminar

The consensus during last week’s seminar discussion seemed to be that J.C.R. Licklider’s “Man–Computer Symbiosis” was a much better read than Norbert Wiener’s “Men, Machines, and the World About.” Although I agree that Licklider is the better writer, it’s Weiner’s piece that has been stuck in my head all week. I can’t stop thinking about genies and idols and impending punishments.

I know very little about Wiener’s life story, but I trust Gardner and Matt, who both reported that Wiener was not a man of religious faith. For a nonbeliever, Wiener sure had a knack for weaving religious language into his writing. Take this passage, near the end of the article:

We shall have to realize that while we may make the machines our gods and sacrifice men to machines, we do not have to do so. If we do so, we deserve the punishment of idolators. It is going to be a difficult time. If we can live through it and keep our heads, and if we are not annihilated by war itself and our other problems, there is a great chance of turning the machine to human advantage, but the machine itself has no particular favor for humanity. (p. 72)

Gods! Sacrifices! Idolators! Not to mention Wiener’s earlier reference to our gadgets as “the brass calf” (which, as William pointed out, probably should have been “golden calf”). Perhaps Wiener was simply using these Biblical allusions as throwaway rhetorical devices, but there seems to be something deeper going on here. Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s introduction to this piece highlights Wiener’s commitment to social justice and his refusal to accept military funding to support his research, factors that characterize Wiener as a deeply ethical, if not religious, scientist. Wiener had witnessed first-hand the devastating power of science and technology; he knew that scientists could become “arbiter[s] of life and death” (p. 66). Is it any surprise, then, that his message to the New York Academy of Medicine and Science feels like an Old Testament warning?

My interactions with technology, of course, are laughably pedestrian compared to what Wiener had seen. But as I think about my relationship to my gadgets (the iPhone that is never far from my hand! the sleek laptop on which I type these words!), I realize how lopsided these relationships can be. Wiener’s prediction (prophecy?) won’t stop ringing in my ears: “[T]he machine itself has no particular favor for humanity…. Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle” (p. 72).