Why Norbert Wiener Would Want You to Blog

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One book that I keep coming back to is Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over, which predicts the effects of the concentration of information technology at the hands of a few.

While the information age has brought untold wealth and comfort to millions, perhaps there is a less appealing underbelly. The largest tech companies keep getting bigger, growing largely on the banks of data we freely to provide to them.

For as much as the internet has blocked impediments to media distribution, the returns are concentrated among the top performers even more than they had been in the analog economy.

Cowen was by no means the first to make these uncomfortable observations about the information age. In fact, his attitudes sound quite similar to those of Norbert Wiener, the “father of cybernetics.”

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By Konrad Jacobs – http://owpdb.mfo.de/detail?photo_id=4520, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6090164

 

I had not heard of Wiener prior to an assignment for my information systems seminar. But he is a giant and a visionary. A child prodigy, he was an eccentric MIT mathematician with a lifelong fascination in physiology and electricity. 

With a multidisciplinary team, Wiener discovered principles of control and communication that were similar in the machine and human. Namely, he noticed that feedback guides the intent of all purposeful systems. 

These new ideas were shared with the world in his 1948 book, Cybernetics. The origin of the field came from the Greek for “helmsman,” evoking the image of purpose and communication. 

Postwar reluctance

Cybernetics found a welcome reception among both popular audiences and academics. This was the age of the atomic bomb and the postwar boom, where unprecedented prosperity also came with the fears of the nuclear age.

Wiener too saw great promise and peril in his discoveries. After the war he published a series of books and essays explaining cybernetics to a broader audience.

One theme was how to prepare the average worker for the coming age of artificial intelligence and automation. In 1960 he wrote this essay, “Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation.”  

In the essay, he compared how the balance of power had shifted in the different economic ages. 

The first industrial revolution was about replacing human brawn with the might of the machine: 

 

… the first industrial revolution, the revolution of the “dark satanic mills,” was the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a team shovel as an excavator.

But the shift from an industrial economy to an information economy came with its own shift in power and labor advantages:

The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second.

Automation made it impossible to employ thousands in the factory. Human brawn would not be enough to make a living. So how to stay relevant? Like Cowen, it seems that Wiener believes the information age makes a decent wage even more difficult: 

Taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or les has nothing to sell that it is worth anyone’s money to buy.

So… what does this mean for you? 

This is a brief, oversimplified look at labor economics and Wiener. 

But it should absolutely change your career management. Here’s why? 

In the pre-industrial age, currency was manpower. You could out-produce by being stronger.

This is the sad reality of slavery — the person with the most slaves could build the most impressive monument. 

But in the industrial age, the balance shifted to capital. The machine could produce more than the person.

This is the age of the industrialist and the conglomerate.

Now we have moved into a new age where the primary currency is information.

With the internet nearly obliterating the cost of sharing ideas, those with the most ideas now come out on top.

Guess what? You don’t have to have slaves (thank God!) or factories to be wealthy today. You just need to share ideas. 

And that is why I blog.  

But what about the inequality? 

Yes, this part is harder to answer. It could be argued that the very few are seeing direct monetary benefit from the massive data we are collecting.

The majority of blogs will never turn a profit. But people write anyway. Why?

Wiener believed in the “unhampered exchange” of information to fight the dangers of the exploitation of data. There is a value in this information exchange — sometimes not immediately monetary.

I think Wiener would agree with Bulgakov not to see economics as a mechanics of exchange. The point of the blog may not be to lead directly to money, but it will cultivate bonds between buyer and seller.

So maybe the fears of mass unemployment and inequality are unfounded — if enough people produce and take control of their information. 

 

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