- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

DARK HERO OF THE INFORMATION AGE: IN SEARCH OF NORBERT WIENER, THE FATHER

OF CYBERNETICS

By Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman

Basic, $27.50, 423 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY A.G. GANCARSKI

Many geopolitical observers were stunned by the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the United States, during which America recognized India as a nuclear power. Comparatively few accurately predicted the full impact of Washington’s dramatic policy shift in favor of India. Still, some voices anticipated that cooperation between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy would have to happen eventually.

One of those voices, from decades ago, yet somehow still relevant: that of mathematical savant Norbert Wiener, founder of the revolutionary science of cybernetics, and the subject of a sprawling, ambitious biography by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. After all, in the aftermath of World War II, disillusioned by trends within the U.S. government, Wiener broke with the ranks of preeminent American scientists and embraced India as a society where his ideas would fully flower. A utopian fantasy? Perhaps. But India’s ascent to stand amidst the great powers of the 21st century on the world stage validates Wiener’s innate understanding that a multipolar world, despite the hopes of American policy makers, was inevitable.

Norbert Wiener wasn’t known principally as a foreign policy theorist. His strength was applied mathematics, his legacy — the information age itself. An abbreviated list of notables influenced by Wiener’s seminal theories on now-commonplace concepts like “feedback” and information as just another product ranges from anthropologist Margaret Mead and computer pioneer John Von Neumann to Bertrand Russell and Kurt Vonnegut. It is hard to imagine the 20th century — or the 21st — being the same without his concepts as part of civilization’s framework.

Despite these plaudits, though, Ms. Conway and Mr. Siegelman depict Wiener as a “dark hero,” a complicated figure best interpreted by dint of footnote and caveat. The authors hedge their bets, in part, because there is so much about Wiener’s existence that was compromised to the point of being inadmissible to general histories of what has been called “The American Century.”

Wiener was a prodigy from infancy; his father, a Russian Jew and a hard-driven and mercurial instructor in Slavic languages at Harvard, pushed his son to great heights. Young Norbert was promoted as “The Most Remarkable Boy In The World” at the tender age of seven — thus ensuring that the so-called drama Of the gifted child would be visited upon him in spades. Compounding the performance anxiety necessarily engendered by such an unrealistic designation were his father’s repeated barbs of criticism. While the elder Wiener may have been raising a prodigy, he also ensured that said prodigy would also become an adult with problems, his later life characterized by dark periods, embarrassing bouts of personal disclosure and codependency, and, eventually, a need to replicate the taskmaster dynamic upon his marriage.

Norbert Wiener found a most complicated wife, Margaret, a domineering woman who, like Norbert, came from academia. But unlike her husband, depicted by his biographers here as drawn and quartered by mutually exclusive forces — the biological demands of his ancestral Jewry and a century of intense anti-Semitism — Margaret had no such qualms. She boasted of her family being declared judenrein, free of Jewish blood. She read enthusiastically from the English-language translation of “Mein Kampf.” A mediocrity by comparison to her husband, Margaret exacted her revenge by alternately bullying Norbert and taking credit for his accomplishments; in the fashion of her literary idol, Adolf Hitler, she ignobly sought to negate her husband’s legacy.

External pressures drove Wiener in ways the biographers never quite satisfactorily explore. Here and there are leaden references to psychological diagnoses or explanatory anecdotes of Wiener’s manic-depressive tendencies. But manic-depressives are a dime a dozen. What is rarer, by far, is a man like Wiener, an enormously resourceful man who understood that he was an outsider in any milieu — and saw that his ticket to ride was outworking his competitors.

Towards the end of his life, Wiener looked upon the ashes of his heritage, a dismal legacy of the two great wars of the last century, and of the processes of automation his theories did so much to spawn, and finally rethought his spiritual orientation by accepting, appropriately, the Indian concept of reincarnation. Appropriate, given that Wiener was a seeker at heart, always looking for a new insight. This biography shines when it brings us closest to understanding that, for all its idiosyncrasy, Wiener’s was a rare intellect, one worthy of further contemplation.

A.G. Gancarski is a writer in Jacksonville, Fla.

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