A few months ago Cosmos Weekly requested a recent photo and asked “How would you describe what you do?” Frequently I get introduced as a ‘futurist’ – but that’s largely because the ABC conjured that term back in 2007, when I became a panelist on The New Inventors. They needed to tell the audience something – anything – that could help them understand why this American bloke had opinions worth sharing. When Auntie labels you, it sticks: for sixteen years I’ve been a ‘futurist’.
What that word actually means seems to depend a lot on who’s using it. Plenty of people imagine futurists as a sort of tech-supported psychic, auguring the entrails of Reddit posts to divine the shape of the future. The truth tends to be more prosaic: a futurist works to help people and organisations make the best possible decisions for their future.
That describes what, but not how. How does a futurist peer into the future? If not psychic ability, what other tools do futurists use to provide their guidance? Once again we fall back on the quotidian: futurists constantly research every topic of interest to themselves and their clients, searching out the ‘weak signals’ that point to something that looks small today, but may well be momentous tomorrow. Science fiction great William Gibson put it succinctly when he quipped, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
A futurist posits what happens when the future that’s only over there becomes the future that’s everywhere, an act requiring both imagination and practicality, the best futurists balancing the magical with the well-grounded, offering a path forward that has potential – but also contains pitfalls. History provides many examples where the comfortable present collapsed when confronted by the future: consider buggy whip manufacturers, or film cameras.
Yet the future has a contour, one that emerges as countless ‘weak signals’ grow. Searching for this “shape” guides a futurist as they feel their way into understanding, working to articulate what the data seems to be indicating. If all of this sounds quite rough-and-ready, more approximate than precise, that’s largely because the first and most comprehensive attempt to systematise this process has been almost forgotten.
Seventy-five years ago a polymath by the name of Norbert Wiener published a terse, dense technical tract. Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine laid out a precise mathematical model for understanding how processes of any sort (per the title, both biological and mechanical) manage themselves and interact with the world.
Such a profound ‘theory of everything’ would have been laughable had it not issued from Wiener, already renowned among mathematicians for his work advancing the field. Under the stern tutelage of his father, a Harvard professor of languages, the self-described ‘Ex-Prodigy’ had himself mastered six languages, including Ancient Greek and Latin, by age 7, and received his undergraduate degree in mathematics at 15. After bouncing around Europe during the Great War – studying under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge and David Hilbert at Göttingen – Wiener became an instructor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the 1920s, MIT held a reputation as a solid engineering school, but all ‘serious’ science happened up the street at its three-hundred-year-old companion, Harvard University. By the end of the Second World War, MIT would be seen as the near equal (and in some cases the superior) of the two schools, a transformation due in no small part to Wiener, who used mathematical principles to develop the first anti-aircraft guns designed to automatically track aircraft as they passed overhead. These guns had been designed with ‘feedback’ circuits: they continuously fed their new position back into the motion control system, so that they could maintain very precise movements over a long period of time.
Although not completed before war ended, this weapon gave Wiener a way to frame his thoughts about the mathematics of information in physical form, leading first to a 1943 paper ‘Behavior, Purpose and Teleology’, and, five years later – because he did not want his ideas to die ‘orphaned and unbaptised’ – to Cybernetics. The word itself (now so firmly embedded in our culture with the prefix “cyber-”) could only have come for Wiener, who adopted the Ancient Greek word for ‘steersman’ – ‘kybernetes’ – baptizing his melange of mathematics and information with a form that conjured the gentle play of wind and wave as it meets and melds with human sensitivity, experience and intelligence.
While dense with mathematics, Wiener’s Cybernetics can be expressed in a simple principle: every process generates information that can be used to control it. Our own bodies are wonderful examples of this basic insight: although only dimly understood at the time, we now know that our bodies self-regulate because they employ information generated within the body – our pulse, temperature, blood sugar or hormone levels, etc. Each of these ‘signals’ produce responses that work to keep the body operating within its natural limits.
But Wiener didn’t stop with biology; mathematically, he saw no difference between a system within our bodies that might work to keep our hearts from beating out of control and a ‘governor’ on a steam engine that worked to check its potentially explosive output. Both processes use information generated by those processes to control them. Wiener used mathematics to show the equivalence of these processes – the two had never before been placed on equal footing.
In 1948, Cybernetics opened the door to the development of mathematical models for processes containing both biological and mechanical elements. Except in the annals of science fiction, this wasn’t something that had been taken very seriously prior to Wiener. Yet in the wake of the Second World War and the advent of ENIAC, the first electronic computer, the close collaboration of biological and electrical-mechanical processes seemed to be not just possible, but a very near thing.
Cybernetics unified the two great domains – the ‘quick’ and the ‘dead’ – through information theory. This is perhaps the least well-understood insight of Wiener’s work, although he saw it immediately, and knew that his insight raised a whole set of questions concerning technology, many of which we still ask three-quarters of a century later: How should we be working with these new machines? Will they change us? How can we keep these machines from dehumanizing the people who use them?
Wiener offered his own answers in his next book, published in 1950: “The Human Use of Human Beings” – effectively a restatement of the ideas in Cybernetics, but without the mathematics. In it, he asked hard questions about the value of human labor, human cognition, and human being – when measured against what he saw as an inevitable march toward greater and greater levels of automation, as we learned how to use the information generated by all of the processes of civilisation to control those processes.
It’s at exactly this point – in the early 1950s – when Cybernetics overflows its comfortable niche in mathematics and information theory and becomes both a metaphor and tool for an expanding post-war civilisation.
I’ll tell that story – of the cyberneticists who followed in Wiener’s footsteps, and how they become the forerunners of today’s futurists – in part two.
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