Books : reviews

Flo Conway, Jim Siegelman.
Dark Hero of the Information Age: in search of Norbert Wiener the father of cybernetics.
Basic Books. 2005

In 1906, Norbert Wiener was named “The Most Remarkable Boy in the World.” A child prodigy, he entered college at age eleven, earned his Ph.D. at eighteen, and then began his brilliant career at MIT. In 1948 he launched a scientific revolution with his book Cybernetics, which defined the modern science of communication and control in machines and living things. His work heavily influenced legends of twentieth-century science and society: computer pioneer John von Neumann, information theorist Claude Shannon, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and labor kingpin Walter Reuther. Yet today, the man, his work, and his prescient warnings have been virtually forgotten.

In this groundbreaking biography, award-winning journalists Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman set out to rescue Wiener’s genius from obscurity and to explore the many way in which hid revolutionary ideas continue to shape our lives. They retrace Wiener’s globe-trotting odyssey: his torturous upbringing and lifelong battle with manic-depression; his inspired technical work that played a pivotal role in the Allied victory in World War II; and the “big bang” of the information age when cybernetics burst on the postwar scene.

Through interviews with Wiener’s family and colleagues, the authors reconstruct a life marked by eccentricity and tumultuous relationships. They draw on newly declassified government documents to show how the FBI and CIA pursued Wiener at the height of the Cold War to thwart his social activism and the growing influence of cybernetics at home and abroad.

The science that Norbert Wiener invented has only grown in significance for modern life. “Feedback,” a term he popularized, now refers to automated machinery, “smart” technology, and human communication—the new new thing is actually old. But he also warned of the dangers inherent in new electronic and biological technologies that could exceed human control, making him not just a mathematical genius but a social visionary as well. The story of this brilliant, multitalented man is fundamental to an understanding of the intersection of technology and culture in the twenty-first century.