BOOK REVIEW | Dark Hero of the Information Age

March 21, 2005

Source: New York Times — | Clive Thompson

dark_heroNorbert Wiener, the inventor of cybernetics, is profiled in a new book, Dark Hero of the Information Age, by journalists Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman.

Cybernetics is the science of feedback — how information can help self-regulate a system. That includes everything from biological mechanisms (like the human immune system) to artificial ones, like thermostats that regulate a building’s temperature. Even in the early 20th century, when Wiener did his work, feedback mechanics weren’t new; engineers had long been building steam engines that self-regulated their speed. But Wiener’s genius was to label the mysterious ghost that powered feedback: information.

It’s hard to imagine now, in our modern digital world — where “cyber” is a prefix for everything from sex to pets — but “information” as a discrete concept did not widely exist before Wiener. (Early Bell engineers referred to the signal traveling over telephone wires as “the commodity to be transported by a telephone system.”) By separating out information as a kind of Platonic solid unto itself, Wiener created the idea that scientists could measure information in a system and tweak it for optimal efficiency.