Norbert Wiener, Tech, Politics, Power

Speaking our truths has always been necessary, but it will never be sufficient to sustain our democracy. It’s time to let go of the fantasy that engineers can do our politics for us, and that all we need to do to change the world is to voice our desires in the public forums they build.

via Harpers

There’s tons of things I need to remember from this article on Harpers:

In the first years of the war, Wiener and his MIT colleagues were trying to design a more accurate antiaircraft defense system. Antiaircraft gunners would only be able to shoot down enemy planes reliably if they could predict where the planes would be when the gunners’ shells reached the sky. At the time, there was no way to make that prediction with any certainty, since both gunner and pilot were capable of random movements. Wiener tried to solve this problem by imagining the gunner, the antiaircraft gun, the enemy pilot, and the enemy plane as elements in a single system whose behavior could be represented mathematically.

Wiener’s antiaircraft predictor never worked on the battlefield. But his insight that the behavior of both machines and human beings could be represented through computation became a founding principle of computer science. In 1946, it also became a founding principle of a new political vision. That year, Wiener and members of his scientific community traveled to New York to meet with a group of sociologists and psychologists, Mead and Bateson of the Committee for National Morale prominent among them. Together, the social and laboratory scientists began to outline a vision of a liberal world modeled and managed by computers, a vision that they would develop over the next seven years, and that would become one of the most influential intellectual movements of the twentieth century: cybernetics.

In 1950, Wiener published The Human Use of Human Beings, an enormously popular introduction to the new field that argued that modern society operated through a series of information exchanges, just like the antiaircraft predictor. Reporters and social scientists gathered data; intellectuals, business leaders, and politicians processed it; and, ultimately, the systems they controlled took action. When working properly, such a process would naturally tend toward equilibrium—that is, social order. And computers, Wiener argued, could help improve the flow of information by supplying decision-makers with better data faster. “Fascists, Strong Men in Business, and Government . . . prefer an organization in which all orders come from above, and none return,” wrote Wiener. The solution to totalitarianism, he argued, was to recognize the world as a system of leveled, distributed communication that could be modeled and managed by computers. The proper way to achieve the Committee’s vision and democratize society, his argument implied, was to take power away from politicians and put it in the hands of engineers.

via Harpers

This goes on in super dense and intellectual language but it says SOOOO much:

If the communes of the 1960s teach us anything, they teach us that a community that replaces laws and institutions with a cacophony of individual voices courts bigotry and collapse. Without explicit, democratically adopted rules for distributing resources, the communes allowed unspoken cultural norms to govern their lives. Women were frequently relegated to the most traditional of gender roles; informal racial segregation was common; and charismatic leaders—almost always men—took charge. Even the most well-intentioned communes began to replicate the racial and sexual dynamics that dominated mainstream America. Lois Brand recalled that on the communes they visited, men would do “important stuff” like framing up domes, while she and the other women would put small amounts of bleach in the water to keep residents from getting sick.

For all their sophistication, the algorithms that drive Facebook cannot prevent the recrudescence of the racism and sexism that plagued the communes. On the contrary, social-media platforms have helped bring them to life at a global scale. And now those systems are deeply entrenched. Social-media technologies have spawned enormous corporations that make money by mapping and mining the social world. Like the extraction industries of previous centuries, they are highly motivated to expand their territories and bend local elites to their will. Without substantial pressure, they have little incentive to serve a public beyond their shareholders. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter are coming to dominate our public sphere to the same degree that Standard Oil once dominated the petroleum industry. They too should be subject to antitrust laws. We have every right to apply the same standards to social-media companies that we have applied to other extraction industries. We cannot allow them to pollute the lands they mine, or to injure their workers, nearby residents, or those who use their products.

via Harpers

Woah, this was deep and dark and important. I’m so glad I read it thanks to Paul Soulellis:

For much of the twentieth century, Americans on both the left and right believed that the organs of the state were the enemy and that bureaucracy was totalitarian by definition. Our challenge now is to reinvigorate the institutions they rejected and do the long, hard work of turning the truths of our experience into legislation.

via Harpers