Creating “The Norbert Wiener Media Project”

Published in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine ∕ September 2015
J. Mitchell Johnson
J. Mitchell Johnson

In the early part of 2009 I got a phone call and was offered a new filmmaking assignment that related to the history of Soviet computing. While doing research for the project, I stumbled across information about a M.I.T. professor named Norbert Wiener. Fascinated, I bought a copy of Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman’s amazing book, Dark Hero of the Information Age [1]. Wiener’s story touched me deeply because his work connected the dots on many questions I’d been thinking about since my days as a university student. His scientific theories, developed back in the 1930s and 1940s, open the door to understanding modern communications theory and artificial intelligence (AI). Many believe Wiener’s achievements are on par with Einstein, but for some reason his rightful position in history had been hidden from public view. Intrigued, I continued (and still continue) to do further research.

In the past few months, world leaders of science and industry like Stephen Hawking [2], Bill Gates [3], and Elon Musk [2] have begun to urgently issue statements warning that humanity is quickly reaching the threshold of extinction due to the inevitable evolution of AI. They repeated almost verbatim Wiener’s warnings without mentioning his name. And while the future threat of intelligent robots enslaving humans that they warn of is a real possibility, ironically what they did not speak of were Wiener’s prophecies that are already at hand [1, prologue, p. X]. That is why I, along with my filmmaking partners Robert Elfstrom and William Cran, have decided to go forward with the creation of The Norbert Wiener Media Project. The project will consist of a feature length documentary film, a biographical television documentary, and a comprehensive web site.

First I will speak of our pressing task of creating a feature documentary film aimed at a wide audience that both sounds the alarm about an ecological disaster in the making that threatens humanity at its core, and solves the mystery of why Wiener and his achievements have been sidelined. Wiener’s story is told against a backdrop of ominous change. The working title for the film is The System. We have borrowed this from the wry handle of the 1960s counterculture that is ripe for re-application as we struggle to kick-start a movement to save ourselves.

People of goodwill can argue about whether there is a supreme cybernetic system at work, or what the precise nature and name of the phenomenon that threatens our “humanness” might well be. Or whether this looming crisis (which is here already) should be characterized as an ecological issue? One way or another, the basic truth is that humanity is self-destructing. As Mary Catherine Bateson puts it in her recorded interview we made at last year’s Norbert Wiener Conference in Boston: “if you have eyes trained to think about how a system functions, you see that we’re dismantling living systems.”

The communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, clearly influenced by Wiener’s work, speaks of media extending the human nervous system into its environment in the electric age. This extension of electronic media into the human domain causes unintended consequences, and creates specific and new kinds of challenges for humanity. As for a name for this problem that has been created, like pornography, it may be easier to recognize than define. Perhaps there are multiple “problems” at hand. McLuhan in his work often uses the term information overload [4]. Contemporary writers refer to information addiction. The term “information disease” is also being discussed in scientific and medical journals around the world.

However, as our story develops, it becomes clear that whatever one wants to call it, something is happening to us, and that 24/7 we are all being fed (and feed each other), information at the speed of light, fueled and connected by unconscious but highly capable AI and squadrons of specialized human handlers who are highly paid. We, the human users of this Internetworked connected system seem to be happily going along, assisting it to efficiently achieve its sub-objectives; marketing, intelligence gathering, and political control… oblivious to the human ecological consequences. Wiener had it pegged back in 1950 when he explained: “machines, though helpless by themselves, may be used by a human being or a block of human beings to increase their control over the rest of the human race” [5, p. 181].

Our story does not argue that we are now slaves of the “World State” predicted by Aldous Huxley in his book, “Brave New World.” However, our evolving globalized communications system offers striking parallels to what Huxley portrayed. By the ending of our documentary, The System, it should be obvious that we have become slaves to our machines of convenience and a business that exacts an unsustainable price for its “free services.” As world-renowned security expert Bruce Schneier explains on-camera, we are at a turning point. Our consuming habits are commoditized and sold, and our every movement is tracked and stored. He argues we need to let go of our fears and value our privacy before it is too late.

As Wiener puts it, “we have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future… but new restrictions” [5, p. 46].

As authors Conway and Siegelman told me recently, “the enemy, in the end is not a system or supersystem, not some unseen overlord, overmind, or matrix, nor some unnamed cabal of politicians of any party or ideology, faceless bureaucrats of any government, or even money-mad billionaire ‘industrialists,’ as Wiener called them, techies, bankers, oligarchs or robber barons. As that great folk philosopher Walt Kelly said via Pogo: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us!’ All of us. Each of us. And the only solution is for each of us, and all of us together, to think long and hard about the problems breaking all around us, and inside us, and resolve to save the planet and, at the same time, to save ourselves.” Our documentary, The System, intends to encourage us to do just that.

Author Information
J. Mitchell Johnson is a filmmaker with Abamedia, LP (http://abamedia. com)
Email: jmj@abamedia.com
References
[1] F. Conway and J. Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics. New York, NY: Basic, 2006. [2] R. Cellan-Jones, “Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind,” BBC News, Dec. 2, 2014; http://www. bbc.com/news/technology-30290540. [3] K. Rawlinson, “Microsoft’s Bill Gates insists AI is a threat”, BBC News, Jan. 29,. 2015; http://www.bbc.com/news/ 31047780. [4] M. McLuhan, “The best of ideas,” CBC Radio, 1967. [5] N. Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1954, p. 181.