A fascinating study of the “seductive power of the cybernetic mythos.”
The first triumph of cybernetics, the interaction of humans and machine, occurred during World War II. In 1940, British anti-aircraft gunners almost never hit high-flying Luftwaffe bombers; within a few years, input from early computers and radar vastly increased their accuracy. More triumphs and misfires followed, along with an ongoing debate over what it means, all superbly recounted by Rid (War Studies/King’s Coll., London; Cyber War Will Not Take Place, 2013, etc.). He deplores observers who regularly predict that computer “intelligence” will ultimately surpass that of the human brain. Intelligence (i.e. “thinking”) is irrelevant, emphasized early scientists led by cybernetics guru and Rid’s hero, MIT mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). “The brain is not a thinking machine, it is an acting machine,” wrote cybernetics pioneer Ross Ashby in 1948. “It gets information and then it does something about it.” True cybernetics describes a symbiosis between humans and machines, but science-fiction writers missed the point with raging robots à la the movie 2001, and the counterculture delivered products from dianetics to The Whole Earth Catalog. While popular enthusiasm peaked during the 1970s, the pitiful reality was massive computers with less power than an iPhone churning out payrolls and tracking Soviet aircraft. Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth fame, launched modern cybernetics by putting the Catalog online in 1985. Since then, its vision has pitted libertarians, who predict an interconnected world free of government and commerce, against the establishment, who see increasing social control, burgeoning commerce, and efficient, nearly bloodless war.
Not a history of computers but an ingenious look at how brilliant and not-so-brilliant thinkers see—usually wrongly but with occasional prescience—the increasingly intimate melding of machines and humans.