Remembering the late scientific genius who laid the groundwork for the last half-century of art, literature and electronic music
Brilliant name, brilliant theories, brilliant man. But who the fuck is Norbert Wiener? Just one of the biggest influences on art, music and science that you've never heard of. Fifty years to the day, Wiener died, but his legacy lives on.
Wiener is the founding father of cybernetics, "the science or study of control or regulation mechanisms in human and machine systems, including computers". In turn he's responsible for the presence of the word "cyber" in everyday language. Wiener borrowed the Greek word kubernetes, which translates directly as "steersmanship".
To put it simply, cybernetics is all about the study of systems. In Geeta Dayal's book about the making of Brian Eno's classic 1975 record Another Green World, she cites cybernetics as a defining influence on the creative process – "cybernetic systems were used to model practically every phenomenon, with varying degrees of success – factories, societies, machines, ecosystems, brains – and Eno became a big fan of linking its powerful toolset to the studio environment, and to music composition. Eno was nothing if not interdisciplinary, and cybernetics may be one of the most interdisciplinary frameworks ever devised. Its theories connect engineering, math, physics, biology, psychology and some of this inevitably trickled into the arts."
The theory of cybernetics inspired Eno to think differently about the creative process - instead of playing like a band, why not conceptualize musicians as cybernetic systems? A piece of music composed using feedback could be left to run, in turn the system is the musician, not the player. Eno wanted to entrust machines to make decisions, as we do now.
In his 1974 single "Seven Deadly Finns", Eno puts a ghostly backing vocal in the track, barely audible, that shouts "work it all out like Norbert Wiener", a homage to the man that changed the way he thought about music.
Cybernetics proposes that certain natural laws of behaviour apply to both animals and more complex electronic machines, that there are similarities in the ways that humans and machines both work and act. Louis and Bebe Barron, two American pioneers of electronic music, were both fascinated by Wiener's studies, particularly his book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.
The piece below, "What's The Big Hurry?" is inspired by Louis Barron's study of cybernetics. Following equations set out in the book, Barron built a set of electronic circuits that he used to manipulate and generate sounds. The pair would go on to write the world's first ever electronic only film score: MGM's 1950 classic Forbidden Planet.
It wasn't just music that Wiener has had a profound impact on. Legendary authors Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon cite Wiener as a major influence on their work. Pynchon claimed that the themes in his novels Entropy and The Crying of Lot 49 are "mostly derivative of what Norbert Wiener had to say in his books Cybernetics: The Human Use Of Human Beings."
In Kurt Vonnegut's debut novel Player Piano, published in 1952, he lauds Wiener as a prophet of an uncertain future and writes about the human perils faced by handing over power to machines. Vonnegut looked at the potential impact that could be brought on by the coming together of man and machine, unless man could work out how to control machines effectively. The name Player Piano comes from Wiener too – Wiener once wrote a tale about a leading American engineer who buys an expensive player piano in order to satisfy his interest in the instrument's mechanism, but has no sense of the instrument's means of producing music.
Wiener was furious about Player Piano, believing the futuristic vision to be a cop-out of analysing what was happening then. He wrote a scathing letter to Vonnegut, although Vonnegut defended the novel as an "indictment of science as it is being run today".
Wiener's life ended in sadness, according to Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman's book Dark Hero of the Information Age A manic depressive, prone to vicious outbursts, he isolated himself from his peers and was notoriously difficult to be around. His wife, who was an ardent supporter of the Nazis (Wiener was a Jew), falsely informed him that their daughter was a "promiscuous nymphomaniac" who had slept with many of his co-workers. Believing her, he refused to work with any of the accused again and by 1953, cybernetics was drifting out of mainstream scientific thinking. He died in Stockholm on March 18, 1964.
Fifty years on from his death, his influence remains across many disciplines and it's appropriate to note that Eno was influenced by Wiener's study of feedback. Eno in turn, through his musical output and studio techniques, influenced a colossal range of music – from ambient to Aphex Twin. Cybernetically, his study of Wiener has fed into things that we listen to now.
Norbert Wiener also once warned of the dangers of golem: a machine-like bogeyman from Jewish folklore that, that once switched on, cannot be switched off. Wiener believed that eventually machines would make decisions for us. Fast forward to 2014 – was he wrong?