Saturday, 22 February 2014

Are we in control of technology? Does technology control what we do? Is technology central to our lives, or a set of convenient tools?

Welcome to the challenge of understanding technology.

In their core studies, every undergraduate science student deals with some deep questions: the origins of the universe, the nature of life, the history of the human species, the age of the earth. Engineering students, in contrast, often only approach deep questions in peripheral subjects such as management, or very rarely technology and society (this is generally more attractive to non-technology students).

There are quite a few writers who have thought deeply on technology: Shelley, Mumford, Ellul, Winner, Mitcham jump to mind. One who stands out is Norbert Wiener, inventor of cybernetics (the "cyber" in cyborgs and cyberspace). Beginning from a philosophical/mathematical perspective (as a child prodigy), Wiener had two views that influenced his work: his non-deterministic view of the world (the world is infinitely diverse, not a large machine; it is analog, not digital); and his multi-disciplinary approach.

When we speak about systems and feedback as applied to people or society, we are reflecting his influence on the English language.

So how did Wiener answer these questions about technology and control? Nature, biology, animals, humans and machines are all bound by the same processes. We shouldn't fool ourselves that we control the path of technology once it is released into the world. But we have choices about the technologies we develop, and how prepared we are for them.

His work, the technologies he helped develop, his approach to technology and society, and reminiscences from his colleagues are the subject of a forthcoming conference in Boston, the IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century, 24-26 June 2014:

Norbert Wiener in May 1961 (Credit March 1966 Technology Review)

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