IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - September 2015 - 61

upon today, is his appreciation of
uncertainty, both in human understanding and as human understanding is manifested in the technologies
humans create. The evidence is
overwhelming that uncertainty is
a universal, inescapable quality of
the human condition, and that our
endeavors to affect change in the
world need, therefore, to be accompanied by a substantial measure of
caution and humility. That so many
scientists and technicians seem
not to appreciate this simple truth
would be astonishing were it not for
the fact that their pursuits are to a
large degree driven by a quest for
certainty. Wiener was rare among
his colleagues in recognizing that
contradiction, which is one reason
his colleagues found him annoying.
For several years, the physicist
and historian Steve Heims asked
mathematicians and scientists what
they thought of Wiener's social concerns and his preoccupation with
the uses of technology. "The typical
answer," Heims said, "went something like this: 'Wiener was a great
mathematician, but he was also
an eccentric. When he began talking about society and responsibility of scientists, a topic outside of
his area of expertise, well, I just
couldn't take him seriously.'" [3]
In this article I will review Wiener's positions on uncertainty and
then attempt to place him in historical perspective as a significant
contributor to what the philosopher
of technology Langdon Winner calls
"the counter-tradition to the dream
of mastery." Winner's description
recognizes the point I just made:
that the desire to achieve mastery -
over nature, over events, over other
people, over uncertainty itself - is
to a large degree the motivation
that drives scientific and technological projects. The counter-tradition
to the dream of mastery recognizes
that the dream of mastery is just

september 2015

that: a dream, one that we long to
achieve but never will.

The Uncertainty
of Norbert Wiener

probability theory demonstrated, Wiener believed, that chance is part of
the "warp and weft" of physics, and
thus affirmed his recognition of a sort
of "irrationality in the world" [3, pp.
68-69], [5, p. 34].
Here is how Wiener described
Gibbs' ideas in the second volume
of his autobiography, I Am a Mathematician:
"The great physical tradition of
Newton had necessarily been
one of determinism, where a perfect knowledge of the universe
at one instant is understood to

In my opinion, evidence that Wiener
really was a genius can be found in
"The Theory of Ignorance," a paper
he wrote at the age of ten. According to Dark Hero of the Information Age, the superb biography by
Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman,
Wiener spoke in the paper about
"the impossibility of being certain
of anything" and disputed "man's
presumption in declaring
that his knowledge has no
limits." All human knowledge, he added, "is based
on an approximation" [4].
That intelligent machines might
(Wiener refers briefly to this
paper in the second volbe used by owners and managers
ume of his autobiography.
to eliminate or demean jobs on
See [5, p. 324].)
Uncer t a int y would
a massive scale was a prospect
become a central focus of
Wiener's scientific career,
that Wiener spoke of often.
and of the ethical stands
that accompanied that
career. His breakthrough
paper on Brownian motion was
involve a perfect knowledge of
inspired by gazing at the waters of
its history throughout all time.
the Charles River from his office at
It would have been Newton's
M.I.T., wondering how he could find
assumption that to give the
some sort of quantifiable pattern
present positions and speeds
within the seemingly random ripples
of the particles in a wave movand waves on the river's surface.
ing across the surface of the
This was a problem that would lead
Charles would allow us to plot
to the dynamic at the heart of cyberthe moment of all this wave fornetics, and that can also be seen
ever. Unfortunately, no perfect
philosophically as addressing one of
knowledge of the present is
the central riddles of existence. As
available to us with our limited
Wiener himself later put it, "the highmeasuring instruments, and the
est destiny of mathematics" is nothproblem that faces the working
ing less than the discovery of order
physicist is to find out how far he
within disorder [5, p. 33].
can go with the imperfect knowlWiener's solution for that problem
edge available to him.
emerged from the techniques of staFor this he must work not with
tistical mechanics developed by Wila single, fixed universe but with
lard Gibbs, an obscure theorist who
many different universes simulWiener considered "America's greattaneously, each having some
est scientist." Gibbs' applications of
preassigned probability. He
∕

IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

61



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