Nov. 26, 1894: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener Born

1894: Norbert Wiener is born in Columbia, Missouri. A child prodigy, he goes on to become one of the 20th century’s most famous mathematicians and the founder of the discipline of cybernetics, the study of self-regulating systems.

Norbert’s father, Leo Wiener, was a lecturer (and later professor) of Slavic languages at Harvard University, where the family moved shortly after Norbert’s birth. Leo Wiener’s interests, however, were wide-ranging. Leo educated his son at home according to his own eclectic (and harsh) methods, allowing young Norbert full access to his diverse library. The precocious Norbert showed an early aptitude for languages, mathematics and logic — although he later admitted that basic arithmetic caused him trouble.

Wiener graduated from high school and entered Tufts University at age 11. He graduated from Tufts at 14 and then earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard at age 18 with a dissertation on mathematical logic.

Wiener continued his studies of mathematics and philosophy at England’s Cambridge University, studying with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Josiah Royce, George Santayana and G.H. Hardy, and making the acquaintance of the poet (and fellow Missourian) T.S. Eliot.

Rebuffed from a teaching appointment at Harvard because he was Jewish (despite his father’s having been a professor there), Wiener joined the mathematics faculty across town at MIT in 1919. He remained there for a remarkably productive 41 years.

Within a decade of his MIT appointment, Wiener made several enormous contributions to mathematics, including a mathematical explanation of Brownian motion (the random movement of particles in a fluid), a problem Einstein had first explained in terms of the movements of molecules in 1905. Wiener’s discovery led to modern probability theory and has implications in understanding many situations where countless tiny inputs produce a single output, from the movements of the Dow Jones averages to the distortions that a noisy line introduces in an electronic signal.

Unlike some mathematicians, Wiener was sympathetic to the engineering applications of his work and focused much attention on providing mathematical foundations to engineering problems, including wave-form analysis, signal theory and noise filtering. He worked on ballistics computations during World War I and on techniques for automatically aiming anti-aircraft guns in World War II.

That latter work led Wiener to a theory of cybernetics, also known as systems theory. Cybernetics is not so much a defined discipline as an interdisciplinary approach to the study of complex systems and how they regulate themselves to remain in equilibrium or on target toward a defined goal. A key notion of cybernetics is the feedback principle, whereby a system constantly adjusts itself based on feedback from the environment and from its prior adjustments. Wiener noticed that this principle is active not only in automation, but also in living creatures.

The word cybernetics derives from the Greek work kybernetes, meaning “helmsman.” The verb kybernan, to steer or govern, also gives us (through Latin) words like government, governor and gubernatorial. Cybernetics itself spawned a series of other neologisms, including cyborg, cyberspace, cyberpunk, cybercash, cyberculture, cybersex, and just plain cyber.

Cybernetic theory has been applied to the understanding of biological systems (organisms), ecological systems, neuroscience, society, economics and more, but has arguably had its greatest impact in computers. Wiener’s work had a powerful influence on later generations of computer scientists and robotics engineers, including J.C.R. Licklider, a key figure in the early development of the internet.

Despite his fascination with cybernetics and robotics, Wiener was also a critic of automation, warning that it would lead to widespread unemployment. In later years, he also feared that the increasing power of computers would some day lead to a devaluing of human intellect.

Wiener achieved so much fame during his lifetime that he was widely recognized beyond academia, and his likeness was even used on billboards. The quintessential absent-minded professor, he was a cheerful and lively conversationalist but left something to be desired as a lecturer. His discoveries put MIT on the map as a first-rate mathematics institution, and his personality and interdisciplinary way of working helped establish MIT’s distinctively collaborative culture.

He retired from MIT in 1960, and President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the National Medal of Science in 1964.

Wiener died just a few weeks later, in Stockholm, on March 18, 1964. An obituary for Wiener in Time attributed the following “gospel” to the pioneering mathematician and humanist:

“Render unto man the things that are man’s, and unto the computer only the things that are the computer’s.”

Sources: International Society for Systems Sciences biography, the American Mathematical Society biography (.pdf), the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive and Tufts University, others.

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Nov. 26, 1894: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener Born

Journalism and PR in the new media age.

As the publishing industry collapses, it’s becoming clear that both journalists and public relations people need to change the way they work.

Amazingly, it’s still possible to find journalists throwing hissy fits about email blasts or blacklisting PR people for showing insufficient deference. This kind of behavior might have been understandable a few years ago when journalists were still the exclusive gatekeepers of access to free publicity, but it’s ridiculous and self-harming now.

We live in a world where the businesses that have supported journalism for decades are in the process of active collapse. I expect the profession of journalism to survive, but we will have to find new ways of making a business out of it.

While the industry struggles with that enormous problem, individual writers (like myself) need to think about the real value that we provide — to figure out what that value is, and to get very savvy and very scrappy about delivering it. It’s an environment that demands hard work, humility and a degree of realism about the state of the business.

For a couple of years I have been saying that if all the newspapers in the world disappeared tonight, tomorrow morning dozens — if not hundreds — of entrepreneurs would start companies aimed at delivering timely, accurate, reliable news on a regular basis.

I see again and again in my day job at that there is real value in the news: Readers will flock to stories that have new information, that are well-sourced and well-written. Yes, occasionally some dumb off-the-cuff post (aka “fluffy piece of Digg bait“) or a post that is little more than a link to some other blog post will get crazy amounts of traffic. But what keeps people returning to a site like is that it consistently provides new information.

This information — the news — also drives the information economy of the blogosphere. Journalists (including newspaper reporters and some bloggers) provide the news that aggregators (most bloggers) filter, select, comment on, and distribute. It is a rare blogger who can discover and publish an original, never-before-reported bit of information — in journalistic parlance, a scoop. When she or he does so, I’d say that counts as journalistic blogging, as opposed to aggregation.

Where I work, we are actively breaking down the barrier between blogging and journalism. We hire writers based on their journalistic chops. We encourage them to develop sources, to verify facts, to pick up the phone and get the news. Even as we expect our writers to do some aggregation blogging (i.e. linking to other sites), our emphasis is on developing original stories — scoops — because that is what drives the lasting traffic. But we also embrace a bloglike speed of publishing, often posting information as soon as we have it rather than waiting for the fully-baked feature story to be done. We encourage and pay attention to comments. And we are constantly looking for ways to incorporate crowdsourced information and new media tools into our reporting.

In short, we are using a bloggy approach to publishing, but our approach to getting and reporting the news is traditionally journalistic.

This is no longer particularly novel and it would not be that relevant, except for two things. One: We are about to see what happens when all the newspapers disappear overnight, and it seems likely that blog-journalists are going to play a critical role in that process. And two: The traditional relationship between journalists and PR people is in flux because PR people are no longer as dependent upon journalists as they used to be.

When a company can deliver its press release directly to the public via PR Newswire and a wide network of rebloggers, the press no longer have exclusive control over the channels of public communication.

When reporters at traditional media outlets compete with hundreds of bloggers for PR people’s attention, the press can’t count on getting the time and attention they used to get from flacks. Never mind that 90 percent of those bloggers may never even heard of journalistic ethics or even know what a “scoop” is — they have audiences, and audiences carry weight.

That said, when journalists — by dint of the quality of their work — have managed to attract and retain an audience, that audience carries weight too.

Because things are so much in flux I think that both journalists and PR people can easily get confused about what their respective priorities are. So in the interests of disclosure — and hoping that it helps others — here are a few principles I have been working by:

  1. The journalist’s job is to find, filter, and deliver new information.
  2. Making information interesting (and occasionally even entertaining) is as much a part of the journalist’s job as making it accurate. If it’s not readable and doesn’t catch people’s interest, it won’t matter how accurate it is, because no one will read it.
  3. There are many ways to publish interesting, accurate, new information (aka “the story”): Newsprint. Glossy magazine paper. Big-media websites. Small, independent blogs. Podcasts. Video. Photos. The medium (and what you call it) matters less than the effort to find, filter, and deliver the story.
  4. Savvy journalists should be aggressive experimenters, embracing new media (audio, video, Twitter, Facebook, Zeemaps, polls, etc) and trying them out. Some things will not work. Others will, and can be added to the storytelling toolkit.
  5. Developing sources is key. Whether those sources are people, government information repositories, RSS feeds, online forums, blogs or what have you is less important than learning what sources are reliable, and which are the most productive.
  6. For the working journalist, managing the flow of information is a constant struggle. It’s tempting to unsubscribe from RSS feeds or blacklist PR people whose information seems particularly inapt. To a certain extent, such pruning and reorganizing is a constant necessity, as we try to highlight and focus on the feeds that are most useful to us. But it’s also important to cast a wide net, and not block out potential sources of future information, however irrelevant they may seem most of the time. I would welcome better tools for filtering and searching RSS feeds and email, and I’m constantly experimenting with such tools, but I haven’t found the killer app yet.
  7. PR people are potential allies in the search for news. They are also adversaries in that they have their client’s agenda in mind, and will want the story told (or not told) in a certain way. But they can be useful sources of information, and in some areas, such as new product announcements, they are indispensible.
  8. For new product announcements, the embargo (a gentleman’s agreement to hold the news until a certain date and time) is fast becoming obsolete as bloggers — untrained in the journalistic ethics of yore and having no incentive to respect those ethics anyway — routinely break such agreements. That’s unfortunate, because it means a) PR people have to scramble to notify trusted/preferred journalists when an embargo is broken, and b) journalists have to be ready to leap on a story at any moment, at any time of day, depending on when the news breaks and/or an embargo is broken.
  9. I predict that for this reason, embargoes will come back into use once we pass through the current business crisis and a new model for journalism emerges, one that includes its own code of ethics and which understands that people aren’t able to work around the clock indefinitely without burning out.
  10. PR people should understand that most journalists — those of us who still have our jobs — are under massive time pressure because of the quantity of information we need to digest and the quantity of stories we are expected to produce. As a result, most of us do not welcome phone calls of any kind — especially the “did you get the email I just sent?” variety. Phone calls interrupt our workflow and are more time-consuming to deal with than emails; plus they don’t allow the PR person to convey as much information as an email message. Personally, I prefer a followup email (or 2 or 3, if necessary) far more than a call.
  11. A journalist does not just speak for him or herself, but represents the interests of his or her readers. Journalists who understand this will act with humility, but also with integrity and (where necessary) forcefulness to ensure that those readers get the news they expect.

The PR-savvy journalist Rafe Needleman has a bunch more tips for PR people on his site, He has a knack for making these points much more concisely than I. For instance, on the topic of unsolicited bulk emails, he said in a comment on Veronica Belmont’s site, “Sure, it’s annoying to read all the crap that comes in. But you know what? *It’s my job.*”

Journalism and PR in the new media age.

Social networking comes of age.

If anyone doubted the power and importance of online social networks, the election of Barack Obama should have put that to rest.

Much has been made of the Obama campaign’s use of the internet as an organizing, fundraising and marketing tool. The core of that strategy was a social network,, which probably now qualifies as the most successful social network startup ever. While Facebook boasts a dubious $15 billion valuation and MySpace can claim to be the most-trafficked site on the internet, MyBO, as its users called it, just helped win a presidential election.

It did that by bringing Obama supporters together, helping them share information and ideas, giving them an easy way to make phone calls (yes, phone banking is still a critical part of a modern campaign), and making sure they were plugged into the latest messaging from campaign headquarters. So while other social networks give their users a way to share music, post photos, give shout-outs to friends, keep an eye on classmates’ and coworkers’ activities, and organize parties, MyBO served as a central coordinating and organizing tool for a massive, collective political effort.

It’s the kind of purpose that the earliest pioneers of personal computing had in mind. But computing has never really achieved that kind of collective coordinating power until now.

In 1945, a young Navy radar technician named Douglas Engelbart looked at a radar screen and thought of something much more sophisticated. Instead of blips that represented enemy ships, he imagined a screen that showed words, pictures, symbols — representations of ideas — that could be manipulated by a person in front of the screen. By putting those symbols on a screen, Engelbart figured people could more easily communicate and test the ideas they represented, ultimately using them to understand the world better.

Engelbart went on to develop his ideas as a computer scientist at SRI, eventually coming up with a sophisticated interactive, collaborative computer system that was years ahead of its time. His famous “mother of all demos” on December 9, 1968 inspired a generation of computer scientists and debuted a wide array of innovations. Most famously, he (or his research team) invented the mouse. They also invented simultaneous onscreen editing (whiteboarding) by remote users, windowing, computer outlines, the hyperlink, version control, and context-sensitive help, among many other things.

The inventions were all in service of Engelbart’s grand vision: That computers could be used to facilitate human collaborative efforts, augmenting human intelligence and helping us to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

But after Engelbart’s impressive 1968 demo, the computer industry went elsewhere. Rather than using computers to augment human intelligence, the most brilliant computer scientists tended to focus on trying to create artificial intelligence. The market eventually picked up on many of Engelbart’s innovations, but used them for commercial ends: to satisfy the needs of business customers, or the desires of consumers. Few, if any, thought about how to use computers to facilitate and enhance collaborative problem solving on a large scale.

And then, almost by accident, social networking exploded onto the scene and, a few short years later, helped elect a president.

MyBO is just the first of what I expect will be many, many examples of how social networks online will start to enable collaborative problem solving in the real world.

These examples will multiply thanks to mobile technology and wireless networking.

As phones gain ever more sophisticated internet and social networking capabilities, they enable people to do their networking and collaboration wherever they are — in some cases even without consciously doing anything at all. For instance, Nokia is already experimenting with building traffic sensor networks using people’s phones. All participants need to do is install an application on a GPS-enabled phone, and their phone transmits data back to a central location without any effort on the user’s part. As the network grows and is able to make more accurate pictures of real-time traffic conditions, participants will also be able to use their phones to check the traffic, avoiding the most congested roadways when necessary — injecting an element of intelligence and reflexivity into the traffic flows. And that should all be possible with very minimal effort on the part of the people using it.

Traffic is just the first example; others will surely follow. In short, mobile devices combined with well-designed social networks will soon give people far more information, and the ability to make far better choices, than ever before.

And not a moment too soon: Given the scale of the problems the world now faces — global warming, a worldwide financial crisis, looming problems with the production and distribution of food and water, malaria in the third world, hurricanes, terrorism — such tools may come in very handy indeed.

Social networking comes of age.