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Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search Of Norbert Wiener--Father of Cybernetics Hardcover – December 14, 2004

4.5 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

One of the central concerns of the current "information age" is the difficulty of ordering and making sense out of the glut of information that flies at us from every direction, at all hours, in increasingly creative and invasive ways. Wiener, the man who gave us the tools to create and nurture this age by founding the science of cybernetics, has fallen prey to that glut, with his legacy and impact largely forgotten and misunderstood. Conway and Siegelman attempt to reassess that legacy, painting a compelling, readable portrait of "a dark hero who has fallen through the cracks in the information age, and of his fight for human beings that is the stuff of legend." The authors, who co-wrote Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, celebrate Wiener's genius and his voracious appetite for various modes of scientific and social inquiry, and describe how this interdisciplinary mental agility was the key to Wiener's development of cybernetics. At the same time, the authors humanize their subject with revealing but tasteful ruminations on his manic depression, his physical limitations and his sometimes petty and competitive nature. Perhaps most importantly, Conway and Siegelman chronicle Wiener's own awakening to the implications of the science he was pioneering and to the dangers they posed to his future and to ours. Photos. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

No one saw earlier or more fully the possibilities and perils of automated information systems than did Norbert Wiener, whose remarkably prescient vision receives overdue attention in this compelling biography. Beginning with the wunderkind years that put Wiener in graduate school at age 14, the authors limn the development of the brilliant mind that created the basic framework for a statistical science of communication. As that mind pioneered new understandings of feedback loops and analog information systems, a cybernetic paradigm emerged, opening new horizons for computer designers, biologists, and sociologists. Conway and Siegelman chronicle Wiener's highly fruitful collaboration with the computer maven John von Neuman, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and others who applied cybernetic principles. They also detail Wiener's estrangement from cold warriors he accused of misusing his discoveries for political purposes and from corporate leaders he feared would use cybernetics to exploit and displace workers. At a time when information technology is delivering new powers to government security agencies and new clients to unemployment offices, readers will read this life story with great interest. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 423 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (December 13, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738203688
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738203683
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #465,485 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
When I first saw the title "Dark Hero of ...." I had to chuckle with the image it engendered of Norbert, dressed in a floppy Batman constume, goutee, thick glassed over his mask which of course hid his identy waddling down the corridors of Building 2, fighting crime in Tauberian Theorems.

The authors wrote a magnificent opus on a great man who, in today's environment, would have been classified as a victim of child abuse. Their facts and presentation carried me back to that era. But, I am uncomfortable with the intensionality that the term 'Dark' might leave in the reader so grant me the right to give an added facet.

As a senior at MIT during the 1959-1960 semesters I had the honor working with Weiner. Up front, my review arises from an unabashed gratitude and affection for a man whose influence and help were instrumental for all the good things that later transpired in my life over the last 45 years.

One day in the fall of 1959 I was walking near Weiner's office after having come out of Dirk Struik's office from a discussion of an item in the Advanced Tensor Analysis course I was taking from him. Just as I was passing by his office the classical Norbert Weiner yelled out " young man, can you come in and finish the calculations on the board". Honestly, I was totally naive and did not know anything about him except having seen him in the corridors.

"Sure" I said. As I entered the office he walked out. There on the dusty chalk board were a facsimile of a spread sheet, with rows of numbers scribbled across the board. I could not admit that I had no idea what the numbers represented, let alone what I was to do. Ego is a wonderful goad for creative problem solving.
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Format: Hardcover

Having been a Tech student during many of the years covered by "Dark hero of the Information Age" - undergraduate in physics from 1948 to 1953, graduate student in electrical engineering from 1957 to 1961, and postdoc in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) from 1961 to 1962 - I found this book fascinating to read. Norbert Wiener's portly figure waddling about the campus, popping peanuts from his jacket pocket into his open mouth, rapt in conversation, or staring blankly into middle distance was familiar to all as is well described by authors Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. Although aware of the "communist threat" supposed to stem from some MIT faculty members in those years, it was both interesting and chilling to read that the FBI had investigated even Wiener - interesting because his FBI dossier was a boon to his biographers, chilling to learn that our benighted federal agents had found this kindly, bumbling man a threat to the republic.

Based on many interviews with surviving friends and family members and on Wiener's own autobiographies, the authors provide a highly-readable account of his unusual childhood as a prodigy, force-fed on a diet of germanic poetry and mathematics by his obsessed father - a Harvard professor of modern languages who arrived as a penniless immigrant to the US from Russia at the age of 19. Obtaining a doctorate from Harvard at the age of 18, Norbert Wiener eventually obtained an academic position in the MIT mathematics department, where he taught and conducted research for 45 years until his death in 1964.

Wiener is widely known as the "father of cybernetics" which he famously defined as the science of "control and communication in the animal and the machine".
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Format: Hardcover
This is really two books; a fascinating intellectual history of one of the seminal thinkers of the last century and a sometime painful personal story. I haven't made up my mind about the second book but the first is well worth reading. Did you know that Wiener anticipated Heisenberg's uncertainty theory, in a very general form? He presented the idea that the freguency of a musical note and its timing cannot both be measured with precision in a talk given in 1925 with Heisenberg in the audience. Of course, Heisenberg deserves all the credit for explaining, two years later, that this idea applies to quantum mechanics but Wiener had already seen the underlying logic. He was similarly prescient with respect to information theory in that he recognized the interconnections between ideas about probability and signalling. In at least one way, the authors explain, Wiener may still be ahead of his time: He recognized the importance of analog as well as digital computation.

The personal story may be a little one-sided. The authors are very hard on the women in Wiener's life, his mother and his wife but rather indulgent toward Leo Wiener, the father who was hell-bent on making his son into a prodigy. Maybe, the women had to be a little monstrous to protect Wiener from his dad.
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Format: Hardcover
Having read "Dark Hero Of The Information Age" I am now somewhat taken aback when I look around and can recognise the hand and mind of Norbert Wiener throughout much of contemporary life. Be it in learning, language, communication or use of technology Wiener's scientific vision and development of cybernetics has had significant influence over the way human beings interact with each other and with technology.

But, as the authors make the point so clearly, his vision and thinking cannot be separated from his humanity. In their book Conway and Siegelman take the reader on an intimate journey into the complex life of an extraordinary person, complete with his personal struggles and failings as well as his triumphs. It's a journey that reveals just how human Wiener really was and the degree to which his scientific genius was underpinned by his innate sense of ethics and morality.

Today, those who bring new science into the world are sometimes criticised as 'soulless' individuals who only focus on assumed benefits, without regard for unrealised consequences. But Norbert Weiner, several decades ahead of his time, is revealed as a scientist whose motivations were tempered with concern for the protection of people, from both the perspective of social cohesion and that at the level of individual well-being. His legacy, apart from all his unique mathematical and scientific contributions, is that the advance of science is not at the cost of human dignity, and is the challenge that he has left squarely in front of today's scientists and of the community at large.

He lived his life across continents in the northern hemisphere.
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