Cybernetics originator, Norbert Weiner (from AP)

From 1944 to 1953, what became known as the Macy Conferences in New York assembled leading intellectuals—including John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Heinz von Foerster, and Margaret Mead—to discuss unsolved problems in various fields. Also in attendance was Harvard philosopher and MIT mathematician Norbert Weiner.

Weiner revamped an ancient Greek concept in his seminal 1948 work Cybernetics. The term comes from the Greek kybernetes, or “steersman,” coined by Plato to refer to effective government [1]. The term has since been bastardized as a prefix for everything from cybercafe to cybersex to cyborg (for more on cyborgs, see feminist critic Donna Haraway).

Weiner became interested in cybernetics after studying anti-aircraft fire control during WWII. Particularly, he observed the interactions of the operator and the steering mechanism. Weiner envisioned man as a component of technology in an automatic age. Cybernetics had an organic component built in. The emphasis on feedback lent organisms a kind of “free-will,” one dominated neither by internal processes nor by ambient conditions [2].

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