Machine and accident

Monoskop posted Norbert Wiener’s “The Machine Age” [pdf], previously unpublished and written in 1949 for the NYT.  I think it makes for fascinating (albeit nerdy) reading. 

Monoskop’s preamble reads as follows:

In 1949, The New York Times invited MIT mathematician Wiener to summarize his views about ‘what the ultimate machine age is likely to be,’ in the words of its longtime Sunday editor, Lester Markel. Wiener accepted the invitation and wrote a draft of the article; but Markel was dissatisfied and asked him to rewrite it. Wiener did. But things fell through the cracks and his article was never published. It languished in the MIT Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections until December 2012, when it was discovered by Anders Fernstedt, an independent scholar who is researching the work of Karl Popper.


Reading this, three things stood out for me, and they offer a concise illustration of the theology that runs the theory of cybernetics.

First, Weiner traces the “respectable intellectual history and ancestry” of the “computing machine” specifically (and exclusively) to Leibniz. “The computing machine is the automatic mechanized successor to that calculus of reason which Leibniz suggested.”

Presumably all other genealogies of the computer were considered less respectable?

But the attribution is not, I think, entirely explicable by way of Wiener’s concern to situate his discipline — mathematics (as a whole) — as originary. The choice of Leibniz has very particular consequences.

Secondly, the final passages of the article take a rather dark speculative turn, after discussing the “pains of transition” that Wiener assumes will be associated with the replacement of factory work by machines. Wiener’s theories of automation, the labour process and “transition” (to what?) are certainly debatable but, by and large, all of the complexities involved in those are set aside by his recourse to a ‘Be careful what you wish for’ tale.

That is, his dystopian rendition of the future makes little sense without reference to Leibniz’s specifically theological understanding of the calculus.

This is from C&C (p.44):

While Bernoulli’s Theorem was criticised by Gottfried Leibniz for setting aside theories of causation, it nevertheless, as Daston shows, satisfied “a determinism compatible with the rationalist program both Bernoulli and Leibniz espoused, at least from the perspective of an omniscient deity.” The question of transforming qualitative notions of uncertainty into quantitative estimates of risk did not only imply epistemic limits to human foresight – to speculations on death, disease and in the jurisprudential approach to aleatory contracts – but, more profoundly, it reconstituted the premise of divine necessity in the midst of contingent circumstances. The proposition of limited human knowledge, in this respect, was the corollary of a faith in divine omniscience. It is this postulate that engenders both Spinozian ethics and the Leibnizian calculus. God’s infinite knowledge could be discerned, therefore, through the development of the axiomatic. For Spinoza, ethical validity could be ascertained through a geometric model, according to which axioms and propositions follow with logical necessity. For Leibniz, God was infinitely calculating, and one approximated God’s wisdom through the application of the differential calculus.

In other words, I think the the third and most interesting point about Wiener’s article is that far from imagining a utopian future where the ‘necessity of work’ is banished or at least significantly diminished by automated machines, it reinstates that presumed necessity in the shape of the punishing future of dystopian nightmare.

It’s never clear to me whether people enjoy the dark twists of such narratives because they conflate it with reality or because they don’t. No linear narrative is credible beyond aesthetics, which is to say, beyond the structure of narrative.

In any event, it’s curious that both Wiener’s and Adam Curtis’ narratives on cybernetics are not that far apart.

Particularly in their understanding of the accidental. Curtis doesn’t really have a theory of the accident. Everything seems inexorable. Wiener did, or rather it appears in the story of the son killed in a factory accident, that isn’t really an accident as such.

Much has depended on how accidents have been defined, how contracts understand accidents and allocate their risks, and to whom. For Wiener, the accident is an Act of God. Yet:

As Morton J. Horowitz has argued, the nineteenth century was the scene of a series of conflicts over the understanding of the voluntary assumption of risk (volenti non fit injuria) that limited the liability of employers for workplace accidents and harms by asserting that, under a rule of reasonable (or disciplined) foresight, the worker had taken responsibility for the possible dangers of their work. The doctrine of volenti non fit injuria, was displaced – in some but by no means all labour contracts – in the latter part of the nineteenth century by forms of compensation and social insurance predicated on the rise of the statistical. (C&C, p34)

Workplace accident insurance emerged around the same time as the introduction of laws that limited the working day — or, rather, did so for some male workers.

One of the persistent features of ‘non-standard’ work contracts (from that time to now) is the absence of both health insurance and its accessories, such as high-visibility workwear. In those cases, the implied contractual terms are those of volenti non fit injuria.

What kinds of labour, work contracts and theories of accident does the high-vis vest represent? Or not?

The ubiquitous high-vis vest in the Australian 2013 federal election
The ubiquitous high-vis vest in the Australian 2013 federal election

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