Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics ,

Basic Books
New York
, 2005. $27.50 (423 pp.). ISBN 0-7382-0368-8

In Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics , Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have produced an extensively researched biography of Norbert Wiener, the self-described founding figure of cybernetics. Wiener (1894–1964) integrated control and communications engineering with the idea that the message is the basic unit of a complex system, and set up an ambitious research program that extended his integration concept to describe mechanical systems, the human nervous system, and even human cultures.

Wiener was a critical figure in the history of mid-20th-century science and technology. His life has already been documented in Steve Heims’s John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death (MIT Press, 1980), Pesi Masani’s Norbert Wiener: 1894–1964 (Birkhäuser, 1990), and in Wiener’s own autobiographies, Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (Simon and Schuster, 1953) and I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy (Doubleday, 1956). The biographies treat Wiener’s politics and science respectively, and all four books have had positive reviews in both the popular and academic presses.

What, then, can a new study of Wiener reveal? Conway and Siegelman’s biography focuses primarily on Wiener the man rather than on Wiener the scientist. It draws on new material from Wiener’s daughters, Peggy and Barbara, made public after the death of their estranged mother Margaret, a German immigrant whom Wiener married in 1926. The authors paint a picture of the private man and, in doing so, cast some light on his public persona and actions. They begin by recounting Wiener’s Missouri childhood, which was shaped by his father’s ambition to produce a child prodigy. Leo Wiener did indeed produce a prodigy, but a damaged one who would spend much of the remainder of his life combating the manic depression and psychological vulnerability induced in his youth. Wiener would earn his doctorate from Harvard University at age 18 and pursue the study of mathematics and philosophy at Cambridge and Göttingen universities in Europe before becoming a professor of mathematics at MIT.

The key presence that Conway and Siegelman introduce is Wiener’s wife Margaret, who does not fare particularly well in this account. The authors suggest that her desire to take on the role of Frau Professor (that is, play the part of the socially-respected wife of an academic) caused her to become highly protective of Wiener—to the extent that she actively sabotaged his personal and professional relationships. Tragically, she felt the need to “protect” her husband from his own daughters, whom Margaret accused of sexual provocations aimed at their father and other men. Conway and Siegelman make a compelling argument that the split between Wiener and the McCulloch group at MIT in 1951 was actually precipitated by Wiener’s wife. They argue that Margaret hated Warren McCulloch, a neurophysiologist also among the pioneering cyberneticians, for his freewheeling lifestyle, his liberal politics, and his drinking, and that she felt her husband would be in danger of further aggravating his depression were he to spend time with McCulloch. Accordingly, Margaret told her husband that their daughter Barbara had been taken advantage of years earlier by several of the young men in McCulloch’s group.

Jerry Lettwin, one of Conway and Siegelman’s informants, suggests that Margaret’s accusation was a lie. Nevertheless, Wiener reacted strongly and immediately, cutting all ties with McCulloch and his group. His actions were, as the authors argue, the death knell for cybernetics as a unified field of study. McCulloch and his team were devastated by Wiener’s rejection, and they turned away from further exploration and elaboration of his ideas.

At this point, Margaret drops out of the story. It isn’t clear to what extent she was an important later influence on Wiener’s career. Such a lack of clarity points to a key weakness in the authors’ approach: When the narrative centers on the family context, but that context later becomes unimportant, the biography loses its focus. In this case, the authors move rapidly away from furnishing an understanding of Wiener the man to providing an overview of his activities in India and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although those periods of Wiener’s career are interesting, the reader is left unsure how they connect to Wiener as father and husband.

Dark Hero of the Information Age is not the easiest introduction to cybernetics, nor to Wiener. For those, one should read the man’s own words or the previously mentioned biographies. The book does shed light on the links between the curious Wiener family and the evolution and fate of cybernetics at MIT in the 1950s. And for that, it is a valuable contribution to the history of the field.