By Chet Yarbrough
Rise of the Machines (A Cybernetic History)
Release Date 6/28/16
By: Thomas Rid
Narrated by: Robertson Dean
Thomas Rid (Author, political science Professor received Ph.D from Humboldt Univ. of Berlin in 2006.)
Thomas Rid’s history of the “Rise of the Machines” is a political perspective on society’s adoption of cybernetics (the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things).
Rid begins his history with the industrial age that created machines and increased worker productivity while displacing and retraining workers to meet the needs of a growing economy.
Rid’s history defines the origin and significance of cybernetics. It may be interpreted positively or negatively. Viewing the state of the world today, there is room for praise and criticism. On the one hand “Rise of the Machines” offered opportunities and prosperity, on the other, it promoted murder and mayhem. The irony of both is they come from the same source, military R & D. Like Willie Sutton said about robbing banks, military defense budgets are “…where the money is”.
Rid recognizes Norbert Wiener’s formative role in the cybernetic age. Rid notes Wiener develops communications engineering and cybernetic theory during WWII. Rid reminds listeners of the military’s radar refinement and jet pilot cybernetic helmets, long before virtual reality became available to the public. The key to Wiener’s success is experimenters’ recognition of the importance of environmental feedback when designing machines to precisely locate an enemy target or for pilots to engage an enemy plane.
Norbert Wiener (American mathematician and philosopher, 1894-1964.)
Feedback is key to efficient machine performance because it provides information for changed response in the same way humans respond differently when circumstances or environments change.
Rid gives the example of pilot helmet refinement, partly related to ideas of the Star War’s movie.
Darth Vader’s helmet became a model for pilots of newer jet fighters.
The original helmets were unwieldy and uncomfortable. In Vietnam, the rough terrain led to GE research on motorized robots. However, what they found was the rough terrain and swampy land made them too vulnerable for practical use. GE’s research shows limitations but leads to robotic mechanization for repetitive work in fixed environments of industrial production.
Rid digresses with science fictions’ contribution to the advance of cybernetics. Timothy Leery, and Scientology were early endorsers of Wiener’s theory of cybernetics. Timothy Leery extolls the virtues of LSD as an entry to a different reality. One of Leary’s friends is Jaron Lanier who created an early version of virtual reality headwear.
L. Ron Hubbard claims Scientology’s connection to cybernetics. Wiener pointedly objects to Hubbard’s claim and forbids further association of Scientology with cybernetics.
The first computer is invented in the 19th century by an English mechanical engineer named Charles Babbage. It was an early form of number computation and analysis. It was a century ahead of its time. During WWII, British codebreakers needed to decipher German miliary communications. In 1936, Alan Turing writes a paper “On Computable Numbers…” that leads to employment by the British during WWII to decode German military communications. Turing’s computer decoded Germany’s secret enigma machine’ messages. As a result, Turing becomes known as the father of modern computer science.
The early internet years came in the 1960s from the need for a communications network for government researchers to share information.
That network is called ARPANET, which is financed by the U.S. Department of Defense. It is transformed into the world wide web, now known as the internet. Rid’s book is published in 2016. The potential of cybernetics in war is clearly demonstrated by Ukraine’s ability to resist a much larger and better equipped foreign power.
The role of the military in cybernetics research and development is shown as both critical and essential in Rid’s history.
Ukraine’s use of cybernetic surveillance for military equipment targeting and drone weaponization equalizes power and effectiveness of two mismatched powers.
Though not a subject of Rid’s history, the principal value of free speech is diminished by a cybernetic world that is not properly legislated, adjudicated and enforced by rule-of-law. Internet users have been influenced by media trolls who spew lies and disinformation. Young people kill themselves because of being dissed on the internet. The internet gives voice to hate groups around the world. Gaming is a principal revenue producer in the cybernetic world that patently discounts reality. Human value is discounted by the mayhem of computer gaming.
As late as yesterday, 3/27/23, another school shooting occurs in Nashville, Tennessee. Three adults and three nine-year-old children are killed.
Rid notes cybernetics’ military application both protects and exposes security of nations around the world. Rid writes about an American military intelligence penetration by foreign and domestic hackers during the Clinton administration. Hackers have the tools to disrupt both economic and military operations around the world. Of course, those tools are multiplying. With quantum computing, existing passwords will become obsolete. Intelligence services of all countries are becoming more and more capable of disrupting military or domestic affairs of any foreign power.