Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on the Malady of “Content” and How to Save Creative Culture from the Syphoning of Substance
By Maria Popova
“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1964. “Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” I have thought about Sontag’s prescience again and again in my decade-plus on the internet, watching creative culture reduced to mere “content” as the life of the mind and world of substantive ideas collapse into an abyss of marketable sensationalism and cynicism; watching the cowardice of clickbaitable outrage eclipse the courage — at this point a countercultural courage — to create rather than tear down, to refuse to flatten life’s nuance, complexity, and dimensionality into simplistic binaries, to grow the container that holds our understanding of the world rather than purvey its continually cheapened “content.”
More than a decade before Sontag and more than half a century before the social web as we know it, the mathematician, philosopher, and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) offered a prescient admonition against this tendency in The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — his visionary 1950 treatise on communication, control, and the moral dimension of technology, which went on to influence thinkers as diverse as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.
In a sentiment that applies with striking precision to the cultural economics of the Internet, Wiener writes:
The newspaper business has come to be the art of saying less and less to more and more… [This] applies equally to the radio, to television, and even to bookselling. Thus we are in an age where the enormous per capita bulk of communication is met by an ever-thinning stream of total bulk of communication. More and more we must accept a standardized inoffensive and insignificant product which, like the white bread of the bakeries, is made rather for its keeping and selling properties than for its food value.
This is fundamentally an external handicap of modern communication, but it is paralleled by another which gnaws from within. This is the cancer of creative narrowness and feebleness.
Wiener locates the source of this “creative narrowness and feebleness” in the hijacking of the impetus for and innate rewards of creative work by the Skinner box of external affirmation — the prestige, acclaim, visibility, and commendation that come all the more readily today via the compulsive lever of social media, with its ceaseless supply of likes, retweets, shares, and other pellets of rapidly metabolized but hardly nutritious affirmation. Wiener writes:
The artist, the writer, and the scientist should be moved by such an irresistible impulse to create that, even if they were not being paid for their work, they would be willing to pay to get the chance to do it. However… it is now considered perhaps more a matter of social prestige to obtain a higher degree and follow what may be regarded as a cultural career, than a matter of any deep impulse… The earlier stages of creative work, whether in the arts or in the sciences, which should properly be governed by a great desire on the part of the students to create something and to communicate it to the world at large, are now subject instead to the formal requirements of finding Ph.D. theses or similar apprentice media. Lord only knows that there are enough problems yet to be solved, books to be written, and music to be composed! Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. Heaven save us above all from the snobbery which not only admits the possibility of this thin and perfunctory work, but which cries out in a spirit of shrinking arrogance against the competition of vigor and ideas, wherever these may be found!
In another sentiment of astonishing prescience in the context of contemporary media, Wiener adds:
When there is communication without need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of becoming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plummet.
The Human Use of Human Beings remains a sobering and intensely insightful read. Complement this particular aspect of it with Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication, Erich Fromm’s six rules of listening for unselfish understanding, and Alain de Botton on what makes a good communicator.
Published September 24, 2018