I want to propose to you a powerful way of looking at technology. The plural form of the word, technologies, is becoming meaningless. There is only one globe-spanning beast, comprising vast systems of engineering design, production and operations, held together by a web of standards, and a central nervous system called ‘the Internet’ (ever wonder why we use the definite article?) This beast is what answers to the singular noun ‘technology.’ I started exploring this idea in a comic book format recently, in my story Mousetrap 2.0. With Nicholas Carr’s Big Switch, the idea seems set for the big time. In this post I want to introduce you to four of my favorite scientist-engineers, who conceived and enabled the creation of this beast in the short span of 50 years between the end of World War II and the turn of the century. Reading from left to right below, these are: Claude Shannon, Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener and Herbert Simon.
Arguably, these four gentlemen (all dead white males, sorry postmodernists) created the beast of technology as we know it. Von Neumann almost made ‘founder’ status, but why he fell short is a story for another blog post. Of course this is a reductive model of history, and hundreds of thousands of people labored to create the technological world as we know it, but history as fast-scrolling movie credits is not interesting.
There are also more common ways of telling this story, but I argue that mine is better than the joke that Al Gore invented the Internet (the core integrative element of technology in the singular), and it is not quite as weak as a story that backtracks way too much and attempts to attribute everything to Aristotle and the Chinese. So I offer this quartet of founding fathers as my single best proximal-people-cause explanation of how the world as we know it came about. Call it a rhetorical origin myth to provoke debate. Consider the contributions each of these four made towards cocooning our world in a single web of technology (and no, it is no accident that all four are American).
(by the way, please welcome to ribbonfarm, illustrator Yurij Alexander, responsible for these great portraits!)
Claude Shannon is important for one simple reason: he provided the single most important idea we need to view technology as a unified entity: information theory. It was a close call between Shannon and Turing (for the Universal Turing Machine), but in my mind, information theory wins by a whisker as the more fundamental idea, primarily due to the deep connections it achieves between discrete mathematics on the one hand, and statistical physics, entropy and the material world on the other. Turing’s idea would have to wait for Landaeur’s theorem to acquire an equally fundamental grounding in material reality.
Vannevar Bush is probably the most important engineer-scientist lay people have not heard of. What did he do, you ask? He was a founder of not one but two fields that dominated the technology of the second half of the 21st century: computer science and control theory. He also invented the modern American model of research, including the model for agencies like DARPA, and via a clever accounting idea called indirect cost support, the modern American research university. And oh yeah, he wrote that seminal bit of 1945 visioning, As We May Think, which introduced a little idea called the Memex. The Memex went to inspire three generations of technologists to invent, respectively, the fundamental architecture of the Internet (incidentally enabled by the agency he helped create, DARPA), the World Wide Web and the concept of wikis. And I am not making this up — the people behind these technologies (J. C. R. Licklider, Robert Taylor, Tim Berners-Lee and Ward Cunningham) all acknowledge Bush as a (if not the) inspiration for their work. Another tidbit: Bush’s student Jay Forrester went on to found the modern field of system dynamics, the application of control theory (and more) to modeling everything from cities and corporations to the whole darn world. One more: another student, Fredrick Terman, helped create Silicon Valley as we know it. To my knowledge V. Bush is unrelated to the G. W. Bush clan. The phenomenal impact of Bush can probably never be fully estimated.
Norbert Wiener, also a founder of control theory and computing, and a contemporary and collaborator of Bush, thought rather more of himself than an objective historian would, but you have to give it to him. To write, in 1948, a prescient and courageous grand synthesis of control, computing and communication (I refer here to Cybernetics of course) was a striking act of imagination. The book is startling in that it leaps back and forth from detailed mathematics to metaphor and history. And the guy wasn’t all visionary — he was a formidable mathematician, and in many ways the stuff he did in control theory was so advanced (in areas like nonlinear and stochastic control) that it took the field decades of slogging through linear noiseless system-theoretic ideas before it could really pay serious attention to Wiener’s work. But Wiener is probably most important for getting us think of technology as a connected, organic whole. Though is book had less real impact than Bush’s more quiet work, I argue that it helped create a scientific-technological culture that would head inevitably towards greater and greater technological integration.
The last of the quartet, Herbert Simon, has two claims to fame: as a founding father of Artificial Intelligence, and as the first engineer/scientist to really attempt to bridge the worlds of technology and economics by paying attention to the problem of bounded rationality. But really, he cemented his place in this set due to one important contribution: the book The Sciences of the Artificial, which challenged us to think of the artificial landscape created by technology with the same sort of stance with which we view the natural world. Without Simon’s efforts, it would have taken us much longer to think of technology as more than applied science, and as a socio-economic entity.
You can explore more of the history behind these four people and their ideas via these books.
- The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon is surprisingly readable despite the enormity of the idea it introduced. You’ll even understand a fair bit without mathematics, thanks to the smart examples. The edition I’ve linked to has a nice introduction too, by Weaver.
- Science–the endless frontier: A report to the President on a program for postwar scientific research is the most quoted Bush reference, but the Atlantic article linked to earlier is probably a good enough exposure to his ideas.
- From Memex To Hypertext is a relatively recent academic collection that is well worth looking at. It traces the continuing impact of Bush’s ideas, and has lately been driving some of my own research.
- Cybernetics, Second Edition: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine is the book that made Wiener famous. A little turgid and hard to read, but worth the effort. Will give you a serious appreciation for history and what the world was like in the 1940s when these ideas germinated.
- The Sciences of the Artificial – 3rd Edition, again a book that rewards study. Somewhat sloppily written and argued (paradoxically by the guy who taught computers logic), but again, as with all these references, the key is to read it as a history book, not as a technology book.
- Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) the single most impressive piece of technology history I’ve ever read. Carefully, but humanely deconstructs the origin myths of the fields of control and communication, gently humanizes Wiener without taking him at his own estimation, and paints a brilliant portrait of the forces that came together to create the first signs of a connected world.
- The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, which I previously reviewed, should give you a very modern look at technology in the singular.
I’ll be talking a lot more about this theme in future posts, so there are more references to share, but if this thread of thinking interests you, this starter set is all must-reads. No serious technologist should go without at least a passing familiarity with these founding fathers, their work and the historical context within which they created our world.