In the Age of Big Data, Should We Live in Awe of Machines?


In 1949, The New York Times asked Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, to write an essay for the paper that expressed his ideas in simple form. For editorial and other reasons, Wiener’s essay never appeared and was lost. Recently, a draft of the never-published essay was found in the MIT archives. Written now 64 years ago, the essay remains deeply topical. The Times recently printed excerpts. Here is the first paragraph:

By this time the public is well aware that a new age of machines is upon us based on the computing machine, and not on the power machine. The tendency of these new machines is to replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one, rather than to replace human energy and power by machine energy and power. It is already clear that this new replacement will have a profound influence upon our lives, but it is not clear to the man of the street what this influence will be.

Wiener draws a core distinction between machines and computing machines, a distinction that is founded upon the ability of machines to mimic and replace not only human labor, but also human judgment. In the 1950s, when Wiener wrote, most Americans worried about automation replacing factory workers. What Wiener saw was a different danger: that intelligent machines could be created that would “replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one.”  

Today, of course, Wiener’s prophecy is finally coming true. The IBM supercomputer Watson is being trained to make diagnoses with such accuracy, speed, and efficiency that it will largely replace the need for doctors to be trained in diagnostics.


Google is developing a self-driving car that will obviate the need for humans to judge how fast and near to others they will drive, just as GPS systems already render moot the human sense of direction. MOOCs are automating the process of education and grading so that fewer human decisions need to be made at every level. Facebook is automating the acquisition of friends, lawyers are employing computers to read and analyze documents, and on Wall Street computer trading is automating the buying and selling of stocks. Surveillance drones, of course, are being given increasing autonomy to sift through data and decide which persons to follow or investigate. Finally, in the scandal of the day, the National Security Agency is using computer algorithms to mine data about our phone calls looking for abnormalities and suspicious patterns that would suggest potential dangers. In all these cases, the turn to machines to supplement or even replace human judgment has a simple reason: Even if machines cannot think, they can be programmed to do traditionally human tasks in ways that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive than can be done by human beings. In ways big and small, human judgment is being replaced by computers and machines.

It is important to recognize that Wiener is not arguing that we will create artificial human beings. The claim is not that humans are simply fancy machines or that machines can become human. Rather, the point is that machines can be made to mimic human judgment with such precision and subtlety so that their judgments, while not human, are considered either equal to human judgment or even better. The result, Wiener writes, is that “Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.”

Wiener saw this new machine age as dangerous on at least two grounds. First, economically, the rise of machines carries the potential to upend basic structures of civilization. He writes:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

The dangers Wiener sees from our increased reliance on computing machines are not limited to economic dislocation. The real threat that computing machines pose is that as we cede more and more power to machines in our daily lives, we will, he writes, gradually forfeit our freedom and independence:

[I]f we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

For Wiener, our eventual servitude to machines is both an acceptable result and a fait accompli, one we must learn to accept. If we insist on arrogantly maintaining our independence and freedom, we will die. I gather the point is not that machines will rise up and kill their creators, but rather that we ourselves will program our machines to eliminate, imprison, immobilize, or re-program those humans who refuse to comply with paternalistic and well-meaning directives of the machines systems we create in order to provide ourselves with security and plenty.

Wiener counsels that instead of self-important resistance, we must learn to be in awe of our machines. Our machines will improve our lives. They will ensure better medical care, safer streets, more efficient production, better education, more reliable childcare and more human warfare. Machines offer the promise of a cybernetic civilization in which an entire human and natural world is regulated and driven towards a common good with super-human intelligence and calculative power. In the face of such utopian possibility, we must accept our new status as the lucky beneficiaries of the regulatory systems we have created and humble ourselves as beings meant to live well rather than to live free.


Recent revelations about the U.S. government’s using powerful computers to mine and analyze enormous amounts of data collected via subpoenas from U.S. telecom companies is simply one example of the kind of tradeoff Wiener suggests we will and we should make. If I understand the conclusions of Glenn Greenwald’s typically excellent investigative reporting, the NSA uses computer algorithms to scan the totality of phone calls and internet traffic in and out of the United States. The NSA needs all of this data—all of our private data—in order to understand the normal patterns of telephony and web traffic and thus to notice, as well, those exceptional patterns of calling, chatting, and surfing. The civil libertarian challenges of such a program are clear: the construction of a database of normal behavior allows the government to attend to those whose activities are outside the norm. Those outliers can be terrorists or pedophiles; they may be Branch Davidians or members of Occupy Wall Street; they may be Heideggerians or Arendtians. Whomever they are, once those who exist and act in patterns outside the norm are identified, it is up to the government whether to act on that information and what to do with it. We are put in the position of having to trust our government to use that information wisely, with pitifully little oversight. Yet the temptation will always be there for the government to make use of private information once they have it.

In the face of the rise of machines and the present NSA action, we have, Wiener writes, a choice. We can arrogantly thump our chests and insist that our privacy be protected from snooping machines and governmental bureaucracies, or we can sit back and stare in awe of the power of these machines to keep us safe from terrorists and criminals at such a slight cost to our happiness and quality of life. We already allow the healthcare bureaucracy to know the most intimate details of our lives and the banking system to penetrate into the most minute details of our finances and the advertising system to know the most embarrassing details of our surfing and purchasing histories; why, Wiener pushes us to ask, should we shy away from allowing the security apparatus from making use of our communication?

If there is a convincing answer to this hypothetical question and if we are to decide to resist the humbling loss of human freedom and human dignity that Wiener welcomes, we need to articulate the dangers Wiener recognizes and then rationalizes in a much more provocative and profound way. Towards that end, there are few books more worth reading than Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Wiener is not mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book; and yet, her concern and her theme, if not her response, are very much in line with the threat that cybernetic scientific and computational thinking pose for the future of human beings.

In her prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt writes that two threatening events define the modern age. The first was the launch of Sputnik. The threat of Sputnik had nothing to do with the cold war or the Russian lead in the race for space. Rather, Sputnik signifies for Arendt the fact that we humans are finally capable of realizing the age-old dream of altering the basic conditions of human life, above all that we are earth-bound creatures subject to fate. What Sputnik meant is that we were then in the 1950s, for the first time, in a position to humanly control and transform our human condition and that we are doing so, thoughtlessly, without politically and thoughtfully considering what that would mean. I have written much about this elsewhere and given a TEDx talk about it here.

The second “equally decisive” and “no less threatening event” is “the advent of automation.”  In the 1950s, automation of factories threatened to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” Laboring, Arendt writes, has for thousands of years been one essential part of what it means to be a human being. Along with work and action, labor comprises those activities engaged in by all humans. To be human has meant to labor and support oneself; to be human has for thousands of years meant that we produce things—houses, tables, stories, and artworks—that provide a common humanly built world in which we live together; and to be human has meant to have the ability to act and speak in such a way as to surprise others so that your action will be seen and talked about and reacted to with a force that will alter the course and direction of the human world. Together these activities comprise the dignity of man, our freedom to build, influence, and change our given world—within limits.

But all three of these activities of what Arendt calls the vita activa, are now threatened, if not with extinction, then at least with increasing rarity and public irrelevance. As automation replaces human laborers, the human condition of laboring for our necessary preservation is diminished, and we come to rely more and more on the altruism of a state enriched by the productivity of machine labor. Laboring, part of what it has meant to be human for thousands of years, threatens to become ever less necessary and to occupy an ever smaller demand on our existence. As the things we make, the houses we live in, and the art we produce become ever more consumable, fleeting, and temporary, the common world in which we live comes to seem ever more fluid; we move houses and abandon friends with the greater ease than previous ages would dispose of a pair of pants. Our collective focus turns toward our present material needs rather than towards the building of common spiritual and ethical worlds. Finally, as human action is seen as the statistically predictable and understandable outcome of human behavior rather than the surprising and free action of human beings, our human dignity is sacrificed to our rational control and steering of life to secure safety and plenty. The threat to labor, work, and action that Arendt engages emerges from the rise of science—what she calls earth and world alienation—and the insistence that all things, including human beings, are comprehensible and predictable by scientific laws.

Arendt’s response to these collective threats to the human condition is that we must “think what we are doing.” She writes at the end of her prologue:

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Years before Arendt traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed what she saw as the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, she saw the impending thoughtlessness of our age as the great danger of our time. Only by thinking what we are doing—and in thinking also resisting the behaviorism and materialism of our calculating time—can we humans hope to resist the impulse to be in awe of our machines and, instead, retain our reverence for human being that is foundation of our humanity. Thinking—that dark, irrational, and deeply human activity—is the one meaningful response Arendt finds to both the thoughtlessness of scientific behaviorism and the thoughtlessness of the bureaucratic administration of mass murder.


There will be great examples of chest thumping about the loss of privacy and the violation of constitutional liberties over the next few days. This is as it should be. There will also be sober warnings about the need to secure ourselves from terrorists and enemies. This is also necessary. What is needed beyond both these predictable postures, however, is serious thinking about the tradeoffs between our need for reliable and affordable security along with honest discussion of what we today mean by human freedom. To begin such a discussion, it is well worth revisiting Norbert Wiener’s essay. It is your weekend read.

If you are interested in pursuing Arendt’s own response to crisis of humanism, you can find a series of essays and public lectures on that theme here.


Posted on 7 June 2013 | 3:21 pm

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