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Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on the Malady of “Content” and How to Save Creative Culture from the Syphoning of Substance

“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.”

Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on the Malady of “Content” and How to Save Creative Culture from the Syphoning of Substance

“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.

Norbert Wiener

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!

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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.

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Beasts of India: Stunning Illustrations of Indigenous Animals Depicted in Various Tribal Art Traditions

A vibrant menagerie at the nexus of nature and culture.

Beasts of India: Stunning Illustrations of Indigenous Animals Depicted in Various Tribal Art Traditions

In his insightful inquiry into why we look at animals, John Berger lauded non-human creatures as “the objects of our ever-extending knowledge.” They have animated our earliest cave drawings and populated our finest poetry. As the science historians Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman have observed, “we are animals; we think with animals.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that animals have figured into our cosmogonies and mythologies since the human mind first inclined toward understanding its own existence. That ancient, abiding relationship comes alive with uncommon splendor in Beasts of India (public library) — an extraordinary illustrated menagerie of indigenous animals, painted by indigenous artists in a variety of tribal art traditions and screen-printed by hand with traditional Indian dyes onto handmade paper. The result is another stunning handmade masterpiece from Tara Books — the terrestrial counterpart to their beautiful Waterlife, depicting marine creatures from the Indian fauna — printed in a limited edition of 3000 numbered copies, each including a framable screen-print of one animal from the book.

Deer (Gond tradition)

Tiger, lion, deer, snake, bull, boar, ant-eater, buffalo, monkey, elephant, crocodile, and dog leap from the pages in wildly different representations in India’s major tribal art styles, the vibrancy of which no screen can adequately convey — some drawn in pen and ink, some traditionally painted onto palm leaves with natural earth colors, others onto cotton fabric using sharp bamboo socks padded with hair or cotton. What emerges is a portrait of the millennia-old dialogue between nature and culture, emanating Oliver Sacks’s conviction that nature is our gateway into deep time.

Tiger (Patachitra tradition)
Tiger (Pithora tradition)
Tigers (Gond tradition)
Tiger (Sohrai tradition)

Elephant (Kalmakari tradition)
Elephant (Madhubani tradition)

Lion (Madhubani tradition)

Deer (Gond tradition)

Bulls (Gond tradition)
Crocodiles (Gond tradition)

Complement the breathtaking Beasts of India with other treasures from Tara Books — an illustrated celebration of water based on Indian folklore, The Night Life of Trees, indigenous representations of celestial myths, and an illustrated cosmogony of Indian mythology — then revisit artist JooHee Yoon’s wonderful Beastly Verse.

Illustrations courtesy of Tara Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Physicist Alan Lightman on the Illusion of Absolute Rest

The beautiful and disorienting science of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space.

Physicist Alan Lightman on the Illusion of Absolute Rest

In his timeless elegy for time, T.S. Eliot wrote of “the still point of the turning world” — one of the most beautiful and arresting phrases ever composed in the English language. “Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, / Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

We are woven of contradictions, few more sundering than the polar pull of this dance — our longing for stillness in a universe of unceasing motion, which the painter Joan Miró captured in the notion he placed at the center of his creative ethos: “motionless movement.”

The paradoxical nature of this dance is what the physicist Alan Lightman, one of the most poetic science writers our civilization has produced, explores in a few passages from Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — his lyrical inquiry into why we long for absolutes in a relative world and what gives meaning to our existence.

Robert Edwin Peary (self-portrait, 1909)

Reading through the journals of the pioneering Arctic explorer Robert Edwin Peary, who retired on a neighboring island off the coast of Maine in the early twentieth century after discovering the North Pole, or at least what was then believed to be the North Pole — “so simple + common place,” Peary wrote in elated astonishment upon arriving at “the prize of 3 countries, my dream + ambition for 23 years” — Lightman reflects:

I try to imagine the “common place” experience of standing exactly at the pole of the earth (even if Peary was not quite there). I see myself perched on a glistening ball in space spinning about an imaginary axis through its center, and I am standing at the precise point where that axis emerges from the interior and punctures the ice. All other points on this ball, except at the opposite pole, are in motion. But I am still. You could say I am locally at rest. I am at rest relative to the center of the earth. But that center is itself in motion. As I stand here, that center hurtles around its central star at a speed of 65,000 miles per hour, and that central star, in turn, revolves around the center of the galaxy, the Milky Way, at a speed of 500,000 miles per hour. Do I know too much, or too little? I look up into space, as the cave dwellers did, and am transfixed by the infinite. Although I cannot touch it, I feel that I’m there. This resting yet unresting pole is quite a spot for viewing the universe.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

This illusion of absolute rest plays out as much on the largest scale as it does on the smallest. Millennia after the ancient Greeks first hypothesized the atom as a perfect and indivisible entity — atomos, Greek for uncuttable — a cascade of discoveries unveiled the true nature of matter, and of us: The atom is not a unit of stuff, but a tiny center of matter swarmed by nearly weightless electrons orbiting at a great distance and a great speed. We are mostly restlessness and empty space.

Lightman frames the ancient conception of matter as a vessel for the illusion of the absolute:

Atoms were the ultimate Oneness of the material world. Perfect in their indivisibility, perfect in their wholeness and indestructibility. Atoms were the embodiment of absolute truth. Atoms, along with stars, were the material icons of the Absolutes.

[…]

Atoms prevent us from falling forever into smaller and smaller rooms of reality. When we reach atoms — so the thinking went — the falling stops. We are caught. We are safe. And from there, we begin our journey back up, building the rest of the world.

Illustration from Our Friend the Atom, a 1956 Disney primer on nuclear physics.

He contrasts this with the modern understanding of material reality, accelerated by the discovery of the electron in 1897 (the year of the disastrous expedition to the North Pole by air balloon):

The hard nut at the center of each atom, the “atomic nucleus,” is a hundred thousand times smaller than the atom as a whole. To use an analogy, if an atom were the size of Fenway Park, the home stadium of the Boston Red Sox, its dense central nucleus would be the size of a mustard seed, with the electrons gracefully orbiting in the outer bleachers. In fact, 99.9999999999999 percent of the volume of an atom is empty space, except for the haze of nearly weightless electrons. Since we and everything else are made of atoms, we are mostly empty space. That vast emptiness is perhaps the most unsettling consequence of dividing the indivisible.

With an eye to the menagerie of subatomic particles discovered in the century-some since — quarks, pions, kaons, rhos, sigmas, xis — Lightman adds:

Are we falling and falling without end? Are there unlimited infinities on all sides of us, both bigger and smaller?

This question, and its myriad fractal implications reaching into every nook and cranny of existence, is what Lightman explores in the remainder of the wholly fascinating and enchanting Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. Complement this particular portion with Pico Iyer on stillness and the art of presence, then revisit Lightman on our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change, the psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, and his poetic ode to the unknown, illustrated by a self-taught teenage artist in Bangalore.

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We Grow Accustomed to the Dark: Emily Dickinson’s Stunning Ode to Resilience, Animated

A timeless serenade to finding light amid the “Evenings of the Brain.”

How do we survive the unsurvivable? What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance has been lost? “All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Seneca’s timeless insight into the key to resilience bellows from antiquity, echoed by the contemporary social science finding that psychological “grit” is the single most significant predictor of triumph over hardship and success in life. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” the Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön offered in exploring how to thrive when things fall apart.

Loss visits every human life. The degree of our acceptance and the grace with which we adapt to the sudden descent of darkness — that is, to borrow the splendid term William James borrowed from Margaret Fuller, “the manner of our acceptance of the universe” — may be the greatest measure of skillful living.

That is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) addresses in a stunning poem titled — like all of her poems, which the poet herself always left untitled — after the first line: “We grow accustomed to the Dark,” composed during a time of personal loss and immense transformation for Dickinson, while the Civil War rages about her. Included in the indispensable Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), it comes to life in this lovely short film animated by Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Harvard’s eight-part series Poetry of Perception, exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts.

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

Complement with Dickinson, the poet laureate of finding light amid the darkness of being, on making sense of loss and her stunning forgotten herbarium — an elegy for light at the intersection of poetry and science — then revisit other enchanting animated adaptations of great poems: “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes” by Charles Bukowski, and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman.

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