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Moral Wisdom in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener’s Prophetic Admonition About Technology and Ethics

“The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”

Moral Wisdom in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener’s Prophetic Admonition About Technology and Ethics

“Intelligence supposes goodwill,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the middle of the twentieth century. In the decades since, as we have entered a new era of technology risen from our minds yet not always consonant with our values, this question of goodwill has faded dangerously from the set of considerations around artificial intelligence and the alarming cult of increasingly advanced algorithms, shiny with technical triumph but dull with moral insensibility.

In De Beauvoir’s day, long before the birth of the Internet and the golden age of algorithms, the visionary mathematician, philosopher, and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) addressed these questions with astounding prescience in his 1954 book The Human Use of Human Beings, the ideas in which influenced the digital pioneers who shaped our present technological reality and have recently been rediscovered by a new generation of thinkers eager to reinstate the neglected moral dimension into the conversation about artificial intelligence and the future of technology.

A decade after The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener expanded upon these ideas in a series of lectures at Yale and a philosophy seminar at Royaumont Abbey near Paris, which he reworked into the short, prophetic book God & Golem, Inc. (public library). Published by MIT Press in the final year of his life, it won him the posthumous National Book Award in the newly established category of Science, Philosophy, and Religion the following year.

Norbert Wiener

With an eye to a future in which artificial intelligences begin making human intellectual and moral decisions — a notion lightyears ahead of its time in 1964 — Wiener writes:

It is relatively easy to promote good and to fight evil and good and evil are arranged against each other in two clear lines, and when those on the other side are our unquestioned enemies and those on our side our trusted allies. What, however, if we must ask, each time and in every situation, where is the friend and where is the enemy? What, moreover, when we have to put the decision in the hands of an inexorable magic or an inexorable machine of which we must ask the right questions in advance, without fully understanding the operations of the process by which they will be answered?

To ask the right questions, Wiener implies, requires not only a literacy in the language of the asking, both technological and ethical, but also an understanding of the myriad nuances that shade such considerations — subtleties challenging enough for human judgment in many situations and just about impossible to encode in a set of operative rules to be applied indiscriminately across a variety of contexts by pre-programmed machines. Half a century later, as variations on the Trolley problem cast these questions into sharp relief in considering the technology behind everything from self-driving cars to elder care AIs, Wiener’s words reverberate with wisdom both disquieting and consolatory. In a passage of sobering lucidity, which today’s overconfident makers of technologically potent yet morally impoverished algorithms would be well advised to heed, Wiener echoes Rachel Carson’s advice to the next generations and writes:

The future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.

Complement with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence — the most insightful and sensitive contemporary perspective on the paradoxes of AI I’ve encountered — then revisit the prescient, foundational questions of science and ethics Mary Shelley raised in Frankenstein more than a century before Wiener.

BP

Robert Browning on Artistic Integrity, Withstanding Criticism, and the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater

A countercultural serenade to the wellspring of the creative spirit against the tidal forces of commerce and criticism.

Robert Browning on Artistic Integrity, Withstanding Criticism, and the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the 26-year-old Van Gogh wrote to his brother in his stirring letter about the struggle for artistic purpose and recognition. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” It is a hollowing feeling every artist experiences at one point or another, this dispiriting mismatch between the ferocity of one’s inner fire and the cold, blind eye of the outside world.

In the same era, another artist of towering genius and paltry recognition articulated this sentiment, as well as its heartening antidote, in a letter to the love of his life.

Robert Browning

Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) met and fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett in the land of verse. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too,” he wrote to the stranger who had enchanted him with her 1844 poetry collection. He was an obscure poet six years her junior and this was the beginning of a most improbable courtship, recounted in Figuring, that would soon become one of the grandest, most beautiful true love stories in the common record.

“You and I seem to meet in a mild contrarious harmony,” Elizabeth wrote to Robert in their early epistolary romance, collected in the almost unbearably beautiful Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook). What harmonized their differences and contradictions was literature — the shared passion for it, the intellectual and creative bond around it, the mutual admiration of each other’s artistic gift, particularly transformative for Robert: Elizabeth’s confidence in his talent buoyed him when criticism and indifference sank his spirit as he struggled for recognition.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (British Library)

In a letter penned at the dawn of their courtship, Elizabeth probes his orientation to criticism and creative purpose:

I do not know, I cannot guess, whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism and cold neglect, such as original writers like yourself are too often exposed to — or whether the love of Art is enough for you, and the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life.

Aware of her own creative courage and defiance of convention, the 33-year-old Robert responds:

You inquire about my “sensitiveness to criticism”… I write from a thorough conviction that it is the duty of me, and with the belief that, after every drawback and shortcoming, I do my best, all things considered — that is for me, and, so being, the not being listened to by one human creature would, I hope, in nowise affect me.

A decade before Walt Whitman proclaimed in Leaves of Grass, “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,” Browning reflects on his own poems, dismissed and misunderstood by critics, and the fiery animating force behind them:

These scenes and song-scraps are such mere and very escapes of my inner power, which lives in me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean phares I have watched at sea, wherein the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery, bright and alive, and only after a weary interval leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow chink, and then goes on with the blind wall between it and you; and, no doubt, then, precisely, does the poor drudge that carries the cresset set himself most busily to trim the wick — for don’t think I want to say I have not worked hard — (this head of mine knows better) — but the work has been inside, and not when at stated times I held up my light to you — and, that there is no self-delusion here, I would prove to you (and nobody else), even by opening this desk I write on, and showing what stuff, in the way of wood, I could make a great bonfire with, if I might only knock the whole clumsy top off my tower! Of course, every writing body says the same, so I gain nothing by the avowal; but when I remember how I have done what was published, and half done what may never be, I say with some right, you can know but little of me.

In a sentiment even more countercultural today, as many artists sacrifice creative authenticity at the alter of catering — to existing tastes, to lucrative “markets,” to the guarantees of convention and their own past proven successes — Elizabeth condemns Tennyson, perhaps the most “successful” poet in the English language at the time and a writer she did admire, for his readiness in catering to the likes and dislikes of critics and tastemakers rather than composing from a place of authentic creative vision. A century before James Baldwin considered the artist’s struggle for integrity and Mark Rothko lamented that “while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done,” she writes:

That such a poet [as Tennyson] should submit blindly to the suggestions of his critics… is much as if Babbage were to take my opinion and undo his calculating machine by it.

Emboldened by her insistence on authenticity over approval, Robert concurs:

Tennyson reads the Quarterly and does as they bid him, with the most solemn face in the world — out goes this, in goes that, all is changed and ranged. Oh me!

Bronze cast of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s clasped hands by the pioneering sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Nathaniel Hawthorne would later write of Hosmer’s piece as capturing “the individuality and heroic union of two high, poetic lives.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Robert Browning would go on to become one of the most beloved and influential poets our civilization has produced, much thanks to Elizabeth’s encouragement. Although today he is the better known of the two Brownings — a common selective erasure reflective of history’s worship of the Y chromosome — he spent most of his career in her shadow, always ungrudgingly, always in admiration. As Elizabeth rose to celebrity, Robert’s pride in her work was so great that he sublimated his own ego, readily recounting a period during which he could get publishers interested in his own work only if he also sent them something of his wife’s. A decade into their love, he published Men and Women — a two-volume collection of his poems, for which both Brownings had high hopes. It fell on unenchanted ears, dismissed by critics and ignored by the public. Several months later, Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse, a sensation best described today as viral — stationed Elizabeth atop a new stratum of celebrity. Robert was jubilant. “I am surprised, I own, at the amount of success,” a disbelieving Elizabeth wrote to her sister-in-law. “Golden-hearted Robert is in ecstasies about it — far more than if it all related to a book of his own.” Perhaps she was thinking of Robert’s obscurity and the public’s painful indifference to his books when she had her protagonist proclaim:

We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much rending. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth —
’Tis then we get the right good from a book.

Complement this fragment of the altogether magnificent Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with the couple’s contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn on artistic integrity and Walt Whitman on keeping criticism from sinking your creative confidence, then revisit Elizabeth Barrett Browning — an artist who persevered through an inordinate share of suffering — on what makes life worth living and happiness as a moral obligation.

BP

Virginia Woolf on Being Ill and the Strange Transcendence Accessible Amid the Terrors of the Ailing Body

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

Virginia Woolf on Being Ill and the Strange Transcendence Accessible Amid the Terrors of the Ailing Body

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he contemplated the binary code of body and spirit in the spring of his twenty-first year, having just lost the love of his life to tuberculosis. Nothing garbles that code more violently than illness — from the temporary terrors of food poisoning to the existential tumult of a terminal diagnosis — our entire mental and emotional being is hijacked by the demands of a malcontented body as dis-ease, in the most literal sense, fills sinew and spirit alike. These rude reminders of our atomic fragility are perhaps the most discomfiting yet most common human experience — it is difficult, if at all possible, to find a person unaffected by illness, for we have all been or will be ill, and have all loved or will love someone afflicted by illness.

No one has articulated the peculiar vexations of illness, nor addressed the psychic transcendence accessible amid the terrors of the body, more thoughtfully than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” later included in the indispensable posthumous collection of her Selected Essays (public library).

Portrait of Virginia Woolf from Literary Witches.

Half a century before Susan Sontag’s landmark book Illness as Metaphor, Woolf writes:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth — rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no; with a few exceptions — De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust — literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.

Five years earlier, the ailing Rilke had written in a letter to a young woman: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” Woolf, writing in the year of Rilke’s death and well ahead of the modern scientific inquiry into how the life of the body shapes the life of the mind, rebels against the residual Cartesianism of the mind-body divide with her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry humor, channeled in exquisite prose:

All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane — smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philosopher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism.

Art from the vintage science primer The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works.

“Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” Nietzsche had asked when Woolf was just genetic potential in her parents’ DNA. Language, the fully formed human argues as she considers the unreality of illness, has been utterly inadequate in conferring upon this commonest experience the dignity of representation it confers upon just about every other universal human experience:

To hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way.

In a passage Oliver Sacks could have written, Woolf pivots to the humorous, somehow without losing the profundity of the larger point:

Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more primitive, more sensual, more obscene, but a new hierarchy of the passions; love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica; sleeplessness play the part of villain, and the hero become a white liquid with a sweet taste — that mighty Prince with the moths’ eyes and the feathered feet, one of whose names is Chloral.

And then, just like that, in classic Woolfian fashion, she fangs into the meat of the matter — the way we plunge into the universality of illness, so universal as to border on the banal, until we reach the rock bottom of utter existential aloneness:

That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you — is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

In health, Woolf argues, we maintain the illusion, both psychological and outwardly performative, of being cradled in the arms of civilization and society. Illness jolts us out of it, orphans us from belonging. But it also does something else, something beautiful and transcendent: In piercing the trance of busyness and obligation, it awakens us to the world about us, whose smallest details, neglected by our regular societal conscience, suddenly throb with aliveness and magnetic curiosity. It renders us “able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky”:

The first impression of that extraordinary spectacle is strangely overcoming. Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares. Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! — this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away…

But in the consolations of this transcendent communion with nature resides the most disquieting fact of existence — the awareness of an unfeeling universe, operating by impartial laws unconcerned with our individual fates:

Divinely beautiful it is also divinely heartless. Immeasurable resources are used for some purpose which has nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit.

Drawing from The Comet Book — a 16th-century pre-astronomical document of magical thinking about the laws of the universe.

It would take Woolf more than a decade to fully formulate, in a most stunning reflection, the paradoxical way in which these heartless laws are the very reason we are called to make beauty and meaning within their unfeeling parameters: “There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself,” she would write in 1939. Now, in her meditation on illness, she hones the anchor of these ideas:

Poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting. That snowfield of the mind, where man has not trodden, is visited by the cloud, kissed by the falling petal, as, in another sphere, it is the great artists, the Miltons and the Popes, who console not by their thought of us but by their forgetfulness.

[…]

It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal — that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out.

This sudden awareness of elemental truth renders the ill person a sort of seer, imbued with an almost mystical understanding of existence, beyond any intellectual interpretation. Nearly a century before Patti Smith came to contemplate how illness expands the field of poetic awareness, Woolf writes:

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other — a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause — which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.

Complement this portion of Woolf’s thoroughly fantastic Selected Essays with Roald Dahl on how illness emboldens creativity and Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant sister, whom Woolf greatly admired — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Woolf on the art of letters, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, the creative potency of the androgynous mind, and her transcendent account of a total solar eclipse.

BP

Visionary Photographer Edward Weston on Creativity and the Importance of Cross-Disciplinary Curiosity

“In this age of communication… who can be free from influence, — preconception? But — it all depends upon what one does with this cross-fertilization: — is it digested, or does it bring indigestion?”

Visionary Photographer Edward Weston on Creativity and the Importance of Cross-Disciplinary Curiosity

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Frankenstein author Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works. All creative people recognize this chaos — the chaos of influences, inspirations, memories, and stimulations, cross-pollinating in the mind to germinate the seed of something we dare call original: our very own contribution to the world, tessellated of these myriad existing worlds we carry within us. Rilke knew this when we composed his exquisite meditation on inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity: “For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning… One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others… One must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…” Whitman, too, knew it when he composed his tenets of creation: “All must have reference to the ensemble of the world, and the compact truth of the world.”

The influential photographer Edward Weston (March 24, 1886–January 1, 1958) articulates this elemental yet often unregarded, even deliberately evaded, truth of the creative life with uncommon splendor of sentiment in the out-of-print 1966 treasure The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II, California (public library).

Edward Weston by Tina Modotti, 1924. (Museum of Modern Art)

In a diary entry from October 29, 1930 — the year he discovered his singular creative voice and began taking his now-iconic closeups of fruits and vegetables — Weston writes:

In this age of communication, through books, reproductions, exhibits brought from all over the world, who can be free from influence, — preconception? But — it all depends upon what one does with this cross-fertilization: — is it digested, or does it bring indigestion?

Reflecting on his own creative process at Point Lobos — the breathtaking natural reserve on the Big Sur coast of California, near where he lived for many years and where he took some of his most famous photographs — Weston echoes Montaigne’s disdain for the illusion of originality and Auden’s insistence on the crucial difference between authenticity and originality, and adds:

When I start out in the field, for instance at “The Point,” it seems to me no one could be more free from intention, preconception than I am: allowing whatever crosses my path to incite me to work — and working I do not think: of course there is one’s subconscious memory to draw upon, — all the events, all the eyes have seen in this life and how many more lives? to influence one. But no one starts alone, apart, — we only add to that which has gone before, we are only parts of the whole.

Even so, Weston observes, this morass of influences and existing ideas is sieved through one’s individual artistic sensibility to deliver the golden grains of genius by which a great artist leaves a mark upon the monolith of culture:

The “individual” adds more or combines more than the mass does, he stands out more clearly, a prophet, with a background, a future, and the strength, clarity to speak, — in his chosen way, — music — paint — words; a Bach or a Blake.

Edward Weston: Pepper No. 30 (1930)

More than a year later, Weston revisits the subject of inspiration in another diary entry, insisting that such combinatorial creativity is all the stronger if the influences come from fields other than one’s own — which, of course, is the founding ethos of Brain Pickings. He writes:

I feel that I have been more deeply-moved by music, literature, sculpture, panting than I have by photography, — that is by the other workers in my own medium. This needs explanation. I am not moved to emulate, — neither to compete with or imitate, these other creative expressions, but seeing, hearing, reading something fine excites me to greater effort, — (“inspires” is just the word, but how it has been abused!). Reading about Stieglitz, for instance, means more to me than seeing his work. Kandinsky, Brancusi, Van Gogh, El Greco, have given me fresh impetus: and of late Keyserling, Spengler, Melville, (catholic taste!) in literature. I never hear Bach without deep enrichment, — I almost feel he has been my greatest “influence.” It is as though, in taking to me these great conceptions of other workers, the fallow soil in my depths, emotionally stirred, receptive, has been fertilized.

Every page of The Daybooks of Edward Weston unspools a different flavor of insight into life and art, offered with tremendous self-awareness, humility, and generosity of spirit. Complement this particular fragment with Beethoven on idea-incubation and Oliver Sacks on the three essential elements of creativity, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s transcendent epiphany about what it means to be an artist.

BP

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