Horkheimer and Wiener

by Sebastian Benthall

[I began writing this weeks ago and never finished it. I’m posting it here in its unfinished form just because.]

I think I may be condemning myself to irrelevance by reading so many books. But as I make an effort to read up on the foundational literature of today’s major intellectual traditions, I can’t help but be impressed by the richness of their insight. Something has been lost.

I’m currently reading Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) and Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (1947). The former I am reading for the Berkeley School of Information Classics reading group. Norbert Wiener was one of the foundational mathematicians of 20th century information technology, a colleague of Claude Shannon. Out of his own sense of social responsibility, he articulated his predictions for the consequences of the technology he developed in Human Use. This work was the foundation of cybernetics, an influential school of thought in the 20th century. Terrell Bynum, in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Computer and Information Ethics“, attributes to Wiener’s cybernetics the foundation of all future computer ethics. (I think that the threads go back earlier, at least through to Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology. (EDIT: Actually, QCT was published, it seems, in 1954, after Weiner’s book.)) It is hard to find a straight answer to the question of what happened to cybernetics?. By some reports, the artificial intelligence community cut their NSF funding in the 60’s.

Horkheimer is one of the major thinkers of the very influential Frankfurt School, the postwar social theorists at the core of intellectual critical theory. Of the Frankfurt School, perhaps the most famous in the United States is Adorno. Adorno is also the most caustic and depressed, and unfortunately much of popular critical theory now takes on his character. Horkheimer is more level-headed. Eclipse of Reason is an argument about the ways that philosophical empiricism and pragmatism became complicit in fascism. Here is an interested quotation.

It is very interesting to read them side by side. Published only a few years apart, Wiener and Horkheimer are giants of two very different intellectual traditions. There’s little reason to expect they ever communicated (a more thorough historian would know more). But each makes sweeping claims about society, language, and technology and contextualizes them in broader intellectual awareness of religion, history and science.

Horkheimer writes about how the collapse of the Enlightment project of objective reason has opened the way for a society ruled by subjective reason, which he characterizes as the reason of formal mathematics and scientific thinking that is neutral to its content. It is instrumental thinking in its purest, most rigorous form. His descriptions of it sound like gestures to what we today call “data science”–a set of mechanical techniques that we can use to analyze and classify anything, perfecting our understanding of technical probabilities towards whatever ends one likes.

I find this a more powerful critique of data science than recent paranoia about “algorithms”. It is frustrating to read something over sixty years old that covers the same ground as we are going over again today but with more composure. Mathematized reasoning about the world is an early 20th century phenomenon and automated computation a mid-20th century phenomenon. The disparities in power that result from the deployment of these tools were thoroughly discussed at the time.

But today, at least in my own intellectual climate, it’s common to hear a mention of “logic” with the rebuttal “whose logic?“. Multiculturalism and standpoint epistemology, profoundly important for sensitizing researchers to bias, are taken to an extreme the glorifies technical ignorance. If the foundation of knowledge is in one’s lived experience, as these ideologies purport, and one does not understand the technical logic used so effectively by dominant identity groups, then one can dismiss technical logic as merely a cultural logic of an opposing identity group. I experience the technically competent person as the Other and cannot perceive their actions as skill but only as power and in particular power over me. Because my lived experience is my surest guide, what I experience must be so!

It is simply tragic that the education system has promoted this kind of thinking so much that it pervades even mainstream journalism. This is tragic for reasons I’ve expressed in “objectivity is powerful“. One solution is to provide more accessible accounts of the lived experience of technicality through qualitative reporting, which I have attempted in “technical work“.

But the real problem is that the kind of formal logic that is at the foundation of modern scientific thought, including its most recent manifestation ‘data science’, is at its heart perfectly abstract and so cannot be captured by accounts of observed practices or lived experience. It is reason or thought. Is it disembodied? Not exactly. But at least according to constructivist accounts of mathematical knowledge, which occupy a fortunate dialectical position in this debate, mathematical insight is built from embodied phenomenological primitives but by their psychological construction are abstract. This process makes it possible for people to learn abstract principles such as the mathematical theory of information on which so much of the contemporary telecommunications and artificial intelligence apparatus depends. These are the abstract principles with which the mathematician Norbert Wiener was so intimately familiar.