Cybernetics in the Republic

AHP readers may be interested in a new open-access piece in History of the Human Sciences: “Cybernetics in the Republic,” by Michele Kennerly. Abstract:

Plato’s Republic lurks in cybernetics, a word popularly attributed to US American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964). In his accounts of how he came up with it, however, Wiener never mentions Plato, though he does note it was formed from the ancient Greek word kubern?t?s (navigator). Among the earliest popular books about the cybernetics craze are three published in France, and their authors show a special interest in the origin of cybernetics. In something like learned rebukes to Wiener, all three books credit Plato with significant use of kubern?-based terms. This article presents evidence, one, that Wiener knows well he has chosen a word with a Platonic history and, two, that Wiener deems the technical and social climate of ancient Athens (and of the Republic) instructive only as an anti-model for the mid-20th-century United States and so does not feel compelled to associate cybernetics with Plato. Instead, Wiener focuses on the challenges cybernetics and automation pose for his own engineering-oriented, capitalist, multiracial, democratic republic. Wiener’s decisions not to use Plato as an authorizing force and not to put ancient Athens on a pedestal merit recognition, since subsequent writers link ancient Athens with cybernation via a presumption that cybernation will enable and fully democratize the sort of leisure activities, including thinking and participation in public life, deemed by some to be emblematic of ancient Athens.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.