The digital transformation has begun to reshape traditional literary culture, as well as traditional intellectual culture. Three Americans were central to that process: Norbert Wiener, the celebrated founder of cybernetics, Stewart Brand, a leading hippie figure from the 70s, and more recently Tim O'Reilly, who brought us the terms web 2.0 and open source, as well as a few other ways of looking at the world. How do they work as intellectuals?
What would intellectual history look like if we began to take seriously the role of engineering in shaping our lives? In the USA, intellectuals are seen as something completely different from engineering or computer science. Bookstores don’t know where to put the books I write! Where does cultural history that takes technology seriously fit? In the business section, in the science section? But never in the history section. To them it conveys the history of mostly men, who have ideas mostly in their heads, and express them mostly in books. That’s dangerous. Because ideas in books are not what produces this machine we all have in our pocket and which is shaping our thinking almost as much as any poem ever did. That’s my argument in a nutshell.
Tim O’Reilly doesn’t look like an intellectual but an athletic mountain biker. However Wired magazine calls him the guru of the participation age. To Inc magazine, he is Silicon Valley’s leading intellectual. His critics pay a different tribute to this giant. Evgeny Morozov, for instance, wrote: “the enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause and that is Tim O’Reilly. Entire fields of thought, from computing to management to public administration have already surrendered to his buzzwordophilia.”
An entrepreneur and journalist at first, Tim O’Reilly created a publishing house specialized in “how to” programming books. From there he went on with a series of conferences. This is where a new language was generated, with expressions like “web 2.0,” that reimagined computing as a social activity. Or “open source”: this idea emerged in contrast to “free” software. Free software was meant to circulate outside of the economy, freely. Open source on the other hand is a bit different. It’s meant to be free inside the economy.
Tim O’Reilly created the social terrain where these terms came into being. And he really challenged our ideas of where intellectualism comes from. One key idea: Tim O’Reilly does not have ideas in his head alone: he has ideas in his social network. This is an important distinction. The idea we grew up with is that an intellectual is some sort of genius, who has an idea inside their head and who expresses that idea through writing or speaking. This is not how Tim O’Reilly works. He gathers different communities and listens to them. At conferences, camp outs, parties. He goes camping with a hundred engineers. Plays Mystery, a grandeur nature game where you can go into people’s tent to find out who’s the culprit.
Out of these networking gatherings come languages to explain what the network is doing at that moment. He interprets and exports those languages. At which stage they gain tremendous leverage: they organize public debate. There are no ideas in heads alone. There are ideas in networks. And people who stand at the intersection of networks learn those ideas, export them and gain intellectual power by doing so.
Our discussion will be cut in three pieces: three intellectuals and how they changed three ideas.
First there was at one time something called the public intellectual. If we look for them today we won’t see them: they are creatures of the past. They have been replaced in the public sphere – in America at least – by network entrepreneurs/intellectuals. Ronald Stuart Burt, a sociologist of networks, talks about structural holes, holes that exist between different social worlds. If you stand in those holes you can peer into what those different worlds say, and bring their insights together.
What, back in the 50s, was a public intellectual? In America, one thought of Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills the motorcycling sociologist, Davis Riesman or Mary McCarthy. They had ideas they gained through reading and they wrote these ideas down in books. They were called intellectuals because they had ideas, and they were called public because they wrote about those ideas in accessible language – plain English for ordinary people. They published in books, and especially little magazines. They were chronicled by some like Russell Jacoby in The Fall of Public Man. Who they were not was celebrities. They did not appear on TV. They wrote books. They were highbrow figures who could use plain language to reach ordinary people. They were not to be associated with commerce or media technology. They were creatures of paper and books. Ideas emerged somehow in the mind, found their way onto paper and once on paper became legitimate.
At the same time, in the 50s, another world was emerging. C.P. Snow, in his famous essay “The Two Cultures,” described the rise of an engineering culture alongside literary culture. The literary people didn’t know much about science, engineering culture, and – a very accurate assessment – didn’t learn to measure its power. In the late 1950s, we were fresh out of WW2. Technology had helped us win WW2, engineers had a new legitimacy and social standing, and they also had this new technology called computation. The first digital computer in the USA was created in 1948. Within ten years large digital computers were installed in large corporations around the country. Within 20 years we had the first nodes on the Internet! This computerization process was very, very fast.
It took place alongside an equally rapid process of thinking and doing work. Engineers are enormously collaborative. They don’t have ideas in the same manner writers of small magazines do. Engineers have to work in teams. They have to work with other people to build things. And in the sense of ideas that emerge into things, they already know that such ideas emerge from groups. An engineering mindset says: “we always work together.” I’m not the most important thing – we are.
A key element is deliverables. At the end of a project you don’t just have an idea. You must have something that works: a prototype, a machine, something you can deliver to a client. The deliverable function is key because it holds the group accountable. An idea that doesn’t work is not an idea. Engineers treat the old fashion ideas – abstractions – like deliverables. Their idea about intellectual influence is all about creating new conditions for action. It’s not about just thinking differently – it’s about creating a new landscape where we can act and build differently.
Stewart Brand, the counterculture figure, once said: “In New England intellectuals write books. In California we write books AND build things.”
Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, was an MIT professor. A wonderful, round intellectual man, arguably the most famous scientific engineer in the second half of the 20th Century in the USA, he was the primary person associated with the idea of cybernetics. It was a universal discipline, quickly taken across political science, psychology, history, business, management theory, and it became a universal theory of systems. How did Wiener become the center of that and acquire intellectual influence?
What was cybernetics? Wiener called it man-machine communications for purposes of communication and control. In his view, it was a system for understanding feedback. You move in the world and you bump into things. Oops, I hit the table. The table is telling me I hit it and I should not keep walking. I respond by changing direction, and I bump into the chair. And so forth. Wiener imagines the world as a series of information systems taking feedback from each other. And that’s how the world is organized. He brought us terms like homeostasis, information theory (probably coined by Claude Shannon though). It’s a powerful vision of the world as a system, that travels across many disciplines.
Why Norbert Wiener? Why was he the one able coin to this term and promulgate it, and how did he come to have intellectual influence?
There are three steps for an intellectual entrepreneur to gain influence.
First, you need a platform. Before the discussions even begin. You have to be somewhere, where you can gain access to new networks. And you must have some standing making you sufficiently legitimate to talk to.
Second, you need to build a network forum. You need an actual physical gathering, or sometimes an online gathering, but a place where different stakeholders can actually be brought together to talk to each other. If you think about someone in the hole, who stands between networks 1 2 3 and 4, those networks are not connected except through that person. Once a network reunites in a room or wherever, they begin to speak in a common language. That shared language gives rise to new terms like open source, or cybernetics.
The leader – in this case Norbert Wiener – can finally export those new languages from the network through what is called immutable mobiles: things like books, texts, magazine articles, interviews, artworks. Things that travel but cannot be changed.
Wiener was a boy genius. He was 16 when he went to MIT to study, and ultimately became a professor of mathematics. As WW2 started, he was in an ideal position to meet the teams reunited for war research. Research teams from all over the world converged to Cambridge MA to work on new weapons, new technologies. Norbert Wiener was there. He was able to ask for funding and able to meet the people doing it. He was assigned to a project to figure out a way to shoot down moving enemy planes, which was a problem before computers. As a gunner on the ground, you need to guess the changes in direction, speed... What Wiener figured out was how to imagine that whole system – pilot, plane, gun, gunner, bullet – as an integrated mathematical system in which the biological elements (people) and the mechanical elements (plane, weapon) were the same thing, were mathematized in the same system. Once you put it into math, you could try to predict how the plane would act and how the gun would act. This is the essential insight of cybernetics: that the world is an information system, and if you understand it as a system, you can act in it differently.
Norbert Wiener came to that work which is interdisciplinary because of his place in the platform. The other thing which is very important is that at the moment, in Cambridge, he came in contact with different intellectuals from other spheres. He met a heart surgeon named Rosenbleuth who was studying how the heart worked. He met Dwight Shannon, the information theorist, and many other people. And then in 1943 he coauthored an obscure paper which changed the world. Its title was incredibly boring: “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology.” This absolutely brilliant paper explained how a system which functions only by feedback can actually have purpose. He took the example of the hand. When you write, both your hand and your mind are doing something. The mind is constantly controlling the hand. Meanwhile, the hand, the pen, the paper, the table give feedback. And if you write in a way where you’re outside the paper, you can’t write, but if you take that feedback into account and readjust inside the paper, you can write. Wiener says the purpose of writing is carried out by feedback interactions.
Later on he did the second part of our three elements process: he began creating a forum. Cybernetics came into being as a universal discipline thanks to a series of meetings that begin in 1951 and span over a decade. They feature all of America’s leading scientists, management theorists, sociologists, psychologists. Those great minds discussed ideas like feedback, circularity, causality.
In Wiener’s memoirs, there is a small message about what happened at the first meeting. See how he translates network collaboration into a new kind of language: “very shortly after the meeting began, we found that people working in all these fields were beginning to talk the same language, with a vocabulary containing expressions from a communications engineer, the servo-mechanism man, the computing machine man and the neuro-physiologist. All of them were interested in the storage of information. All of them found that the term feedback was an appropriate way of describing phenomena in the living organism as well as in the machine.”
So the network came together, formed by all these different professionals, and they shared the same term: feedback. Norbert Wiener went on to create two immutable mobiles, both bestsellers. In 1948 he published Cybernetics. Half the book is mathematical equations. Yet it was a bestseller! It promoted the idea that the world is essentially an information system that can be modeled and managed through computation. What is intriguing is he goes to great lengths to explain where the idea of cybernetics came from. He defines it and then lists all the people who are in the meetings and contribute to the idea.
Two years later he published another book called The Human Use of Human Beings, which is meant to be a more accessible version of Cybernetics, trying to explain the political and social implications of his ideas. What is intriguing is he now says how he came to cybernetics but all the other people have disappeared. “We’ve become aware of the essential unity of the set of problems centering around communication and statistical mechanics. We have decided to call the entire the entire field of command and control theory whether machine or animal by the name cybernetics.” In The Human Use of Human Beings he says he coined the term in 1948. All the social work behind the name has disappeared.
I am not arguing that Norbert Wiener is essentially hiding the contributions of others. I don’t think he is a thief: he is one of the most generous and kind people I’ve studied – I’ve kept his company for 20 years and he is a lovely man. I do believe he simply came to absorb all that social work, as a spokesman for cybernetics. My example is P.T. Barnum the circus man. He couldn’t fly trapeze or ride a trick horse, he wasn’t a circus performer – yet he was the voice of the circus. That’s Norbert Wiener in a nutshell. He’s the voice of this new field circus.
And the circus did have a lot of influence. This, for example, is where self-help books from the 60s and 70s get their logic and their titles: The Happy Marriage: I’m ok you’re ok, is a feedback system. I tell you my truth, you tell me yours and we feel love. We are machines. Depressing but true.
Cynernetics is everywhere in the 60s. Much of Marshall McLuhan has its origins there. It comes in the field of psychology where family therapy takes off, anthropology (through the works of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead), political science, of course computer science and the development of new machinery, and finally comes to the art world. Many artists in the 60s were obsessed with cybernetics. John Cage’s performances in the 60s embrace cybernetics.
Cybernetics also traveled into the counterculture, and this is where we meet Stewart Brand.
A legendary hippie figure, Brand actually learned how to be a network entrepreneur from Norbert Wiener. When I first read Stewart Brand’s cult Whole Earth Catalog, I thought the 60s were very different from the 40s or 50s. I had always been told the counterculture of the 60s emerged out of itself – a Great Psychedelic Burst of Happiness. To my surprise when I started studying Stewart Brand and the people around him I found that they were reading and studying intellectuals from the 40s very seriously and particularly the engineering intellectuals like Norbert Wiener.
Stewart Brand and his community are the people who made hackers hip. Would you be ashamed today to call yourself a hacker? No. Back in the 70s and 80s the reverse was true. Hackers were potential enemies of the state, able to potentially destroy things through computers, steal from digital systems and banks... how did Stewart Brand change that view?
Once again we’re going to see the same three patterns, the same three stages we saw with Norbert Wiener. Stewart Brand built a platform : The Whole Earth Catalog, in 1968. He then created a forum, in 1984, called the Hackers Conference, where he brought together computer engineers, hippies and others, such as Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple, or Andy Hertzfeld. He created immutable mobiles – in this case movies or newspapers, where he told the stories of this new definition of the hacker, for the whole of America.
Published in 1968, The Whole Earth Catalog was meant to be a huge compendium for people seeking out to live in communities. It was all about tools for consciousness – books and other things that would help you develop a shared mindset, how to get well with others.
By the early 80s, the counterculture had collapsed, the The Whole Earth Catalog no longer existed. But Californians remembered the catalog and how cool Stewart Brand had been. In the 60s computer scientists were the enemies of the counterculture. Hippies thought the computer was the tool of the Cold War state. Stewart Brand on the other hand was extremely cool. In the 80s computers began being more accessible, more friendly, but they still needed to be cool. So Stewart Brand was approached to create something called The Whole Earth Software Review, to use the Whole Earth Catalog format to sell software tools for the emerging computer industry. What this meant is that in his office hippies were complemented with computer scientists. The two worlds started to come together.
Brand had the platform. He had legitimacy from that period, and now the position where an industry emerging around him could actually physically come together with him. In 1984, one of his friends, Kevin Kelly, who now works for Wired magazine, gave him a copy of a book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy. It wasn’t as popular a book in its time as it is now, and it describes three generations of computer programers who do not know each other. Stewart Brand decided to organize a conference to bring those three generations together in Fort Mason, San Francisco. They hung out together for two days, talking about new computer technologies and the counterculture. When the discussions began, they were talking mainly of business models. By the time they left, it was “you know, I don’t know about business models... but I know hackers are like hippies! They are engines of creative change, entrepreneurial engines of cultural change.” This is the meeting where the famous phrase “information wants to be free” comes from, spoken by Stewart Brand, adding “information also wants to be expensive,” which people tend to forget. The idea that people who work on computers were no longer criminals but collaborative, flexible entrepreneurs entered the public domain through a series of immutable mobiles. In this case a film called Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age.
John Markoff, a journalist, was in attendance. He promptly repeated everything Stewart Brand told him, as the latter had been very careful to invite journalists to the meeting, including from the Wall Street Journal. And they reported this new fusion as if it had always been true: hackers really are heroes of the computer revolution. The counterculture really is the engine of computation. Never mind that the real engine of computation is the militaro-industrial state. By the time the conference was over, Stewart Brand had used the same network entrepreneurship strategy to transform our understanding of what a hacker is. The new category travelled into the world and is still in use today. That, I would argue, is intellectual influence – very powerful at that. Stewart Brand has reframed our understanding of what a hacker is, and he has done it without a novel, without a poem, without much writing at all...
Stewart Brand is very much alive and still very active in San Francisco, and Tim O’Reilly has said he very specifically modeled his career on him. The kind of things we saw Brand do, in exporting hacker’s concept through journalism, through movies, through the communities of computer programmers, later through technology entertainment and design conferences and ultimately open source communities... all of these worlds intersect with Tim O’Reilly. How? The main thing to know is that Tim O’Reilly, like Wiener and like Brand, is a network entrepreneur, but he’s doing it at a kind of industrial scale. He’s very self-conscious about it, has done it in an organizational sense, has built a corporation around him and has become wealthy doing it.
Here we find the same three steps again: platform, forum, immutable mobile. Tim O’Reilly’s platform was his series of computer “how to” books. As one might imagine, in a world where computer languages are proliferating, it can be very difficult to learn how to program a computer. He started one of the first and most successful companies for technical manuals, nothing fancier than that. They were written in a famously accessible language, easy to use, and were very well branded, always with some kind of cute animal on the front. Because he built that industry, he was meeting all kinds of computers from the SF Bay area. That in turn let him develop a new forum: in this case the Open Source Convention.
Open source is a particularly interesting kind of term. In the late 90s at MIT there was a campaign for what was then called free software. Free software was meant to be a universally accessible infrastructure for social life: everyone should have software with which to do things. Eric S. Raymond is probably the most prolific promoter of this idea. But at the time the concept carried with it a slightly communist feel.
The big question for Tim O’Reilly and his crew was how to take techniques from free software and make them available in the corporate sector. He actually convened a brainstorming team around this, reuniting people from his computer science business. One of the terms this brainstorming came up with was “open source.” Open is like the word free but it doesn’t carry the connotation of being outside business. Anyone can come! Open to everyone... who has the money. It is very powerful. It began to change the world. Tim O’Reilly developed a set of conferences around this new idea. He called it the Open Source Convention and it still takes place in San Francisco every year. He took a term that emerged from his social networks and turned it into an organizing term for new social networks.
This, in turn, has a highly powerful intellectual influence, that our old understanding of public intellectuals does not account for. To have influence in Tim O’Reilly’s world, you build a network, coin a term, then use the term to organize new networks. Which in turn promotes the term even further because that identifies them. It’s a very powerful way of organizing the world.
Tim O’Reilly also did it through immutable mobiles. He has a very famous blog, developed early on, called O’Reilly Radar, which people in that business read to see what’s coming up in the world around them. He promoted the idea of the open source revolution on that blog. He also published two books by other writers about it.
Another term you know from him is the term “Web 2.0.” It is very much the same idea: same book, same platform. As social media were beginning to emerge in the early 2000s, he was talking with computer scientists who needed a new language for this. He coined the term 2.0 and then began to relentlessly promote it, marketing it, organizing it, as conferences. He created the Web 2.0 Conference (now Summit) which continues today as well, promoted it on his blog... and very quickly, journalists began to use it as the organizing term for social media.
To give you a sense of the power, let me remind you what “2.0” does not say: it does not say surveillance economy, exportation of personal information, end of data privacy, turning yourself into a personal commercial brand on Facebook or other platforms (if you want to get a date using Match.com, you need to present yourself in such a way that is recognizable to other users, i.e. you need to advertize yourself.). “Web 2.0” presents all those things as the “new, collaborative, social world.”
But facts are facts, and one of the great contributions of European intellectuals to this debate is to keep reminding us of the facts. Italian autonomous marxists have continued to say: “this is not a new social world – it’s a new social factory.” I am very glad they said that. I’ll take the opportunity to praise the French and German states for pushing back on the sharing economy. The sharing economy has very little to do with sharing. It has everything to do with the micro monetization of social life.
And the fact that we cannot see that or argue about it is partly due to the way that Tim O’Reilly and his team of interested professionals have framed the debate, using this technique. Web 2.0 was coined in 2002, and by 2005 it had more than 9,5 million uses on Google.
There's something else to be thought about here. To the extent that these new languages generate new content and networks, they promote a particular cultural style. In my social world, many believe an intellectual is someone who has ideas, writes them down on paper and sends them out in books… and that to have influence you need to write books. However books influence a very tiny world. This is another way. These are engineering intellectuals. They organize things the way engineers do. They build teams, they develop deliverables, they export the deliverables and they organize the next round of production based on the deliverables that they've created.
And as they do this work they export not only those ideas but they also export the social styles and the cultural assumptions of their work, and cultural conditions. I have a friend who went to a one of Tim O’Reilly’s camping experiences. “It's like living with geeks with sharpies,” she said. The people around her were medium young, medium white, medium rich, well-educated. Not particularly open to women, tolerant to homosexuality but not flexible... As ideas have power, so too do the communities that generate ideas. And to the extent that ideas that are dominating our time are emerging from communities of engineers that also are building the dominating technology of our time. The social assumptions and the political assumptions of that world are taking on a new force.