Arts book review

When the human-machine boundary began to blur

A dissection of the birth and development of cybernetics in the first half of the 20th century


Between Human and Machine

By David Mindell

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004

MIT Professor David A. Mindell PhD ’96 feels equally passionate about engineering and literature, and has the degrees from Yale to prove it. His obsession with the detailed study of the evolution of technology, though, is evident in Between Human and Machine, a twist-by-twist account of the personal, managerial, institutional, military and even political forces behind the field that came to be known as cybernetics, the modern fruits of which — including computers — have become the cornerstone of our technology and an inextricable part of our lives.

The development of control systems from the early 1910s to the late 1940s turns out to be a surprisingly engaging topic. Because of its rigorous form and solid background, this book is a banquet for the historians of technology. Splendid drawings and firsthand accounts, even extracts from the main characters’ correspondence and personal journals, combine with Mindell’s respectful account of a very human story. Episodes in which egotist attitudes, personal conflicts or short-sighted decisions of the key players, such as the destitution of a bright researcher for obscure reasons, or the rejection of a project that later evolved into the famous ENIAC machine, are described objectively, giving the reader information to assess how they might have affected the later turn of events.

Writing about “control systems,” Mindell discusses the early ancestors of what we call today “computers,” a term that Mindell argues has been misused over time when talking about the history of calculating and control machines. Given the importance of computers in our lives, taking a look at the past that enabled them with the advantage of hindsight is a didactic experience. From Mindell’s account, it seems clear that concrete, practical needs, and not purely theoretical desires, were behind most of the inventions that drove the field ahead. These needs led to the development of equipment, which funded the companies that in turn advanced the field. However, as machines, they grew in complexity. They are portrayed, at least from Mindell’s perspective, as a form of self-expression of the engineer’s ideas, and as an extension of the human user himself. They are aids that not only make human work more efficient, but also make it possible at all.

It is enlightening to realize how, in their quest to develop new technology, each organization was limited in some way by the knowledge and technology they already had mastered. In some sort of real-life version of the metaphor of the hammer wanting to see everything around itself as a nail, each one of these pioneer companies very often tried to approach the problems they were facing using ideas they already had at hand. Here, the modern day practitioner of system sciences can find a valuable lesson that sounds cliché but is often overlooked: Finding answers to new problems almost always requires new ways of thinking.

The careful reader will appreciate the balance of Mindell’s analysis, which accepts the huge influence geniuses such as Wiener had on the evolution of cybernetics, while clarifying that in spite of his egocentric claims, Wiener was not the first to conceive of the idea of human and machine interaction at this level. It might be hard to accept Mindell’s repeated insinuations that humans have been becoming more intertwined with machines since the first half of the past century, a stance conveyed in phrases such as those describing the “blurring of the human-machine boundary,” and epitomized in some of Alfred Crimi’s majestic translucent drawings presented in the book. But an honest meditation may reveal that, to some degree, this claim of Mindell is in line with reality.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that every page of this book reads easily. But then again, as an academic work, it doesn’t have to. Not just anybody could have written this dense, fact-packed, intense book, because it has the traits of both a history study and an engineering systems treatise. In the endless ocean of engineering professionals that populate the modern world, system engineers — those who struggle to understand the dynamics of large, complex engineering systems — are still a very uncommon breed. Finding someone who has both a clear vision of this field and, more importantly, an honest desire to invest several years of his productive life to surgically dissect the evolution of human understanding of control systems is a sort of miracle. Such an rare combination is indeed what it took to tackle the gigantic task of chronicling the advent of cybernetics, from how it evolved in the environment of the inter-war decades and during the Second War itself, to how it became a ubiquitous aspect of commercial and civilian life.