The Everyman Project: Resources for a Humane Future (Excerpt)

Traveling across North America and Western Europe, Robert Jungk wrote a fascinating survey of experimental technologies and the innovators behind them. He spent several hours at the Johnson quarry, dedicating a few pages to ET&T in his book.

[…] Warren McCulloch, he is continually experimenting with the relationships between the individual and the outside world and between individuals among themselves. What is the best way of making contact? Certainly not a situation in which only one side can be active while the other remains passive, where one commands and the other obeys — as is frequently the case between teacher and learner. “Conversation” in which each partner receives something from the other is far more interesting and varied.

If men could talk to machines, then their hitherto disturbed relationship would change. That is the fundamental idea behind “evolutionary technology”, which grades today’s machines as dull, rigid and unintelligent. Pask dreams of a not too distant future when there will be flexible, highly differentiated machines, each with its own characteristics. He foresees development in two main directions, with the “higher kind” remaining dependent on man because of his creative faculty. A man-machine system of this sort will be based on mutual understanding and co-operation, with each side learning from the other and thereby developing further. The beginnings of such a symbiosis can be seen in the relationship between computers and their operators. It will be extended, according to Pask and others of the same mind, to as yet uninvented “centaur-like combinations” in which a “P individual” with human Personality attributes is linked to an “M individual” with Mechanical attributes capable of development.

The second trend is towards “intelligent machines” which will work to a large extent independently. Thanks to their “electronic senses” and their ability to make decisions on information received, these technical systems will largely be able to programme themselves, so that they will be capable of functioning with little or no help from their human partners. It is thought that these machines will be receptive to rational or even to ethical concepts. Pask compares the functioning of these networks of cybernetic machines sensitive to their surroundings with the processes inside the human body. The body too is full of constant gear-changes and productive functions which the individual does not consciously notice. We notice them only when an organ goes wrong. The day will come, Pask thinks, when the processes of technical production will be so well adapted to its “body”, i.e. the environment, that their function will be almost taken for granted and will need no special attention. In relation to this “body” the genus man would then be the “head”. The head thinks, invents, clarifies plans, and interferes only when there are problems to be solved.

People working on the humanization and transformation of technology are always using words like “flexible” or “sensitive”. In this way they reflect the attitude of Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics: he saw rigid orders and attitudes as the chief obstacle to man’s continued existence and development.

Warren Brodey, a Boston neurologist, was so fascinated by the work of the cyberneticists in neighbouring Cambridge that he joined their group. He sees the plant and animal world as a model for “alternative technology“. Similar ideas are being developed by Richard R. Landers, the manager of the NASA-linked “reliability department” in the electronics firm of Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge at Redondo Beach, California. He has worked for many years on artificial cells which he calls “dyblocks”. They draw their energy from electromagnetic fields, from sunlight or moisture; they multiply of their own accord, die, and are replaced by the system that supports them.

All this sounds fantastic, but the champions of the biological development trend in technology can point out a few successful examples. Petrol tanks and car tyres that “heal” themselves are in everyday use. There are camera lenses based on frogs” eyes; mechanical excavators adapted from the nervous system of the human arm; sonic equipment copied from dolphins. Perhaps such links between the living and the mechanical worlds foreshadow a new relationship between man and nature. The oppressor-oppressed situation, in which both sides change places from time to time, could be superseded by an alliance.

Warren Brodcy calls the dream children of this kind of co-operation “bioptems”, i.e. biologically optimal structures. He sets them up as models for a new world: our present condition, he thinks, is one of clockwork mechanisms on the one hand and humans adapted to them on the other. He calls this unholy alliance a “mechymax”.

At the beginning of his career as a practising cyberneticist, Brodey himself was a cog in a mechymax. He was commissioned by NASA to work on equipment for observing and controlling the movements of astronauts at a distance of millions of miles. It was able to record and transmit what went on in their bodies more accurately than their own senses were able to tell them. He hoped that one day this equipment would be used in a dialogue between men and machines. As in the model of its co-operation with the astronauts, its superior sensory perception could provide corrective aid for “human enhancement”.

But he soon realized that the humanization of the machines did not mean that they were going to be used for humane purposes. On the contrary, almost all the early products of evolutionary technology, the machines with almost human and sometimes superhuman capacities, are in the service of violence and destruction, from the computers in various stages of development to the “people sniffers” for guerrilla warfare and the electronic battlefield controlled by various robots. What else was to be expected? All this equipment has been built with money from the US Defense Department, from NASA and from the Atomic Energy Commission. Nowadays only thc armaments economy can supply sufficient funds for “exotic” technological development: the army has plenty of capital for gambling and does not need to worry about a guaranteed return.

Brodey tried to ignore this simple economic fact. He left NASA, and first with the help of MIT and then with financial help from a friend and collaborator he hoped to develop a peaceful and peace-promoting type of technology. His friends warned him it would never succeed; but he persevered.

Warren Brodey’s Ecological Toys and Tools Laboratory is hard to find. It lies a long way off the main road in Nashua, New Hampshire, in a disused stone quarry. “Johnson’s Quarry” is the name of this area, which has been much ravaged by man. Avery Johnson, the lean thirty-year-old owner of the site, came to meet me in his station-wagon at the bus stop in Nashua. During the trip he told me that for five years he had collaborated closely with Warren McCulloch’s neurophysical group at MIT. This was a subsidiary of the famous RLE (Research Laboratory for Electronics) where biology and electronics, natural and artificial information systems, and what Norbert Wiener called “men and men-machines” were linked in mutually fruitful collaboration.

Johnson had first met his present partner Brodey in the “F & T Delicatessen”, where the “grand old man” Wiener had his regular table, always a centre of brilliant improvised conversation. Their collaboration developed later when they were both experimenting with new orientation aids for the blind. Blind people pick up signals from the outside world which others cannot catch; they use sounds, smells and touch to orient themselves. These facts interested Brodey and Johnson. Would it not be possible to activate these senses in the sighted too? How would increased perception of this kind affect man’s relations with his environment? And would it be possible to go further and develop other new faculties and attitudes? 

“Don’t expect to see finished machines or equipment in practical use,” Johnson warned me as we bumped over a sodden unpaved road through thick woods. “At the moment we are just building toys to help us think further. They are embryo forms of the kind of sensitive technology we have in mind. That thing over there, for instance.

The trees had just given way to the shores of an emerald green stretch of water surrounded by steep, almost mirror-smooth grey walls of rock. In the midst of this was a lonely swimmer. I looked in vain for prototypes of a bioptem. All I saw was a shabby modern beach hut with windows overlooking the artificial lake. In front of it was a sort of swing, a large board hanging from four ropes and gently swaying in the wind.

“Take a seat.” Johnson had climbed on to the board and was beckoning me to follow. I climbed up clumsily and nearly tipped him off. When I finally managed to sit down, the seat went on swaying for quite a while. My body only gradually adapted itself to the motion. My host did not need to explain anything. I began to understand, and the understanding came through my muscles and my sense of balance. Here was the simplest kind of equipment: it had reacted to me and forced me to react in turn. Meanwhile the swimmer had climbed out of the water and joined us on our swaying platform. It was Brodey. 

He immediately began to lecture: “Our environment and our products are hard, dumb and soulless; and so we too have become lard, closed-in and insensitive. Even an infant should lie on a living mattress with which it can communicate, on which it can try out and develop its faculties. We are thinking about chairs which will adapt to the sitter and possibly teach him new ways of sitting; about cups that will mould themselves to your lips and be agreeable to the touch; about shoes that will adapt to individual feet. Why do we have the same knives and forks for so many different hands, or vehicles which are rigid as tanks instead of being flexible, responsive and intelligent? Why shouldn’t a sensitive car refuse to move if the driver is tight? I have built a caterpillar from plastic and electronic sensors which gives some idea of what an adaptable vehicle will be.”

“But don’t you think people have other things to worry about, more important than getting slightly more human, slightly more agreeable equipment?”

“It’s not a question of convenience,” Brodcy replied quietly, almost gently, as he pressed a little wooden toy into my hand. It was like a piano key, and I noticed that it began to move in my grasp with a definite rhythm transferred to my hand from Brodey’s by means of a thin wire.

“Answer,” he said.

I too stroked my key and knew that he felt the signal immediately.

“There,” he said. “There you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“We must learn that, for our environment, it is we who are the environment. Our environment feels us just as you felt me and I felt you. We must learn that we are always affecting our environment in ways we do not notice or notice much too late because we have not developed the feeling for it. I want to tell the fish about the water — about their environment which they forget because they are completely enclosed in it. Partly because the outside world with all its dangers is soulless and silent If only the push-buttons on the technological systems with which we can blow up our planet could challenge us, could warn us! They don’t. They can’t. We have become the slave-masters corrupted by our silent slaves. 

The attempt to bridge the chasm between man and his technological creations is among the most important tasks of our age. The effect of a rigid, insensitive, unsubtle, dangerous technology upon those who operate it is to make them rigid, unfeeling, coarse and dangerous too. Most of the work published today about the relationship of man and machine concentrates on the effect of technology on man and pays far too little attention to the possible influence of man on technology. Our ancestors did not invent it in their own image but as a crutch for their — and our — physical weaknesses. We have become as dependent as invalids.

We cannot simply throw away these crutches, because they have changed man collectively and individually far more profoundly than the ascetics like to admit when they preach, understandably enough, that we should turn away from the world of machines which has begun to dominate us. But though we must accept technology in principle, does this mean that we must be resigned to it in its present form which underrates such specifically human faculties as feeling, intelligence and imagination? Certainly not. 

Walter Rosenblith, Marvin Minsky and S. A. Papcrt are continuing the work of their teachers Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch at MIT by experimenting with the invention and development of equipment with built-in “human” faculties such as perception, intelligence, sensitivity and flexibility. Similar work on evolutionary technology and artificial intelligence is being done in Europe and Asia. These things may strike today’s observer as mere toys: in the Artificial Intelligence Group at MIT, for instance, robots pick up different coloured blocks and build primitive structures with them; Dewan and Farley have “brain currents” that switch lights on and off; large numbers of research workers in the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and West Germany are developing robot systems which will be able to function on other planets and perform certain tasks with a degree of independence.

All these experiments produce ever more sophisticated micro-circuits with an ever closer resemblance to living brain cells in terms of size, sensitivity and speed: one day these things could alter man’s relationship to his technological environment. The effects on those operating this equipment can only be guessed at. But among other things it is possible that man, by working with artificial creatures closer to his own level than the machinery of today, will come to a clearer understanding of his own unique faculties, the faculties he will never be able to imitate: joy and sadness, pity, love, dreaming and abstract thought.


These specifically human faculties — which are therefore felt as anthropological needs — demand other values and goals than those which have taken precedence so far this century. The intensive search for new horizons and new directions which is expressed in the slogan “quality of life” goes far beyond the attempt to make a life-enhancing environment. After a long interval of suppression, the great questions about the meaning of life, earthly happiness and man’s purpose are once more becoming our guiding principles.

The concepts of controlled, soft and evolutionary technology contribute to the greater importance of the part now played by non-economic factors. From now on, technological equipment and systems will be judged not only in terms of output: we shall also ask whether they are bad for health, whether they harm the environment, whether they contribute to the alienation of their operators. Such questions presuppose guiding values which need to be understood and measured if they are to be given their proper place in future planning.

Considerations of this kind have led to the idea that we need a system for measuring not only scientific and economic data but also the quality of life. According to this new scale of values, many politically important cities and industrial centres would lose the place they now occupy at the head of the economic scale and sink