Norbert Wiener Symposium: Discussion of the Future of Work (Requires Invitation or Pre-Registration)
Thurs. May 18, 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM, WALC 3138

The 2023 IEEE Workshop on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (21CW2023) is the fourth iteration in SSIT’s 21CW series and is being held as a by-invitation event focused on the theme “The Future of Work in the Age of Automation,” a topic about which Wiener had many things to say. In the spirit of the Macy Conferences through which Wiener developed many of his ideas, 21CW2023 will be deliberately multi-disciplinary, with participant expertise encompassing fields that span STEM, HSS, and fine arts. The workshop will be divided into four 75-minute sessions, each of which will include brief (5-minute) prepared remarks from 4-5 presenters followed by a moderated group discussion. Those discussions constitute the essence of the workshop; their content will be captured by designated scribes and video recording. Following the workshop, notes will be distilled into a coherent “Proceedings” text for publication.


Morning Sessions

  • 8:30 – 9:00: Meet/Greet/Eat
    • Coffee, tea, light breakfast available
  • 9:00 – 10:30: Session 1
    • Welcome: Greg Adamson
    • Workshop Logistics Overview: Iven Mareels
    • Speakers: Heather A. Love, Daniel S. Schiff, Mallory James, Jeremy Reynolds
  • 10:30 – 10:45: Short Break
  • 10:45 – 12:00: Session 2
    • Speakers: Jason Lajoie, Thirumala Arohi, Stéphanie Camaréna
  • 12:00 – 1:00: Lunch (provided in WALC 3121)

 Afternoon Sessions

  • 1:00 – 2:20: Session 3
    • Speakers: Greg Adamson, Ketra Schmitt, Zach Pearl
  • 2:20 – 2:40: Short Break
  • 2:40 – 4:00: Session 4
    • Speakers: Marten Kaevats, John Buchanan, Iven Mareels
  • 4:00 – 4:30: Session Wrap-up
    • Facilitators: Greg Adamson, Iven Mareels, Heather A. Love

For presenter abstracts and biographies, please see the 21CW Detailed Schedule here.


We hope that you will take time to review following selections, which will provide some shared context for our discussions at the 2023 IEEE Workshop on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (21CW2023). As you will see, Wiener had much to say regarding our theme, “The Future of Work in the Age of Automation.”

Selections by Norbert Wiener

As Norbert Wiener developed a mathematical basis for automation, he considered the societal impact of such automation, both on physical labor and on white collar jobs. A message he stated repeatedly from the 1940s to the 1960s was that the adoption of technology must consider the societal dimension. Perhaps Wiener’s most clear exposition of the threat that automation could pose is found in his 1949 letter to Walter Reuther, Present of the Union of Automobile Workers (Detroit, Michigan, USA). Here he provides both a warning of technology impact and displays his sense of responsibility that a technology producer should warn those whose livelihoods were under threat.

Wiener had an aversion to “gadget worshipers”, believers in some necessarily beneficial trajectory of technology. This was summarised most clearly in his final work, a short and astounding piece called God & Golem, Inc. (1964). Chapter V from this work is included as a representation of Wiener’s most mature thinking. The chapter ends: “The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves” (69).

Wiener is perhaps most famous for two books, excerpts from each of which are provided. Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1st edition 1948, 2nd edition 1961) provides a broad and somewhat mathematical description of his approach; the topic of automation appears in the final pages of the book’s “Introduction” (beginning near the bottom of p. 26). A more accessible version for non-mathematicians can be found in The Human Use of Human Beings, 1950 (the title is a reference to Kant’s statement on human dignity); a short excerpt from this work, which provides another “take” on the theme of automation, is included as well.

A summary of the dilemma faced by the technology producer appears in the second part of his autobiography, I Am a Mathematician, 1956, with a reference to his approaching officials of two unions (308). Regarding the typographers’ union, his warning was considered too far ahead. The decimation of typographers’ jobs took place four decades after his warning, in the mid-1980s, particularly with the introduction of desktop publishing.

Additional Selections

Wiener’s dystopian vision regarding the threat that automation could pose to work was the subject of Kurt Vonnegut‘s first science fiction novel, Player-Piano, 1953. An excerpt of that novel is included here for reference (pp. 9-23).

Also attached is a set of press articles, primarily US and Australian commentators. This is not at all meant to be a representative sample of writing. Rather, it provides a cluster of views from six to nine years ago, and then two from this year. Interesting to me are the 2017 and 2023 articles by Barry Eichengreen from UC Berkeley, in which he switches from a “no problem” to a “problem” perspective.

We look forward to the discussion, and welcome other reading suggestions.

21CW2023 Organizers

Greg Adamson, Brent Jesiek, Heather A. Love, Iven Mareels, and Michael Rigby


1. 21CW2023: Workshop Pre-Reading

2. 21CW2023-Pre-Reading-Press-Articles