Cyberneticists at war and peace: wrestling with ethical dilemmas of information

Ramage, Magnus and Bissell, Christopher (2015). Cyberneticists at war and peace: wrestling with ethical dilemmas of information. In: The Difference That Makes a Difference (DTMD 2015), 5 Jun 2015, Vienna University of Technology, Austria.



The study of information and its values has long been deeply tied up with the field of cybernetics, which studies informational processes of feedback occurring in a range of social, artificial and physical systems. Although sometimes derided as a mechanistic and anti-humanising discipline, cybernetics has always been an applied field, strongly tied to real-world phenomena. Many of its practitioners have been strongly aware of its power and potential for harm as well as good.

In particular, the origins of much of modern cybernetics during and shortly after the Second World War have forced a number of its practitioners actively to examine the military applications of their work. In this paper, we will consider four historical snapshots of cyberneticists wrestling with the ethical implications of their work, from the 1940s to the 1970s, in the United States and in Germany.

Cybernetics in general, and automatic control in particular, is a discipline that depends on the capture, transmission and processing of information. It is remarkable that after the Second World War so many engineers found the ethical and philosophical issues that had arisen so important. This paper will examine some of these.

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