Web Techniques Magazine
September 1997
Volume 2, Issue 9

Wieners and Frankfurters

By Michael Swaine

The word "cybernetics" has all but disappeared from contemporary discussion of computers. Maybe we need to bring it back.

The word was coined by Norbert Wiener, from the Greek word for helmsman. Wiener was a contemporary colleague and rival of John von Neumann. It is von Neumann's view of computing that has dominated thinking about computers since the 1940s, but out on the Net, Wiener's views are starting to look more and more relevant. Maybe that's why cyberspace still has "cyber" in it.

Cybernetics is about communication and control. Wiener's model for the computer was the homeostatic device. Computers, he argued, are just big thermostats. A homeostatic device operates on a feedback loop. It does something, gets some feedback from the environment, and modifies its behavior on the basis of the feedback. It's not hard to fit that model onto computer input and output, but it also works for Pavlovian stimulus and response. Wiener was as happy to apply the cybernetic model to wetware as to hardware and software.

Sometimes this feedback loop can go awry, and lead to suicidal thrashing. This morning a mailing list about scripting to which I subscribe is in day three of a flame war. One of the list subscribers posted a message titled "Take a look at my page." The maintainer of the list discouraged the subscriber in strong terms, saying he wouldn't have this sort of commercial self-promotion on his list and that if the subscriber ever did it again he'd be bounced so high he'd get a nosebleed. Or words to that effect. The list maintainer was just trying to protect his subscribers from Spam spew, but unfortunately he set off a flame war regarding what messages are appropriate to post to the list. Oops. It's not unusual for mailing lists to get bogged down in endless flaming discussions about what should and shouldn't be discussed, but it is a trifle ironic when it's the list maintainer who starts the fire.

Innovative Solutions and Technologies of Joplin, Missouri is selling a product that lets you improve your site's visibility on the Web. WebPosition Agent (www.webposition.com) reports exactly where your site ranks with the Top 10 search engines and advises you on how to improve its visibility. You can also track the visibility of your competitors' Web sites. In this way, you can guarantee that all-important competitive edge in Web visibility.

Of course, your competitor can do the same thing. And will, if the product really works. But when that happens, WebPosition Agent will alert you that the competition is gaining on you, so you can respond on the basis of new advice from WebPosition Agent. And so forth. And back and forth.

Brewster Kahle is archiving the Net. The whole thing. It's a monumental effort. You may have read about his Internet Archive here in May, but the story really hasn't been adequately reported yet. I'm just waiting for all the thousands of online news services to jump on it and write stories about it. And for the thousands of robots crawling the Web to index the thousands of stories. And for thousands of personal home pages to link to the stories. And for Brewster to archive the stories and the indexes and the home pages. When that happens, I want to write a story about it. Online.

The Web is loopy with feedback loops. So, yes, I'd say it's a homeostatic device.

Magazines are also homeostatic devices. In July, I repeated an historic error. Kirk Mahoney wrote to remind me that when John Kennedy said "Ich bin ein Berliner" in front of a crowd of Germans,

...the crowd roared with laughter, and only later did Kennedy learn that he had told the crowd that he was a food specialty. Kennedy thought that he was telling the crowd that he identified with them, but he should have said, "Ich bin Berliner." It's analogous to the difference between "Ich bin ein Frankfurter" (I am a hotdog) and "Ich bin Frankfurter." (I am from Frankfurt).

Oops. Ich bin ein Wiener.

Mike is an editor at large, contributing editor, and columnist for Dr. Dobb's Journal, MacUser,and Web Techniques.He can be reached at mswaine@cruzio.com.

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Last modified: 2/5/97