Language, Mathematics, and Ideology

November 7, 2002

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics. By Slava Gerovitch, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002, 369 pages (54 of which are notes and references; illustrated with numerous photos of Soviet personalities)

In August 1998, attending the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin, I met a mathematician of fifty or so whom I designate here as Q.

Q had grown up in East Berlin, and had been educated from childhood with full exposure to Marxist thought, expressed in the Soviet Marxist ideological language. He gave me a paper he had written on a historic subject in mathematics that he believed I would enjoy reading. I have often thought of mathematics as a unified whole, but on reading his paper I was plunged into a rhetorical world I did not know-a world whose vocabulary was different, whose metaphysics or philosophy was different, whose perception of "what is the case" was different, a world in which the individual had a different relationship to society.

Marxist prose came to be an official language, often used in the Soviet Union and in its adherent countries to obscure the true state of affairs. Language can be used both to clarify and to obscure, and after a while, the word mist in the Soviet Union became so thick that it blocked serious thinking. This language was satirized as the fictional language "Newspeak" by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which also gave us the expressions "doublethink" and "big brother."

A few years later, I met Q again at a much smaller meeting, where I heard him give a talk. The vocabulary that I had found so irritating had largely disappeared. I said to myself that Q had been updated in quite short order, and I was relieved. This experience led me to think about the perception of Benjamin Whorf, the famous student of language, that we make our language and other semiotic indicators and, in simultaneous conjunction, they make us. As the Leningrad-born and Nobelist poet Joseph Brodsky put it (quoted by Whorf), "It isn't language that is a tool of the poet, but rather the poet who is a tool of language."

From Newspeak to Cyberspeak, written by Slava Gerovitch, a Russian émigré to the U.S., is a deep, carefully researched and documented, and informative book. Its discussions of the complex interplay between theoretical Marxism, political Marxism, and technology will appeal to sovietologists and historians of science for years to come. They will undoubtedly attempt to identify the moral essence of this experience. Readers who wish to follow this line of inquiry may profit from a much earlier article, by Loren Graham (Science and Ideology in Soviet Society, George Fischer, ed., 1967).

The reader with a casual interest in the history of technology will not find From Newspeak to Cyberspeak easy to get through. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the book is an elaborated version of the author's doctoral dissertation and gives more detail than one can comfortably handle. The second difficulty (for me at least) is emotional. We are immediately plunged into a byzantine Stalinist world of thought and actions, with its exiles, murders, forced and often simulated conformities and recantations. I and most of my readers have never personally experienced such happenings, but we read about them with revulsion. In this book we read about the private language that was employed to interpret, set goals, and justify actions.

The third difficulty is ethical: How are we to come to grips with the feeling that some of the Soviet beliefs about cybernetics, though embedded in Newspeak, come close to what we ourselves believe? Consider, for example, the author's statement, on the first page:

"Soviet cybernetics was not simply an intellectual trend; it was a social movement for radical reform in science and in society in general. Cyberneticians came to believe in the possibility of a universal method of problem solving, if problems could be formulated in the right language. They viewed computer simulation as this universal method, and the language of cybernetics as a language of objectivity and truth. Soviet cybernetics challenged the existing order of things not only in the conceptual foundations of science but also in economics and politics."

On reading this passage, I immediately thought of Leibniz's dream of the universal language, which he dubbed the "characteristica universalis."

A second example is found in informal remarks made in 1967 to the Cybernetics Council, a Soviet organization, by Academician Aksel Berg, a big man in Soviet scientific and administrative circles:

"When the computer enters our home, there will be no need to call a doctor; the machine will tell you what to do. Students will not have to go to some place and listen to hideous lectures by old pensioners who know nothing; programs will be optimized and you will have connection with a machine, which will come to your home as water and light did. If someone does not believe it, let him commit suicide. This is the future, and we will fight for it, and we will weed out anybody who will interfere."

But Aksel Berg is the also the man who said on Soviet TV that conservatives who interfere with scientific progress must be "publicly executed by a firing squad in Red Square." Was this just an instance of the Newspeak sense of political humor, or was it a strong whiff of the bloody desire of fundamentalists of all stripes to cleanse the world of contrary opinions? Yet, aside from the expression of compulsion, these opinions are not so different from what some philocybers down the hall have been preaching to me for years and what, in fact, has been happening in the world.

Here, briefly, is a rundown of the contents of From Newspeak to Cyberspeak:

Chapter 1. The Cold War in Code Words: The Newspeak of Soviet Science. Newspeak dominated. It "was used to balance the chief military and ideological priorities for postwar [World War II] Soviet science." Ideological disputes in mathematics, linguistics, and physiology are described.

Chapter 2. Cyberspeak: A Universal Language for Men and Machines. The rise of cybernetics in the U.S. and Europe is described, along with the "evolution of Cyberspeak from a narrowly defined technical concept to a universal language for men and machines."

Chapter 3. "Normal-Pseudo Science." When cybernetics arrived as a mathematical discipline, it was seen as a threat to established thinking. The campaign against cybernetics in the early 50s was "spontaneously generated by the self-perpetuating Cold War propaganda discourse." Cybernetics was branded as a bourgeois, capitalist doctrine.

Chapter 4. Cybernetics in Rebellion. During the Krushchev "thaw," Cyber-speak "openly challenged Newspeak." "The cybernetics movement was a vehicle for the de-stalinization of soviet science."

Chapter 5. The "Cybernetization" of Soviet Science. Cybernetics in the Soviet Union became a conceptual framework for all science. Cybernetics was now seen as the greatest thing since the wheel, embracing and influencing all aspects of human existence. Cybernetics was accepted both officially and privately. To many people, it seemed to offer a clear-minded alternative language, offering new freedom and precision in describing complex phenomena.

Chapter 6. Cybernetics in the Service of Communism. We read of "the climb of Soviet cybernetics to the height of official recognition and its concurrent fall to the depths of intellectual shallowness." Cybernetics was now philosophically and intellectually superficial.

By way of contrast, what has been the history of cybernetics in the United States? Norbert Wiener coined the term in his 1948 book Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. As we all know, he took the root "cybern" from the Greek for "governor," and he intended the term to describe the mathematics and technology related to feedback and control. I remember an initial flurry of excitement in the succeeding years. People are often willing to believe that if a new term has appeared, it must refer to something of deep significance. Wiener's own take on the term can be judged from his 1949 American Mathematical Society Gibbs Lecture, which dealt with feedback and control applied to rehabilitation of the disabled through the development of prosthetic devices.

When, early on, the glitter of exuberance had settled into the dust, the theoretical mathematics of cybernetics became "dynamical systems," the communication aspects morphed into "informatics," prosthetics expanded into "robotics"; at the same time, computer hardware and software advanced at an unbelievable clip. There was little consciousness that it all might be subsumed under the rubric of cybernetics.

And yet---if Soviet scientists came ultimately to believe that cybernetics in the grandiose sense was intellectually and philosophically deficient, the root "cyber" caught the world's popular imagination and serves now as a prefix and a synonym for all that is computerized, chipified, webbized, star-war-ized---very modern, very automated, very cutting-edge, and slightly scary. Cyberspeak is employed the world over. We all speak it: netiquette, emoticons, cybertising, e-zines, optimize (meaning not "make optimal" but "make better"), delay binding (referring to a minor form of procrastination); the list is endless. As a definitive measure of the extent to which we are in the cyber age---living in Cyberia according to some wags---I entered the root "cyber" into the Google search engine. I received 6,680,000 hits. When I queried Google about "pizza," that universal substance that nourishes us all, it replied with only 3,640,000 hits.

In his final chapter, Soviet Cybernetics: Prometheus or Proteus?, Gerovitch writes that "Now, with the Soviet Union gone, newspeak is no longer in fashion, but its discursive techniques live on in cyberspeak. Identifying with the computer as the 'second self,' the world now expresses its fears and hopes in the language of cybernetics."

Thus, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak cannot fail to raise questions of considerable social significance:

  1. Does scientific language always embody an ideology?
  2. Can a scientific language achieve universality, or must it be private, with a limited group and with limited horizons?
  3. Do private languages pose a threat?
  4. Do science and technology prosper better in a democratic regime?

Limiting myself to mathematics, I give the quick answer to (a) that I received from semioticist Kay O'Halloran (and with which I am in full agreement):

"Our faith in the mathematizations we have installed, and in the language in which it is written, lies deep in the heart of our western culture. It represents the way that we justify and legitimize what counts as truth. Within the new formulations, religion was eventually discarded as not necessary. Is the belief in the mathematizations an ideology? It is a way of thinking that underlies much of contemporary discourse. In that respect, the answer is yes."

I leave it to readers to formulate their own answers to the other questions.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

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