Geek Trivia: Thinking outside the 'bots

Who coined the modern term cybernetics, and to what does it actually refer? (Hint: It ain't all about killer cyborgs.)

Who coined the modern term cybernetics and subsequently defined a field often misunderstood as being solely about creating man-machine hybrids?

Mathematician Norbert Wiener (who may have the dorkiest name in science history) almost single-handedly defined and popularized the modern term with his 1948 book, Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. In this work, he culled from the vast and esoteric fields of communication theory, control theory, economics, psychology, sociology, biology, mathematics, and several others to explain how information feedback defines and dictates the world around us.

Wiener followed up that influential book with his 1950 sequel, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. In this work, Wiener made efforts to demonstrate the social application of cybernetic theory, bringing the technical scientific field back to its Platonic political roots.

So how did a field and term concerning social institutions and mathematical ephemera become synonymous with half-human, half-machine supermen? Well, once cybernetics became a buzzword du jour in scientific circles, it does what all memes do -- it spawned new, self-referencing memes. (The study of self-replicating social concepts is, appropriately, a subfield of cybernetics.)

One of those memes was the term cyborg -- or cybernetic organism -- coined in 1960 by scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. They defined it as an integration of human and artificial systems into a cohesive whole.

Now, Clynes and Kline's cyborgs were a long way from the Bionic Woman. They were speaking of integrated human-machine systems for space exploration, and their language was general enough to include a space capsule that protected and nurtured, guided by a human occupant that in turn protected and nurtured, guided by the space capsule.

Still, the term cyborg was near enough to a number of pulp-fictional man-machine hybrids that it came to describe the more familiar bionic superhumans we know today. (Indeed, the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man, which almost single-handedly introduced bionics to the mainstream, was based on a 1972 Martin Caidin novel titled Cyborg.)

Cyborg may be short for cybernetic organism, but cybernetics is about a lot more than cyborgs. Such distinctions are often lost on the general public, but such is the basis for bionically bountiful Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble isn't a quibble as much as a one-liner I inadvertently set myself up for in the August 29 edition of Geek Trivia, "How low can you go?" I asked about the deepest hole ever dug by humankind. TechRepublic member Java_ho offered this answer:

"Deepest hole ever dug by humankind: Windows ME."

All right, wise guys, let's get back to actual quibbles next week.

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically sign up today!