QOTD : a lack of “know-what”

From the tail end of The Human Use of Human Beings:

Our papers have been making a great deal of American “know-how” ever since we had the misfortune to discover the atomic bomb. There is one quality more important than “know-how” and we cannot accuse the United States of any undue amount of it. This is “know-what” by which we determine not only how to accomplish our purposes, but what our purposes are to be. I can distinguish between the two by an example. Some years ago, a prominent American engineer bought an expensive player-piano. It became clear after a week or two that this purchase did not correspond to any particular interest in the music played by the piano but rather to an overwhelming interest in the piano mechanism. For this gentleman, the player-piano was not a means of producing music, but a means of giving some inventor the chance of showing how skillful he was at overcoming certain difficulties in the production of music. This is an estimable attitude in a second-year high-school student. How estimable it is in one of those on whom the whole cultural future of the country depends, I leave to the reader.

Oh, snap!

More seriously though, this definitely feels like a criticism of the era in which Wiener was writing. Game theory was very fashionable, and the pseudo-mathematization of Cold War geopolitics definitely gave him pause. I don’t think Wiener would agree current railing against “wasteful” government spending on “useless” research projects, despite his obvious dislike of vanity research and his disappointment with this science of his day. It was important to him that scientists remained free from political pressures and constraints to conform to a government agenda (as described in A Fragile Power).


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