chapter  Chapter 15
34 Pages

New vistas II

WithL.S. Hearnshaw

It has become increasingly clear that in the years immediately following the Second World War a new age, the age of information technology, had its birth. We have already begun to experience some of the profound social consequences of these technological developments; the intellectual consequences have been equally far-reaching. For between 1946 and 1950 not only was the first electronic computer (ENIAC) brought into operation, but with Wiener’s Cybernetics (1948), and Shannon and Weaver’s Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) 1 the new disciplines of cybernetics and information theory were first systematically formulated, and they have had a deep influence on intellectual life generally and on the shaping of contemporary psychology in particular. It may be going too far to regard the Second World War as a ‘boundary between history and pre-history’ in psychology, 2 for most of the problems in psychology are old problems, and new ideas and techniques have their roots in the past. In a book entitled The Nature of Explanation (1943), which foreshadowed at least some of the ideas of the information revolution, Kenneth Craik, the brilliant young British psychologist who was tragically killed in an accident in 1945 at the age of thirty-one, propounded his ‘hypothesis on the nature of thought’ within the framework of ancient philosophical problems. 3 Craik’s hypothesis, in brief, was ‘that thought models, or parallels, reality – that its essential feature is not “the mind”, “the self”, “sense-data” nor propositions, but symbolism, and that this symbolism is largely of the same kind as that which is familiar to us in mechanical devices which aid thought and calculation’. 4 In this prescient statement Craik had formulated a key doctrine of cybernetics and information theory. The new technologies, which had already begun to emerge, meant that this hypothesis was no longer merely speculative, but could be practically tested and realized.