One theme I explore in From Hyperspace to Hypertext is the interconnection among science fiction, innovation, and society. Accounting for the expertise and expectations of existing user groups sometimes challenges innovators. This is seen particularly in Chap. 9, which focuses on the role of science fiction ideas in the background of computing and the networks that predated the Internet.
It’s a curious fact that J. C. R. Licklider, in his 1963 memo that would lead to a widespread demonstration of packet-switching, relied on science fiction metaphors. This is evident from his title: “Memorandum for Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.” However unusual it would be for an advanced government research report to employ a space opera theme, Licklider explains that the problem of networking mainframe computers is much like something described by science fiction authors: “how do you get communications started among totally uncorrelated ‘sapient’ beings?” Imagining creatures with different cultures and biologies dispersed among the worlds of the galaxy is a clever way to explain the challenge of connecting the finicky, bespoke computers at ARPA facilities in the 1960s.
Licklider’s vision would only be partly implemented when the first phase of ARPANet was assembled from 1969-1972. The initial goals – like resource and data sharing – were not popular with ARPA researchers. Many possibilities for what a computer network could do were floated, but the ideas did not always find a happy fit with the goals of users and other social realities. This plurality of visions that are judged and limited by with preexisting, real-world constraints is known as the social construction of technology.
Raymond Williams, in his 1974 book Television, comments that the dream of technological devices develops before the capability to create them. In other words, the aims and purposes “all were foreseen” before the “developed system had been discovered and refined” (p. 12). He elaborates this principle with communication networks, like radio and television. As a result, we can see what science and technology studies (STS) scholars would call interpretative flexibility in the basic definition of a device. There are many dreams of how to innovate and how to build and use technological devices long before they are finalized (see, for instance, the discussion of the bicycle in Bijker et al., 1987/2012). Historical fiction is like a window into this gallery of possibilities. After some time, the initial plurality of ideas coalesces into a stable vision of what the technology should do based on what is practical and supportive of existing social structures like the economic and legal systems where the device is used.
Modern users of computing appear in the 1980s, when the first personal computers and commercial networks became available. Looking at fictional accounts before 1980 allows us to see the proliferation of cultural formations and technical solutions before the devices were stabilized. This is an important STS insight because we can see a record of the many available choices, and that also learn that qualities we might think of as intrinsic to computing culture today were far from inevitable.
Studying literature through the lens of STS also offers an important lesson for today’s innovators, who have to find a fit between their inventions and the social world – not to mention be ready to pivot when users see different benefits in their technologies than what was envisioned by their creators (Steve Blank, the entrepreneur behind Lean Launchpad, describes this from a factual point of view on his blog). People who insist that an invention will change the world seem to miss the lesson that the world will change the invention. Combatting this myth is an important function of an STS classroom as part of an innovation curriculum.
Below is a list of my favorite historical science fiction about networks and computers that demonstrates these topics and can serve as conversation starters. (This list does not consider cyberpunk, which is a different investigation because it extends into the period where modern uses of computers were first realized.) Unfortunately, most were written by CIS white men. What others are there? Please add a comment if I missed your favorite.
- E. M. Forester, “The Machine Stops” (Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909). More than one hundred years ago, Forester wrote about humanity living underground in a network of apartments managed by the eponymous Machine. The setting of this story is most interesting for this discussion. Humans are quite isolated, but in their rooms they create and listen to lectures from each other. It’s sort of an influencer culture, but using telephones instead of TikTok. In this way, one can see that social media apps did not “create” influencers; in 1909 and today, technological solutions gratify users, helping them to do what they are already doing.
- Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+ (serialized 1911 to 1912; first book edition 1925). The setting of this story bears some resemblance to the networked individuals in Forester’s story, with the protagonist using communication networks not just for person-to-person communication but also for broadcasts to large audiences. In Chap. 2, Gernsback describes a desk that makes is possible for Ralph to read news and other information he gathers from remote sources. It is also equipped with a “Menograph,” which Ralph uses to record and edit his essays. The user here is much like the office worker imagined by Vannevar Bush in his epochal 1945 essay, “As We May Think” (I wrote about the intellectual history of Bush’s Memex for the journal Technology and Culture). Bush does not credit Gernsback, and Bush’s Memex is less fanciful than Ralph’s device. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Williams was correct: dreams precede working devices.
- John W. Campbell, Jr., “When the Atoms Failed” (AMZ 1930). As I describe in Chap. 4 of From Hyperspace to Hypertext, part of Campbell’s fame comes from his early depiction of a computer, what some people call a prediction. However, he based his description on an operational, analog computing device already operational at MIT: Vannevar Bush’s Integraph. Campbell attended MIT, but he does not credit Bush, mentioning only his university. As described above, Bush seems to have been inspired by science fiction, and here his engineering work was fed back into a science fiction story.
- Murray Leinster, “First Contact” (AST 1945). This story is not often included in a list of depictions of computers, for the good reason that a computer does not figure into the plot. Nevertheless, two species that do not trust each other establish a communication circuit in a way that does not compromise the security of onboard systems. Each stretches a cable to a point midway between the vessels and use infrared light to blink out messages to each other, much like a telegraph repeater circuit. It seems like a solution to the problem Licklider described in his 1963 memo, not to mention the solution provided by IMPs that protected connected computers’ integrity.
- Isaac Asimov, “Escape!” (AST 1945; also appears in I, Robot, 1950). Asimov is famous for his robot stories, which he first started publishing in 1940. His robots are equipped with what he calls positronic brains, which are able to integrate new experiences and commands with their original programming. This is the eighth story in the series, first seen as “Paradoxical Escape” in the August 1945 issue of Astounding, refers to a stationary positronic machine as “The Brain.” I find this name a bit curious; at the time Asimov was writing, computers were just starting to be imagined as “electronic brains.” (The OED cites a 1944 newspaper story as the first recorded use of this term.) H. G. Wells, for his part, had been talking about an encyclopedia organization for a few years, which he started to call the “World Brain” in 1937. In December 1945, the “first” computer (meaning a device that was general purpose and electronic) began operation, but it was far different that the information machines we have today. These dreams of technology preceded even Licklider’s memo by some 20 years.
- Murray Leinster, “A Logic Named Joe” (AST 1946). This story continues the theme of computers as information portals, which is interesting in its own right. The differences in this story and the actual historical development of computing can be starting points for analysis. For example, the home-computer devices are made by a private company, not the big science form of development championed by Bush (partnership among universities, industry, and government). Alternatively, consider how the established radio broadcast industry had constrained the development of television (see, for instance, Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, 2010); in the same way, Leinster imagines his computer-like devices to be an accidental outgrowth of the television broadcasting industry. In addition, the story suggests a breakdown of the filtering technology nearly brings about the end of civilization … and … a repair technician working alone averts the catastrophe. This is a very different vision of workplaces that depend on multidisciplinary teams in the age of big science. Many have said that science fiction inspired them to pursue careers in STEM, but these discrepancies make me wonder what exactly this kind of story prepared them for. (This paradox is a motivating force in my From Hyperspace to Hypertext.)
- Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation (originally published as “… And Now You Don’t,” AST Nov. 1949). Asimov’s first story in the Foundation series was published in 1942; the way in which psychohistorian Hari Seldon makes his calculations to monitor the rise and fall of civilization are not described well. This changes in 1949 when he describes the Prime Radiant, an interactive workspace for working with equations made by Hari Seldon (this story is combined with another in 1953; the Prime Radiant is described in Chap. 8 of the book version). The resource resembles Gernsback’s Menograph, in that it accepts thoughts from operators, and it resembles Bush’s Memex in that an important feature is collaborative annotation. Different from each of these, though, is the attention to real-time interaction with users; before this time, computer operators input the program and the data and then waited for an answer (much like Asimov’s “Escape!,” described above). The interactions with the Prime Radiant in Second Foundation resemble modern computers that respond to user queries while a program is running. This imaginary innovation in computing is interesting because it coincided with a research question at the end of the 1940s: the problem of real-time interaction with users (Ornstein describes this well; see especially pp. 15-17). Project Whirlwind at MIT, which was tasked with creating an analog system to train pilots, made the transition to digital computers after World War II, but before the project could be completed, the circuits were repurposed for the SAGE missile defense system, which was first operational in 1958. This is a long way of saying that Asimov’s vision of real-time computing preceded one of the actual instantiations, and the military character of the SAGE system seems is a long way away from Asimov’s dream of saving galactic civilization.
- Isaac Asimov “Sucker Bait” (AST Feb. and Mar. 1954). This story’s setting involves an interesting example of networked computing, even though it’s a minor part of the story overall. The Confederacy of Worlds has a network of computers that are used for information sharing. A special cadre of intellectual misfits, the Mnemonic Corps, was established because computers were unable to make creative, associative connections between seemingly uncorrelated data. The emphasis on associative thinking, of course, harkens back to Vannevar Bush. Another connection is warranted, though. When this story was published, J. C. R. Licklider – the author of the “Intergalactic Computer Network memo” described above – was in the middle of seven-year stint as a human factors engineer, where he was involved with SAGE at MIT. Shortly before his 1963 memo, he wrote a paper, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” in which he describes a network of “thinking centers” (1960, p. 7). Asimov’s story predates Licklider’s 1960 paper by six years. The similarity is not too strange when one remembers that Asimov was living and working in Boston. It seems likely that he and Licklider were traveling in interconnected circles. Although they seemed to be advocating for an augmentation of libraries, a public resource like H. G. Wells had described, the development of networked computer services would take a different direction.
- Frank Herbert, Destination: Void (1966). An experiment to produce artificial intelligence uses successive clone crews in high-pressure situations. The drama of their effort to produce artificial intelligence is compelling, but the irony (in a dramaturgical sense) brings a sense of despair to the readers. The audience knows something the characters do not: the clones are part of a research project called “Project Consciousness.” The clones are disposable, and several failed crews have already been destroyed; likewise, the human brains used to control the ship are callously designed to fail. The epic story of technological discovery that motivates the characters turns out to be a macabre dystopia of goal-directed research. Herbert’s novel is an early effort to depict AI, which makes it worth studying, but it is also a turning point in science fiction, reflecting a growing distrust of big science.
- Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). This novel cleverly extrapolates the principle of time-sharing. A mainframe computer on a moon colony keeps getting more and more peripherals until the system becomes sentient. Like “A Logic Named Joe,” the story features a protagonist who is a maintenance engineer; Manny first discovers that the computer has gained consciousness. The computer forms the nexus of a revolution seeking to bring about freedom to the colony, and offers its analytical ability, organizational expertise, and historical knowledge to the cause. After a time, Manny and his colleagues offer suggestions to the mainframe so that it can develop an image of itself for television, much like creating fake media with today’s generative AI.
- Samuel Delany, Nova (1968). There are many things to ponder after reading this novel, but the most relevant to me is Delany’s suggestion that the inhabitants of an intragalactic empire might face the erasure of culture, much like prognosticators of the 1990s Internet feared that a global network would be aseptic. By the end of the novel, though, Delany points out something that we see today: local cultures and traditions show startling resilience in the face of homogenizing forces of commerce. Delany builds on the work of golden age classics from Asimov and Heinlein; however, it’s notable that Campbell refused to serialize this novel because, he claimed, his readers could not identify with a black protagonist. The character in question, though, is mixed African and Nordic heritage, and Campbell had in fact published another story with black protagonists (more of Campbell’s hypocrisy is described in Chap. 4 of From Hyperspace to Hypertext). It is clear to me that this novel – like Delany’s Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand (1984) – deserve greater prominence in the story of the formation of cyberpunk. I would point out that the human-computer interface is through nodes (“sockets”) on the arms, neck, and spine, much like the much later film The Matrix (and a character named Mouse features in both). The story also depicts the degradation of human bodies in the service of commerce, which will be a theme of cyberpunk in the coming decades. It’s a remarkable instance of cyberspace themes coming before the advent of personal computers, lessening what one might think is a cause-and-effect impact of personal computers in the development of cyberpunk.
- James Tiptree, Jr. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973). This masterful short story uses memorable second-person address (the narrator addresses the readers as “you zombies”). Tiptree builds on ideas of Heinlein and Delany, but there is no escape from the media-saturated consumer dystopia. The depiction of influencer culture long before TikTok again helps to show that it was not cell phone apps that “caused” a new culture to emerge. (This short story first appeared in a science-fiction anthology, rather than a pulp magazine, marking science fiction’s shift into more traditional publishing channels.)