Computers are reading our behaviour, but it’s still an open book
By Faris Al Ali: Literature Columnist
Present day technology has become a big part of everyday life, and science-fiction literature has always indulged in the idea of technological advancement. As society becomes more dependent on computers to process day to day functions, the portrayal of computers in science-fiction literature becomes increasingly more relevant.
In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the titular character arrives at the Academy of Projectors to discover a device known as ‘the Engine’. Gulliver describes the Engine as a type of machine that displays a series of letters on a frame, and through a technical process of turning the frame, the machine displays prose and poetry. Written in 1726, nearly three centuries before the technological age, the engine could be described as literature’s first computer. Though barely resembling conceptions of modern computers, Gulliver’s account of the Engine displays how society’s fascination with information-processing technology has evolved over the years.
E.M Forster’s 1909 novella The Machine Stops portrays a world not all too different from life in the 21st century. Though Forster is mostly known for his novels depicting early 20th-century English society, in The Machine Stops, Forster manages to build a world predicting the rise of video calling-technology, globalisation, and technological consumption.
The short story depicts a futuristic world where a powerful supercomputer, known simply as ‘the Machine’, has taken over the lives of citizens. As the Machine begins to breakdown, a rebellious young man discovers a world outside of the Machine.
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As a result, society is thrown into a form entropy as they attempt to rebuild civilisation outside of the Machine’s structure. In the original introduction to E.M Forster’s Collected Short Stories, Forster states that he wrote the story as a response to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Both texts predict a type of technology that are inherently a product of the times, as many writers in the Edwardian period displayed a fascination with speculative technological advancement and how societal structures are built around them.
Computers in literature often allude to philosophical issues revolving humanity’s use of technology. In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer known as Deep Thought is programmed to design the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. While computers are tasked to process complex information, the satire involved in Douglas Adams’ novel questions how far technology can advance to understand human life and behaviour. In Douglas’ tongue-in-cheek style, Deep Thought infamously processes the answer to life, the universe, and everything as ‘forty-two’. In ASCII, a type of binary code that processes the English language, the number forty-two is an asterisk. In computer programming, asterisks are often used as a wildcard, which means that the code can be programmed to mean, or be a substitute to, anything. Deep Thought replies in only away a computer would understand the meaning to life, the universe, and everything – as a binary set of code. The computer displays a disconnect between how society desires computers to function and think like humans and how they actually operate.
The portrayal of computers in science fiction has evolved to question big philosophical ideas about society’s relationship with technology. Today, computers have become a major element of our lives. They are to be seen on desks, on walls, on wrists, and in hands. As computers advance over time, society’s expectations, fears, and dreams of computers develop with them.
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