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[Comments] (11) : Sumana and I were talking about whether or not science fiction writers had envisioned second-order effects of personal computers, like screen savers. Discussion was somewhat limited by the fact that neither of us could even think of anyone writing an SF story about the personal computer before it showed up in hardware. The usually-helpful Technovelgy doesn't help much here (it does say there is a pocket computer in The Mote in God's Eye, a year before the Altair). As has already been established this is exactly the kind of thing I don't know, so I'm sure my readers can provide lots of interesting examples.

I'm specifically interested in stories where a computer is assigned to or owned by a relatively average person, regardless of the computer's size or power. All we can think of is people going to the computing center to use the monolithic communal computer, using the shared ship's computer, etc. Of course, the easy solution is to update all those old stories by simply appending ".com" to the monolithic computer's ACRONYMAC name.


Posted by Holly at Tue Jan 01 2008 08:07

The "look it predicted the personal computer!" example that gets brought up a lot is, I think, the 1940s "A Logic Named Joe", though I haven't actually read it so have no idea about the second-order stuff. "You know the Logics set-up. You got a Logic in your house. I t looks like a vision-receiver used to, only it's got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get."

I suppose most of the stories in which people owned clever electronic devices framed the devices as being SF-y postcursors of books or maybe calculators (ah, like the Asimov calculator pads that Technovelgy mentions, in fact), rather than something that explicitly fulfilled multiple functions. Like your retrospective future, coming up with lots of different high-tech ways to do current things a little more excitingly, rather than consolidating them into one device.

The logical extension of this is that in order to write science fiction that will impress the future with its foresight, modern-day writers need to explore the repercussions of the Personalised Flying Brainwave Dinosaur Assassin that Cooks, Transmutes, Transports, Overlays Exciting Game Worlds Onto Reality When We're Bored, and Cleans. IT'S MANIFESTO TIME.

Posted by Holly at Tue Jan 01 2008 08:30

Tut, repetition, sorry. But anyway - I suppose part of the reason that there wasn't any impetus to consolidate "does lots of things" into a personally-owned device is that, well, that's what robots were for. The personal computer is just a robot that can't walk around and is a bit rubbish; what's the motivation for writing about that?

Though I just looked up Asimov's "The Fun They Had" on the vague feeling that it would support my point, and, er, its personally owned devices are a lot more computer-y than robot-y.

Posted by Leonard at Tue Jan 01 2008 09:37

A good point about task-based rather than platform-based views of computers. The thing I find hard to believe is that there seem to have been no connections between science fiction writers in the 60s and 70s, and the scientists and hobbyists who envisioned a world of personal computers.

I don't think robots were actually used very often the way we'd use computers, but that probably means that the fictional existence of robots closed off certain avenues. Why would you network robots together? It breaks the metaphor.

Another thing I'm wondering about is the SF invention of time-sharing. I'm pretty sure there were fictional computers that supported multiple users before the real-life invention of time-sharing, but I can't think of any examples. Even the ones that support a whole society are generally posed questions one at a time, just like real computers back then.

The Prime Radiant comes to mind as a counterexample, but that was more like a whiteboard. It didn't do the psychomath for you. Also the lunar computer from "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", but 1965 is a little late--GE had a timesharing business by then.

Posted by Holly at Tue Jan 01 2008 18:13

Fictional civilisation-running machines that support multiple users certainly go back to 1909, with Forster's Machine, and quite possibly earlier; it would be odd if they stopped just because real computers had been invented. I can't think of any from the 50s or 60s, though - I suppose in many cases there's no memorable indications either way about whether a computer can deal with more than one person at a time or not.

And yeah, I agree that SF robots of the period are rarely networked together - but I think they do fill the "privately owned versatile thinking machine" slot all the same. Was networking a primary focus of the 60s/70s hobbyists? Because if not, it would be easy enough for science fiction to ignore the personal computers they envisaged as not adding anything new that wasn't covered by "little device that fulfills a specific purpose" (calculating, showing models of clothes in a tailor's shop in Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes) or "individual computing machine that people own, and that does a number of things that it's told to do, and that, oh, is usually humaniform".

Posted by Leonard at Tue Jan 01 2008 19:17

This is fun. I wish there weren't an ocean in the way of us talking this out in person.

Networking was big among the computer scientists, but not the hobbyists. I think there were no hobbyists to speak of in the 60s, and in the 70s their focus was moving *away* from networking (scrounging time on a terminal that talked to a PDP-11 you were also scrounging time on) to the glory of a computer that you could afford to own, even if it was 20 years behind the times.

I'm warming to your robot idea. I still can't think of any examples but I can certainly imagine stories where the family robot does TRS-80 tasks like balancing the checkbook in addition to physical tasks.

I'm forming a hypothesis that the prevalence of robots in early SF tied people to a mental model of computer science where it's all about automating those tasks. Peripherals missing from the human brain aren't covered by the metaphor. That's why there's no interest in networking among the 1970s hobbyists, who've only experienced the awful side of it. Until Neuromancer (with its new brain peripherals!) there's no SF that makes people realize how awesome a computer network could be. So we get stripped-down robots in 1975 and Internet 20 years later. Or 1995 could just be when that 20-year performance gap finally closes.

Posted by Leonard at Tue Jan 01 2008 22:53

It also seems reasonable to me that the fictional computers of the 50s might lose power relative to their earlier counterparts. You don't get stories about life on Venus anymore because we found out there isn't any. In 1955 it appeared that realistic computers could only work in batch mode. But I'm sure there are still computers used by multiple people at once in 1950s stories, if only because the writers hadn't thought out how that would have to work.

Posted by Holly at Wed Jan 02 2008 07:08

Yes, continental distribution on this planet wasn't clearly thought through. I like that articulation of the robots-tied-writers-to-a-specific-mental-model hypothesis, though.

I can't think offhand of any 60s robots that do mostly PC-like tasks, and I don't have the time to go looking for them today, so instead I'm going to cheat appallingly and say: well, the very first "robot" we're introducted to in all of literature answers questions informatively, takes dictation, and types out business letters in four languages, all administrative tasks more than physical ones. Then we're pointed at the robots that constitute the company accounts department. Obviously R.U.R. robots are biological rather than mechanical, and pretty much predate computers anyway.

Wikipedia's list of fictional computers doesn't include anything from the period that jumps out as "this definitely supported multiple users" to me, though it does provide a reminder of the incredibly 50s-y "Answer", in which instead of having one computer serve multiple users, you take the computers of ninety-six billion users (well, planets) and combine them into one huge contraption. (SPOILER: it turns out to be a bad idea!)

The "computer turns out to be god, by the way" trope is very 50s/60s, actually, and surely must involve some models of the computergod that can respond to many people at once. Gods don't work if they're only omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent so long as you don't ask them to do two things at once.

Posted by Leonard at Wed Jan 02 2008 09:47

I looked up the 1975 Popular Electronics article introducing the Altair and it describes the home computer as "a favorite topic among science-fiction writers".

Posted by Holly at Wed Jan 02 2008 10:33

Well, I suppose that'll teach me to make some effort to verify that something doesn't exist before coming up with nice theories as to why it doesn't. It would have been nice if they'd mentioned which science-fiction writers, though! Still, we're not the only ones not to know: there's this (pdf) discussion among a bunch of writers including Octavia Butler and David Brin that has Brin claiming nobody came closer to predicting the home computer than Leinster and John Brunner - and none of the others contradict him. And searches along the lines of "leinster pc" just bring up a load of articles about how rubbish SF-apart-from-Leinster was at predicting home computers.

Posted by Leonard at Wed Jan 02 2008 11:05

I think Popular Electronics might just be wrong! The qualitative difference between the teacher in "The Fun They Had" and a programmable Altair is only obvious in retrospect. So it was an easy mistake to make in the excitement of the times.

Posted by Zed at Fri Jan 04 2008 14:43

I often flog the aforementioned "The Machine Stops" as one of the best predictions in sf -- in 1909, Forster foretells something much like the blogosphere, and, particularly, anxiety about getting behind on information if you're off the net.

In 1969, Brunner's The Jagged Orbit included TV shows edited on computer, a guy telecommuting in his underwear, and, almost, spam. (It was "satch" for saturation mail, and it was physical, but people struggling to cope with an discommoding inundation of advertising is fairly analogous to us coping with spam.)

In 1975, his The Shockwave Rider predicted an Internet worm. (If you're looking to improve your sf literacy, I'd recommend these books plus his Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up.)

Heinlein's 1957 The Door Into Summer predicted CAD, but that's more of a first-order effect. And his For Us, the Living, written c. 1939, but not published until 2004, featured videoterminals in homes that allowed one to order documents (I forget whether one could also order other objects) which were then delivered by pneumatic tubes. Kinda sorta Amazon. But, again, a first-order effect.

There was a Poul Anderson story from the '50's, I'm pretty sure, about creating a convincing fictitous person in a world in which news and personal data lives on a computer. I'd be inclined to count that as a second-order effect of computer usage, but it was still about a giant computer and not a giant network of personal computers.

I haven't read much Leinster, but have a couple of his books -- I'll have to check them.


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