The strength of machines is typically presented as their efficiency, accuracy, regularity and uniformity. Ideally they are also relatively reliable. They are excellent for repetitive tasks than can be pre-defined and formalized. But most writers agree that there is a price to be paid for our use of machines. The nature of this price is variously depicted as a reduction of choice, flexibility, spontaneity, idiosyncracy, ambiguity or whatever - or more dramatically as a loss of freedom, individuality, creativity, intuition, love, humour or some other human value or quality which is seen as central to human identity. Some writers believe that the benefits - often presented in terms of increased efficiency or social stability - are worth the price; some believe that we can ensure that the price is not too high; others seem reluctant to pay the price, fearing that the use of technology introduces iron into the soul.
Asimov notes that we have long feared that the machine might 'destroy the essence of humanity, or minds and souls': 'Think of the Spartan king who, on observing a catapult in action, mourned that that would put an end to human valour... The fear that machinery might make men effete' (Asimov 1981, p. 133). Plato, of course, feared that writing would destroy face-to-face communication. Vitalistic theories argue that humankind is unique because of the possession of some vital spark - what most would call a soul. Mechanistic theories argue that man is an organic machine and free-will is an illusion. Brian Aldiss's 'But Who Can Replace a Man?' (1958, in Lewis 1963) argues that a unique characteristic of machines may be that they follow orders. The story depicts a world where machines have taken over and only a few humans remain. One day a man appears, asking the machines for food and they rush to obey his orders.
Herbert Sussman has argued that a major theme of 19th and 20th century novels has been 'the suppression of the emotional impulse by the false application of the machine metaphor' (cited in Mowshowitz 1976, p. 298). Charles Dickens's Hard Times (1854) can be seen as a portrayal of a state of mind symbolized by the machine. The use of mechanization to facilitate a well-regulated society was a common theme in nineteenth century utopian visions, but the price was loss of individuality.
Edward Bellamy's naive but influential Looking Backward, enjoyed extraordinary popularity shortly after its publication in 1888. It offered a meritocratic utopia governed by a centralized state apparatus, in which individuals were required to devote a certain number of years to industrial service. Society was conceived of as a giant factory. Thomas Carlyle had written in 1829 that 'men are grown mechnical in head and in heart, as well as in hand', and many writers have conceived of society itself as a complex machine. Within such a metaphor, alienated human beings frequently talk of themselves as feeling like small and insignificant 'cogs'.
William Morris was appalled by the bureaucratic and machine-like mature of Looking Backward. Morris responded immediately with his own very different pastoral utopia, News From Nowhere (1890). It did not reflect a complete abandonment of machines but rather a more critical use. Morris declared that 'all work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without.' Since Looking Backward speculative fiction has exhibited a loss of faith in utopia through automation.
There is a fear that we may ourselves become 'automated' by over-reliance on machines. This fear underlies E M Forster's classic story 'The Machine Stops' (1909, in Lewis 1963), a horror story of complete dependence on machines written in response to what Forster saw as the irrational optimism of H G Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905, extract in Mowshowitz 1977). Wells's 'utopia' depicted a technology-dependent society ruled by benevolent technocrats seeking to maintain efficiency and technical order. In Wells's utopia a universal record-keeping system kept track of citizens: a feature for which most modern readers would not share Wells's enthusiasm.
In Forster's dystopian tale, the underground-dwelling people live in sealed cubicles and have no direct contact with nature or with other people. All forms of interaction are mediated by the machine. One character notes of another that: 'She fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It gave only a general idea of people - an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes.' And elsewhere it is noted that 'above her, beneath her, and around her, the Machine hummed eternally; she did not notice the noise, for she had been born with it in her ears.'
In the intellectual sphere originality was a terror to be avoided. Kuno, an isolated rebel in the story declares:
The loss of human vitality leads to the gradual and imperceptible breakdown of the machine. And the people have lost even the skills to repair it. As Forster puts it 'Humanity, in its desire for comfort had over-reached itself.' Kuno dies, unable to breathe the natural air above ground, but a hopeful note in Forster's story is that those few people who dwelt above ground are set to survive the breakdown of the machines which destroys those whose hollow existence they had sustained underground. On the other hand, it is also suggested that 'some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow.'
We by Yevgeny Zamiatin was written in 1920, published in translation in the USA in 1924, but not published in Britain until 1970. It was an early dystopia which satirized the notion of a society in which every aspect of life is reduced to mechanical precision. The State knew the movements of thoughts of all its citizens. The people lived in glass houses and there was only one hour a day when curtains could be drawn. There was no private life for the individual. Individuals were reduced to numbers, and the 'lex sexualis' ruled that 'a Number may obtain a license to use any other Number as a sexual product'. Lobotomies were performed on the rebels to excise their imaginations.
Fritz Lang's classic film Metropolis (1926) offered powerful images of workers regimented, enslaved and visually dwarfed by machines. It even featured a robot in the likeness of a real woman (though it was created by magic rather than science). In a 1967 interview Lang was dismissive of his film: 'All right, so man has to live with the machine - is that a message today? He still has to live with himself first' (in Brosnan 1991, p. 11).
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) turned the notion of the machine-supported life into a horrific dystopia based on the control of disorder. It implicitly reflected Huxley's wholesale rejection of technological 'progress'. Its grimmest message, as Huxley put it in a foreword, is that 'a really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude'. It illustrates how over-dependence on technology could lead to loss of individuality. It is significantly set in 632 AF - the year of Our Ford.
George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) uses technology for surveillance. It concludes on a chilling note reminiscent of Huxley's observations:
Whilst in early anti-utopian novels the means of universal surveillance was technologically vague, in Ira Levin's This Perfect Day (1970, extract in Mowshowitz 1977) society is managed by a central computer. And as in Brave New World chemotherapy is used for behaviour modification. Whilst in all these four dystopias - We, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and This Perfect Day - survelliance is used to suppress individuality, there is nevertheless some slight element of hope. In We there are are human colonies living between the cities; in Brave New World remnants of the old civilization are preserved; in Nineteen Eighty-Four thought control is not total; and in This Perfect Day some regions of the world are still free of control. In all of these dystopias isolated rebels do at least seek to rediscover of what it means to be thinking, feeling human beings.
Orwell declared elsewhere that 'like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous, and habit-forming' ('The Road to Wigan Pier'). The idea of human stagnation through dependence on machines is widespread in sf. In 'City of the Living Dead' (1930) by Laurence Manning and Fletcher Pratt machines that simulate real experience allow people to dwell in dreams worlds, causing society to stagnate. In 'Twilight' (1934) by John W Campbell (as Don A Stuart) humankind loses all initiative and degenerates physically and mentally through over-dependence on machines.
More satirical stories of over-dependence included Robert Bloch's 'It Happened Tomorrow' (1943), Clifford D Simak's 'Skirmish' (1950, in Aldiss 1973), and Murray Leinster's 'A Logic Named Joe' (1946, as by Will F Jenkins, in Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985). Jack Williamson's 'With Folded Hands' (1963) was concerned with what we will do with our time when we have a robot that will do everything for us. Michael Frayn's A Very Private Life (1968) is a dystopian vision of automation, and satires of automation include Peter Currell Brown's surreal tale of factorywork, Smallcreep's Day (1965). Brunner's The Jagged Orbit (1969) links contemporary social problems such as drug abuse, violence, lawlessness and alienation to our dependence on automated systems.
Mowshowitz comments that 'atrophy of judgement is the price of abandoning decision-making prerogatives to computers. When people lose the habit they are likely to lose the ability. Anecdotes detailing the use of the computer as a substitute for thought are common among scientists and perhaps ought to be more widely known' (1977, p. 121). The theme of atrophy of judgement is found in Walter Miller's 'Dumb Waiter' (1952) where the problem is not blamed on technology but on our failure to understand our tools and to control how they are used.
Mowshowitz adds that in automated societies there is a danger that social goals may be set by technological requirements rather than basic human needs: Fritz Leiber's 'Bad Day for Sales' (1953), Frederick Pohl's 'The Midas Plague' (1954) and Ron Goulart's 'Badinage' (1965) illustrate technological systems blindly operating without regard for human circumstances. Bruce Kawin's 'FORM 5640A: Report of a Malfunction' (1967, in Mowshowitz 1977) portrays a victim of mechanization and the pursuit of efficiency. The machine is no substitute for direct personal interaction in a welfare state.
In Hal Draper's 'Ms Fnd in a Lbry' (1961, in Mowshowitz 1977) information technology is both the effect and the cause of the information explosion. New technology is used to reduce the volume of physical storage required for information sources. But this leads to an ever increasing need for bibliographies, indexes, indexes of indexes, bibliographies of bibliographies and so on. In the end errors lead to the complete collapse of the system.
Work. The Puritan ethic leads us to see work as central to our identity. The automation of work gives rise to ambivalent reactions. Some insist that automation is desirable to 'free' us from work, as in technological utopias such as Bellamy's Looking Backward. However, others argue that work is central to our identity and that automation is degrading and dehumanizing.
Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952, extracts in Lewis 1963 & Mowshowitz 1977) offered a grim vision of an automated future in which computers manage production and distribution and only the elite engage in productive and meaningful work. It is a world where there is 'production with almost no manpower'. As Theodore Roszak notes, 'the book raises the issue whether technology should be allowed to do all that it can do, especially when its powers extend to the crafts and skills which give purpose to people's lives. The machines are slaves, Vonnegut's rebellious engineer insists. Tru, they make life easier in many ways; but they also compete with people. And "anybody that competes with slaves becomes a slave"' (Roszak 1986, p. 11). This echoes the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener (whose book, which also includes a reference to player pianos, Vonnegut had read). Wiener wrote that 'when human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and lever and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine' (Wiener 1950, p. 254).
Freedom. In 'Paradise and Iron' (1930) by Miles J Breuer a mechanical brain coordinating a mechanistic utopia turns into a tyrant. Poul Anderson's 'Sam Hall' (1953, in Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985 & Asimov, Greenberg & Waugh 1986) depicts a totalitarian government establishing giant data banks and using electronic devices to keep tracks on the individual. In John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975) and D G Compton's The Steel Crocodile (1970, extract in Mowshowitz 1977) computers are used with good intentions but repressively by a technocratic elite. Ira Levin's This Perfect Day (1970) offers a dystopian vision of a mechnanically regimented future (Levin was also the author of The Stepford Wives, 1972, in which women were replaced by robots).
However, Asimov has consistently favoured the idea of a machine-run society. In 'The Evitable Conflict' (1950, in Asimov 1968a & Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985), world government is controlled by computer, the economy is stable, and there is no more underemployment, overproduction, famine or war. Patricia Warrick notes that in this story Asimov 'suggests that machine control is superior to economic and sociological forces, the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war. Mankind, he intimates, has never been free; machine control is just a different - and superior - form of control' (Warrick 1980, p. 60-1). In Asimov's 'The Life and Times of Multivac' (1975, in Asimov 1978), a computer also runs a stable, peaceful world system in which people have a comfortable life style, but many come to feel that they are like slaves in this system and they trade peace and security for freedom by shutting it down.
The horrific futures of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) are of course characterized by a repressive use of technology. Revolution against a dystopian future in which technology is used oppressively is a common theme in sf; but the use of technological means by the revolutionaries illustrates that the technology itself was typically regarded as neutral. Examples are: Robert A Heinlein's 'If This Goes On...' (1940), Fritz Leiber's Gather, Darkness! (1943), Malcolm Jameson's Tarnished Utopia (1943) and Raymond F Jones's Renaissance (1944).
We are of course already increasingly dependent on state mechanisms which regulate society. Our responsiblity for our bodies is increasingly taken from us by the health system. We hand over our children to an increasingly centralized and uniform educational system. And so on. In every branch of human affairs state agencies proliferate. These complex social institutions depend on more and more powerful computers making increasingly automated decisions. And it is understandable that the mistakes of ever more complex systems are frequently unanticipated and can be rectified only after spectacular failures.
Creativity. The legacy of Romanticism is that the purposes of art and technology are conventionally interpreted as poles apart. The use of technology requires us to predetermine goals, to choose the most effective technical means for achieving them, and to evaluate the results in terms of the original goals. At the opposite pole are the prototypical practices of romantic artists, who do not know what they want to do until they have done it, who may allow the medium to shape their purposes, and who cease simply when the impulse deserts them. Art can be for art's sake.
However, artists in the tradition of neo-classicism can be seen as rather closer to the purposes of technologists. Theirs is a more deliberate craft, in which the medium is subordinate to predetermined ends, and the task ends when the goals are achieved. It is worth recalling that to the ancient Greeks 'techne' was the art of creating artifacts. It is because art is popularly regarded as inseparable from Romanticism that technology is seen in direct opposition to art, and by extension to the purposes of the arts and the humanities. To dichotomize art and technology harbours dangers, and speculative fiction at its best plays on the problematic nature of this dichotomy, and on our feelings about it.
If machines take over our work, some argue that we would be able to exercise our creativity in our leisure time. Computers are often seen as boringly logical, literal and predictable devices. But what if they were to become better at being creative than we are? What purpose would be left to us in an automated society? Would we become like robots ourselves?
There are some nineteenth century allegories about art and mechanism, and William Morris's News From Nowhere (1890) centralised the artistic creativity banished by Belamy's Looking Backward (1888), in which piped music was ubiquitous. But the machine as a threat to human creativity wasn't a theme in the science fiction genre until after the Second World War. In Walter M Miller's 'The Darfsteller' (1954) an actor is made redundant by robot theatre. In Robert Silverberg's 'The Macauley Circuit' (1956, in Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) computers compose music, but Silverberg clearly hopes that we will retain a special creative role. Works of visual art are produced by computers in John Sladek's The Muller-Fokker Effect (1971). C M Kornbluth's 'With These Hands' (1951) deals with mechanical sculpture. Computers have already been programmed to generate rule-based graphical output, but the question remains, 'Is it art?'
In Kurt Vonnegut's 'EPICAC' (1950) a man gets a computer to write love poems for him to use in courting a computer programmer. The theme of machine-produced literature is found in Clifford D Simak's 'So Bright the Vision' (1956), R C Phelan's 'Something Invented Me' (1960), J G Ballard's 'Studio 5, The Stars' (1961), Robert Escarpit's The Novel Computer (1966, trans. from French), and Norman Corwin's 'Belles Lettres, 2272' (1970). In Fritz Leiber's The Silver Eggheads (1961) humans use 'wordmills' and only robots produce fiction.
In Phelan's story a frustrated would-be author tells us about his mechanical text-generator:
It has given me thousands of things I can't use!' He shouted the last two words and ground an ice cube to bits with his teeth, making me wince. 'Want ads! Soldiers' letters home! Contracts!
'Contracts! Hundreds of pages of aforesaids and whereases, and I have to read it all because I never know when the damned machine will switch to another subject.'
Jonathan Swift had satirized the idea of a random sentence generator In Gulliver's Travels (1726). It is of course already possible to program computers with rules and words to randomly generate texts within templates which look like poetry. An educational enthusiast for computers, Daniel Watt, suggested that 'When I see a computer can produce a poem, it makes me stop and think a little... You and I know that the computer was just following a procedure. The procedure tells it to select certain types of words according to a fixed pattern. It selects the words from several long lists of different types of words: nouns, verbsm adjectives, etc... But wasn't I doing the same thing when I wrote my poem? I was following a procedure, too. The only difference was that I had a much larger choice of patterns and a bigger list of words in my head from which to choose... How is that different from what the computer was doing?' (in Roszak 1986, pp. 80-1). Inspired by the model of the computer, Watt explained human creativity in disturbingly reductive terms.
Isn't there more to human literary creativity than this? Like meaning, I instantly respond. The writing of poetry cannnot be reduced to a matter of following procedures. Can computer-generated texts seriously be considered to be poetry? It is tempting to argue that such texts lack meaning, since they meant nothing to the computer. but this is genuine problem for critics who discount authorial intention in evaluating literature or who insist that it is the readers' meanings that matter. And I have a lot of sympathy with this critical perspective. There may after all be some readers who might find particular computer-generated texts rich in personal meaning. But I confess that I find it difficult to award the status of literature to computer-generated texts, which leads me to suggest that whatever meanings readers may make with texts, I must regard it as necessary for literary texts to have some kind of meaning for their authors also.
In Asimov's 'Jokester' (1956, in Aldiss 1973) Multivac's discovery of the origin of jokes leads to the loss of the uniquely human sense of humour. Asimov himself plays with the idea of robots lacking humour in 'Little Lost Robot' (1947, in Asimov 1968a), where a robot told to get lost does just that.
Asimov highlights the human ability at creative problem-solving in 'Risk' (1955) in which a robot test-pilot of a spaceship has to be replaced by a man because only humans can solve unanticipated problems. But in Asimov's 'Thou Art Mindful of Him' (1974) a robot is seen as having developed judegment, and in 'The Bicentennial Man' (1976) an unusual robot exhibits creativity in producing beautiful wood carvings. Despite having created fictional robots which variously exhibited emotions, intuition or creativity Asimov's stated attitude to the issue of computers and creativity involved an acceptance that he could not see 'right now' how computers could acquire 'insight, intuition, creativity, the ability to view a problem as a whole and guess the answer by the "feel" of the situation' since 'human beings cannot program a computer to be intuitive or creative for the very good reason that we do not know what we ourselves do when we exercise these qualities'. He also felt that these were 'peculiarly human functions' and that it would be best to leave humans to do what they do best (Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985, p. 8).
But in one form or other the computer is now increasingly utilized in the creation of art and music.
Relationships. A leading artificial intelligence researcher, Marvin Minsky (a friend of Isaac Asimov) reported in 1983 that 'we'll be able to program emotions into a machine once we can do thoughts. We could make something that just flew into a rage right now, but that would be a brainless rage. It wouldn't be very interesting. I'm sure that once we can get a certain amount of thought, and we've decided which emotions we want in a machine, that it won't be hard to do' (in Roszak 1986, p. 126). As Roszak comments, 'Facile remarks like this are based upon the fact that every human activity can be reduced to some kind of formal description - if we eliminate all the unprogrammable ambiguities, subtleties, and imponderables' (ibid.).
In Harl Vincent's 'Rex' (1934) the robots which perform all the work are portrayed as lacking emotions and desires. One of them, Rex, experiences a mutation and develops independent thinking but his struggle to acquire feelings ends in suicide. Ironically his despair is an all-too human feeling. After the Second World War a popular sf theme was the replacement of humans even in the most intimate human relationships: e.g. Harlan Ellison's 'Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes' (1967), Ray Bradbury's I Sing The Body Electric (1969), Thomas N Scortia's 'The Icebox Blonde' (1960) and Harlan Ellison's 'Catman' (1974).
Machines take over as psychiatrists or psychotherapists in Philip K Dick's The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch (1964), Robert Silverberg's 'Going Down Smooth' (1968) and Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977). Machines are depicted as having taken over teaching in Asimov's 'The Fun They Had' (1951). Which reminds me of a line in the film E.T., where Elliott, the little boy, asks his big brother the rhetorical question, 'How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?'.
Mowshowitz comments that 'when human behaviour is modelled using concepts appropriate to machines, it is no wonder that similarities loom larger than differences. If for example we impose suitably restrictive conditions on the notions of thought, creativity, and consciousness, it is not unlikely that we will be able to design programs which realize these notions. One cannot be sure, however, that what has been discarded is not the better part of being human' (1977, p. 227).