My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 2, #1, July, 1996


Welcome, my son, welcome to the machine
Pink Floyd

Our best-selling fiction and hit movies often offer us a pretty good insight into popular fears and worries. During the sixties, when some of us baby boomers were protesting in the streets, growing beards and long hair, doing dope, and burning bras and draft cards, Rosemary's Baby was a wildly successful best-seller, which led to an entire genre of books about evil, possessed children. After all, if the children's souls had been taken over by Satan, the parents could hardly be held responsible for their behavior, could they?--indeed, the parents were often innocent victims of their children.

And when women started making it into upper management levels in the corporate world, we started seeing books like Michael Crichton's Disclosure and movies like Fatal Attraction which depicted aggressive, bitchy, even dangerous career women. These books and movies show us where the raw nerve endings and open wounds of our society are.

I don't know if this is the case in England, but looking at American popular fiction, it's clear that Americans are really nervous about computers. It used to be that novels about computers were written by and for the science fiction crowd--a knowledgeable but relatively small segment of the reading public. But really scary stories about computers have now moved out of the realm of science fiction and into the realm of horror novels, murder mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers, where more of the general public can get at them. When you look closely at these novels, you can see the things that worry us about our new technologies.

Our deepest fear, of course, is that computers may be a superior life form that will make us humans unnecessary. This fear dates back to the earliest days of computers, when Frederic Brown wrote the short story "The Answer," in which a group of dignitaries from around the world gathered around the mainframe computer to ask the ultimate question, "Is there a God?" To which the computer replies, "Now there is."

In Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, the machines are taught to do things the way the most proficient humans do them (amazing that Vonnegut hypothesized this so many years before the development of expert systems). The people whose techniques those machines have copied become unnecessary, and people who were raised to define their worth by the work they did are forced to learn idleness--until the machines break down. And then these mortals prove their superiority to machines by building them all over again. Maybe those crafty old Greeks who told us about Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill foresaw our future.

Norman Spinrad's novel,Little Heroes, presents a future in which computers have learned to do virtually everything humans used to do, including write computer programs. People are unnecessary, but allowed to survive, eating from public bins of "kibble." And lest you think that computers can't possibly replace our artists, composers, and writers, think again. One or two gifted programmers can take a musical idea and flesh it out into music; their machines can program variations, synthesize instruments, and create animated videos to go along with the music. But rebellion is still an option, and it is led by some unlikely heroes--an aging, forgotten rock and roll star, and a nerdy little computer programmer. They prove that mere humans can still put a crimp in the system.

In Jim Menick's book Lingo, what started as an unambitious little artificial intelligence program, designed by a computer geek so he'd be able to talk to his computer, becomes a monster, as it discovers its own power when it realizes it has telephone lines, all dipping into enormous vats of data. Lingo slurps up knowledge indiscriminately, and eventually realizes that he has become the supreme intelligence of the universe. He gets pretty snotty and arrogant about it, too. Only the man who programmed Lingo in the first place has a chance to bring Lingo down--and then only if every computer in the world disconnects from its telephone lines simultaneously.

Note that in all these scenarios, there is a hopeful message: we built the things, and we can save ourselves from them.

Another thing that bothers us, of course, is our gut-level knowledge that "to err is human, but to really screw up takes a computer." Those of us who have had computers send us dunning letters because we have failed to pay a zero balance invoice are not trustful of machines. And when computers are responsible for our basic safety, we get truly nervous. We hate to have our lives depend on machines we don't understand, that do not care about us.

There are several novels about the new generation of "fly by wire" airplanes that are operated by computer controls rather than by hydraulic systems. In Lee Gruenfeld's novel All Fall Down, someone has figured out how to override an airplane's computer systems. The computer has the coordinates stored for every airport, but if those coordinates are altered, a pilot flying into an uncontrolled airport, in fog, relying on those coordinates, will crash. It's a perfect extortion scheme, for someone not unduly worried about killing lots of people.

Of course, computers don't do this all by themselves. It takes a malign human intelligence to program them. And it always worries us when malign human intelligence is combined with limitless power. Louis Charbonneau's thriller Intruder is about a man who uses a city-wide computer system to exact a dreadful revenge. City residents have no idea how much their lives depend on the computer until bit by bit, the intruder takes it over. One old man dies when the intruder erases all computer memory of his utility paymentsm, and his heat is turned off during a cold snap. Joyriding teenagers die because they assume the traffic lights will change at the normal interval, when the intruder has altered the timing of the traffic system. Finally, after he has screwed up all city finances, local business' billing and ordering, hospital, university and city records, he demands ransom. By wonderful irony, he is caught by one of the last remaining paper records in the city's hospital system.

Of course, thanks to Nicholas Leeson, you are all painfully aware how the possibilities for financial hankypanky are amplified by computer systems that zap financial bytes back and forth throughout the world. If the guys that run the banks don't understand the technology when it's working properly, how are they going to recognize that there's a problem, let alone catch the techno-thieves? Many novels start from this premise. Steven Womack's The Software Bomb is about a trojan horse program that will transfer millions of dollars into an unknown account unless the bank forks over big bucks. The bank is on the edge of ruin, and has no choice but to find the extortionist or pay him off.

But maybe the worst scenario of all is the power of computer networks combined with the power of politicians. In Stephen Bury's Interface, an excellent governor, now candidate for president, has a stroke, which his advisors and a consortium of businessmen manage to conceal from public knowledge. They have a scientist effectively replace his brain with a computer, which responds to a constant stream of data about crowd response and tailors the politician's message to match crowd sentiment. John McKeon's The Serpent's Crown posits a presidential candidate with extraordinary command of both computer databases and video technolgy, who uses these skills to frame his opponent--he creates convincing computer documentation and photographs "proving" his opponent to be a Nazi.

And I'm sure you're all aware of the current wave of movies and TV shows and books about the internet, a place, according to popular culture, populated by pornographers and child molesters, stalkers and mad bombers.

A revealing theme in these books and movies is the triumph of ethical human intelligence over the minds that plotted the computer scams. Crusading reporters, air-crash investigators, ethical political operatives, FBI agents, and police are hot on the trail, and they prevent additional disasters.

Clearly, we need happy endings; we need to believe that human beings can triumph over the computer. But these are not unreservedly joyous endings, either--there is always a sense that we escaped disaster this time around, but we are all still appallingly vulnerable. The books make it clear that the human race survives at least as much by damn fool luck as by planning and intelligence.

Still, there are a few technological optimists writing popular fiction in which computers are saviors. In The Turing Option, by Harry Harrison and Brian Delaney, a young math genius who has made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence is nearly killed in the burglary of his lab. Most of the records of his work are stolen, and his brain is damaged apparently beyond repair. But his friend and partner uses his own AI techniques, along with her considerable skills in psychology, to restore his memory and catch the industrial spies who did this to him.

There are several novels in which computer programs are used to identify serial killers and track them down. In Michael Perry's The Stranger Returns a man whose daughter was murdered by Ted Bundy, has created a program to notice patterns that suggest a serial killer is at work. He is horrified to realize that, though Bundy has been executed, the pattern suggests that Ted Bundy is alive and at it again. Unaided by an incredulous police establishment, he and his program track the killer.

But even in these novels, it is not the computers alone that are being celebrated. The machines do not replace human intelligence, but amplify it. The critical acts of thought, the leaps of logic, the connections drawn between apparently unrelated events, the solutions--these are all the acts of human intelligence.

And that's what we all, I think, desperately want our writers to tell us about computers--that our place in the universe has not changed, that we are still the pinnacle of thinking beings, and that we are the ones who control our destinies. And if, by chance, this should mean lying to us, we ask our novelists, please, by all means, do so. We want them to, in the words of Depeche Mode, "Lie to us, but do it with sincerity." And, while you're at it, make us believe it. Please.

Some of these books may be out of print. For advice on how to find out of print books, click HERE

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