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Future Computing in the Past

Are we where we thought we'd be? Have fun finding out.

Looking for some fireside reading material or a holiday gift for your favorite IT pro? Instead of tackling current events from today's perspective, why not pick up some books that tried to predict how modern life—and technology—would play out?

I love old science fiction, particularly the stuff from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. (Yeah, I know, I'm supposed to say speculative fiction, but I'm set in my ways. I'll take my 40 lashes.) Sure, much of it was terrible—to paraphrase Theodore Sturgeon, a genre writer of the time, much of everything is terrible—but the best of those stories are infused with an optimism for the future and a let's-get-it-done eagerness that can be uplifting. Besides, you'll get a few chuckles reading about those writers figured technology would turn out.

My absolute favorite example comes from George Orwell's dystopic 1984, which gave us "Big Brother" and gave generations of readers shivers as they witnessed poor Winston Smith broken by a totalitarian state made unassailable by technology. I've always thought the scene in which Winston's will is finally shattered outdoes anything Stephen King ever wrote. But the book's chilling view of the future is always leavened in my mind by an early passage that describes Winston's future lover, Julia. Winston recalls that he occasionally would see her carrying a wrench in her "oily hands," which had become soiled because she had "some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines." Sure, I've gotten my paws dirty installing servers or crawling under a table connecting cables, but running a word processor has never led me to run to the sink and soap.

Some pieces, such as John Brunner's 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider (which might actually have coined the term "worm" in a computing context; I know it was the first time I'd ever heard it) and Vernor Vinge's 1981 short story True Names (which predicted the banality of chat rooms and implied that when you create a society of anonymous people, surprise!—they're going to behave badly) do a surprisingly good job of laying out the future. Both stories are quick reads and well worth picking up. Plus, Shockwave Rider has a finish as good as most summer movies (well, maybe not as good as Spiderman 2). That book has been republished by Del Rey, and you can find True Names in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge from Orb Books.

If you prefer more uplifting reading, Isaac Asimov's short story The Last Question describes a sort of imaginary Google: a computer database that can answer basically any question. (Not bad for 1956, eh?) This story is a great piece that you can find in a number of short story collections—the paperback Robot Dreams is probably the most recent. But Dr. Asimov didn't quite get Google right. Instead of picturing the system as existing on a decentralized Internet linking hundreds of millions of independent computers, Asimov assumed (as did most writers of the time) that someone would build and run a large central mainframe computer that people would access via dumb terminals in their houses and places of business. Way off the mark? Maybe … but as time goes on in the story (which spans centuries), the terminals become smaller and wireless. Now, that sure sounds accurate. And, come to think of it, the end of the story shows what can happen when one computer company accumulates too much power. Believe me, Microsoft would love to be able to do what Asimov's computer, Multivac, does in the end of this story.

So put your feet up, kick back, and see how the past thought we'd end up. I guarantee it'll be some fun!

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