24 March 2011

Do you fear the device you are reading this on?

Natasha Mitchell, host of ABC Radio National’s sublime radio show All in the Mind, recently wrote:

Whole airport terminal of commuters glancing at mobile phones, flicking & swiping away. Few books & newspapers. The world has changed.

This morning, I thought about something Isaac Asimov is reputed to have said:

I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them.

And it struck me: We used to be scared of computers.

Let me say that again:

We used to be scared of computers.

Look at the science fiction of the 1960s or so. Writers write about what worries them, as Margaret Atwood says. Asimov’s embracing of computers was unusual. More common to find books and films and television series that warned of the threat posted by computers, and that we had better keep them on a tight leash.

Today, about the only touchstone for computer paranoia remaining in popular culture is Skynet, from The Terminator movies. It’s important even there to remember that the first Terminator movie was made in 1984. Email barely even existed them. (And the plot of The Terminator was largely lifted from some of Harlan Ellison’s old episodes from The Outer Limits in the 1960s.)

And it sometimes is worth thinking how far we’ve come, culturally, that there is almost nobody who does not use computers in some form. Sure, there are occasionally individuals who won’t set up a Facebook account, but many of them will own a smartphone with more computing power than entire universities used to have.

If Isaac Asimov were alive today, he would so have an iPhone.

Today, I’m scheduled to moderate a panel discussion at the PACE biomedical ethics conference titled, “Robotic Surgeons and other challenges with emerging technology in healthcare.” Interesting that robotic surgery is being posed as “challenges,” not “opportunities.”

What are we worried about today that will become pervasive tomorrow?

Asimov photo from here; film poster from here.


Anonymous said...

"Today, about the only touchstone for computer paranoia remaining in popular culture is Skynet, from The Terminator movies. "

Well, what about The Matrix? Or the new Battle Star Galactica? Or even the Tron sequel?

Zen Faulkes said...

Interesting. I may have been overly sensitized, because I’ve heard a few people mention Skynet repeatedly.

The Matrix: I’m not sure I sense a fear of computers from those films, myself. I think it’s certainly representing a different kind of fear, though.

Battlestar Galactica: To me, the Cylons were more metaphors about the fear of an enemy we couldn’t tell apart from the rest of us - that is, terrorists - than fear of the mechanical.

Tron: Legacy: Personally, didn’t get any fear of computers out of that one. But that may just represent that the storytelling in the film overall was rather weak, I thought.

But in any case, might we agree that “computers will take over” is not as prominent an idea in pop fiction as it once was?