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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Fredric Brown's "Answer": A Short Story of the Internet (from 1964)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dinah Birch's Times Literary Supplement review of Brian Aldiss's latest Science Fiction Omnibus cites a "piercingly brief story" by Fredric Brown, called "Answer." It is brief. But if it is piercing, this is not wholly to do with its succinctness, but has much to do with its prescience. Written in 1964, there's something very disturbing, sublime and aweful, about this description of the internet, as it was then not known. The story is probably still in copyright, but - what the heck - I loved it so much, and it's so brief, that I invoke the interests of "fair use" (and wider dissemination) to reproduce it here:
Dwan Ev ceremoniously soldered the final connection with gold. The eyes of a dozen television cameras watched him and the subether bore throughout the universe a dozen pictures of what he was doing.
He straightened and nodded to Dwar Reyn, then moved to a position beside the switch that would complete the contact when he threw it. The switch that would connect, all at once, all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe -- ninety-six billion planets -- into the supercircuit that would connect them all into one supercalculator, one cybernetics machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies.
Dwar Reyn spoke briefly to the watching and listening trillions. Then after a moment's silence he said, "Now, Dwar Ev."
Dwar Ev threw the switch. There was a mighty hum, the surge of power from ninety-six billion planets. Lights flashed and quieted along the miles-long panel.
Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. "The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn."
"Thank you," said Dwar Reyn. "It shall be a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer."
He turned to face the machine. "Is there a God?"
The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of a single relay.
"Yes, now there is a God."
Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.
A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.
The large part of my current research involves looking for the ancestors of the concept of the cyborg, or posthuman (see N. Katharine Hayles or Donna Haraway). It's academic, dense, and theoretical - a quest for the roots of an idea that is ideologically very old, though the shiny technological manifestations of it are superficially, shinily novel (think The Terminator, The Matrix, the human genome project). But my circuitous (forgive the pun!) philosophy is brightened by anecdotal moments which connect past - an age before the internet - to present, in a way that reminds in an instant that the human imagination has long transcended the limits of its environment, without the need for virtual reality helmets or the hyperlink. Which leads me to one other prescient factoid I recently discovered: the idea of the hyperlink, the structuring of information by association of content rather than alphabetical order, is almost unanimously traced back to Vannevar Bush, with his Memory Extender. The date he first raised the idea: 1933 - before even Alan Turing, let alone Tim Berners-Lee.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:42 pm


Anonymous Anonymous said...

this was published in 1954 not 1964

12:25 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

"If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent Him."

7:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have this story in a book with short stories, published in 1982.

Someone should send this story to Elon Musk :)

6:54 pm  

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