The Moral of the Story: The Feeling of Power

The second of Asimov’s Nine Tomorrows, The Feeling of Power, is much shorter than the first one, and also much funnier. It starts in a future where “computing without a computer is a contradiction in terms”, as one character says: technology has developed and “taken over” to the stage where humans don’t do any calculations of their own.

When I realised that this was the premise of the story, I inwardly groaned. It’s seemed to be another version of the boring old conservative lament that arises with any new technology – I mean, I have even heard that the ancient Greeks complained when writing was invented/popularized, as they believed that it would mean that people’s memory would go out the window. Maybe to some extent they were right, but I just can’t bring myself to be pessimistic about it.

Anyway, I thought this story of Asimov’s would just be a “oh look how stupid humans are going to become when computers do everything for them!” – it was written in 1957, remember. But then, two unexpected things happened. One is that the story got hilarious. It turns out that one of the lowlier technicians has been discovered to have a new hobby – and that hobby is to do maths in his head! This is a ground-breaking development, and officials high up in the government and army are getting quite excited about it. They call the invention “graphitics”, and talk about the endless possibilities: “ we will combine the mechanics of computation with human thought; we will have the equivalent of intelligent computers; billions of them. I can’t predict what the consequences will be, but they will be incalculable.” Boom tisch. It gets pretty ridiculous, but I don’t want to spoil it for you – just go read it for yourself.

The second unexpected thing is darker. The General in charge begins to talk about the military implications of graphitics, and it turns out that in this future world, the best thing about “human calculators” is that this enables the development of manned missiles. In other words, “a man is much more dispensable than a computer”, so if humans can do the calculations then they will be steering the bombs instead (like kamikaze pilots, I suppose). The technician who triggered this development with his “hobby” feels pretty bad about this idea, and thus, the whole thing ends in a suicide note:

When Project Number began, I thought that others were wiser than I; that graphitics might be put to a practical use as a benefit to mankind, to aid in the production of really practical mass-transference devices perhaps. But now I see it is to be used only for death and destruction. I cannot face the responsibility involved in having invented graphitics.

The technician then turns “the focus of a protein-depolarizer on himself and [falls] instantly and painlessly dead.” [an aside – nice of Asimov to invent painless death, don’t you think?]

It is rather sobering to be reminded of the responsibilities inherent in (?) doing basic research. I don’t necessarily think it’s quite as bad for social scientists as for those at the forefront of new technological developments… but then again, maybe it is? We’re dealing with decision making and moral actions, after all.

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