Quote of the Fortnight: Michael Crichton’s “Electronic Life”

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As part of my seemingly never-ending quest to read every book Michael Crichton has ever written (just 3 to go!), I reserved Crichton’s Electronic Life: How to Think about Computers from the university library, which had to retrieve this book from storage. It’s not surprising, considering that the last time this book was checked out was in 1995.

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Crichton may have been in the news more recently lately due to the tremendous financial success of Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Jurassic Park franchise based on his eponymous novel. Crichton died in 2008, but his legacy is certainly living on.

Electronic Life is Crichton’s “how-to” computer book, published in 1983 to instruct the layman in how to approach the Apple II or IBM PC of the day. Like many of his novels, Crichton’s book is a thought-provoking, if not dated, lecture on the basics of programming, and dare I say it, BASIC. It’s organized as a dictionary of terms that are expounded upon, A-Z, in short anecdotes. Even though it’s alphabetical, Crichton makes the flow quite natural – “A” starts out with “Afraid of Computers,” the section elaborating, “Everyone is.” The “Z” is similarly integrated, closing out the book with the provocative title – “Zenith: The Final Days of Man Before the Machines Take Over?”

Crichton’s book offers what seems like would have been really helpful advice in 1983 – like explaining what is a floppy disk, RAM, computer anatomy, etc. — and he explains it with quirky metaphors about “Computer Calvinists,” would-be conformists to the computer status quo set by the computer companies, and so on. While much of what he explains is quite obsolete today –though most of us are, indeed, Computer Calvinists, if we consider our dependence to Windows, Android and OS X — he touches on some far-reaching and cutting edge stuff about speculation on artificial intelligence and computer art, no doubt topics that he played around with in his novels, such as the “Jurassic Park fractals” and the nanobots going haywire in Prey. Crichton even offers some practice code for the computer novice to play around with–though, unless anyone still has an Apple II, it’s probably no longer helpful.

Some of the best moments come in Crichton’s personal anecdotes, little tidbits that were not fleshed out in his amazing book of memoirs, Travels, or in his medical history Five Patients. One such anecdote in this volume was titled: “Microprocessors, or How I Flunked Biostatistics at Harvard.”

Crichton’s sense of technological developments and social awareness for their implications is expounded on a section called “Social Change,” which I have excerpted for this week’s Quote of the Fortnight. Enjoy!

Social Change

At this stage in the twentieth century, we can be excused a certain amount of cynicism–and a certain amount of fear–about the impact of still another new technology, computers, on our lives.

Certainly computers are here to stay; certainly more and more of us will be looking at screens as we work. But what will result from this is unclear. There seem to be competing views for every aspect of this development. For example:

More people will work at home, so home life will become more important. That seems good. But keeping everyone at home will make it difficult to get any time alone. That seems bad. But women raising children can work at home conveniently. That seems good. But they’ll be staring at their screens. That seems bad.

In education computers are compelling, so kids learn quickly on them. That seems good. But the computers are so compelling they’re addicting. That seems bad. 

Computers can handle a lot of data quickly. That seems good. But that fluid data is vulnerable to theft or destruction. That seems bad. A computerized society will be swift and efficient. That seems good. But we will be dependent on the machines. That seems bad.

Computers are becoming more humanlike in their responses. That seems good. But as they become more humanlike in their responses, they may become just as much of a pain in the neck as people. That seems bad. 

Computers will put people out of work. That seems bad. But computers will assist in the retraining process. That seems good. And so it goes.

What is one to make of these conflicting views? My own feeling is that all views are right. The computer revolution is affecting every aspect of society and will produce a mixture of good and bad effects.

Such a conclusion may feel like cheating. It certainly feels unsatisfactory. We’d all prefer a clean simple line into the future, straight as time’s arrow. The fact that the clean lines drawn by past generations proved wrong does not seem to diminish our own desire for clean lines. But history suggests that how we shape our lives to a new technology is complex, and ultimately unpredictable. It is easier to anticipate the arrival of a new technology than it is to predict what will happen to the societies that use it.

Or, put another way, what happens is in our hands–individually. Yours and mine and our neighbors’.  “Electronic Life,” pages 123-124

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Though it’s out of print, Electronic Life is worth digging up. Crichton’s innate sense of the way things were headed reminds us that his insight is still sorely missed. On the plus side, given Jurassic World‘s success, we probably have a lot more Jurassic Park sequels headed our way.

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