Reuben Blaff
Reuben brings both left- and right-brain into his writings. Prior to pursuing an MA in astrophysics, he spent two years in English and creative writing. Reuben has also written a novel that didn't get published, a screenplay that never got made and is now hoping to find success in short-form writing.
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Man And Machine: A Tragic Love Story

Isaac Asimov, technology, French toys, and building blocks

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In many ways, the evolution of our species has been characterized by our technological innovations. Learning to control fire, inventing the wheel, discovering agriculture—each of these advances serves as a sort of mile marker along our road of development. In the last fifty years or so in particular, the technological landscape of the world has changed drastically with the advent of computers that can perform innumerable calculations in the blink of an eye and are constantly being improved and made smaller and smaller. All of these revolutionary advancements stand as a testament to the great power of the human mind. Not only have we been able to harness Earth’s resources to make our lives easier, but we’ve also achieved things long thought to be impossible—flying, moving at high speeds, producing artificial light…the list goes on and on.

Now, while technological advancement might seem like a great accomplishment to many, it also has the potential to be dangerous, especially if the development of our modern machines continues along its current trajectory and we become too dependent upon them. A perfect example of such a scenario can be found in famed American sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s 1958 short story “The Feeling of Power,” which is all about how over-reliance on technology can lead us to forget how powerful and valuable we truly are.

Relearning Arithmetic

The story is set on “long-battled earth,” ruled by the Terrestrial Federation who are at war with the people of the star Deneb. Although the year is not explicitly stated, it is implied through the technology used that “The Feeling of Power” takes place sometime in the future. In the story, the humans of Earth have become heavily reliant on computers, using them for everything from controlling the ships and weapons they use to fight their war against Deneb to computing simple math calculations—the latter of which they no longer know how to do without the aid of a machine.

That is until one day when a “low-grade” Technician named Myron Aub rediscovers how to perform arithmetical computations the old fashion way—pen and paper. When Programmer-first-class Jehan Shuman finds out about the discovery, he gets Aub to demonstrate his newfound skills to Congressman Brant and General Weider, both high-ranking members of the Terrestrial Federation. The Congressman then goes to see the President of the Terrestrial Federation about further developing the military capabilities of human computation—which comes to be known as “graphitics”—through a program termed Project Number. This project ends up being headed by General Weider and heavily endorsed by Programmer Shuman.

The scene where Congressman Brant meets with the President to discuss Project Number is one that really stands out. The President is skeptical about “computing without a computer” at first, and even asks Brant, “[W]hat is the use of it?” To that, Brant replies that there is no use at the moment, but then he says to the President, “[D]on’t you see that this points the way toward liberation from the machine?” This moment illustrates just how reliant on computers the humans in “The Feeling of Power” have become. Not only does the President fail to see the importance of “graphitics” but everybody has forgotten—and are blown away by the fact—that a person can perform simple calculations using only their own mind.

The Expendables

The moment also reveals that, despite using machines for almost everything, some of the humans of Earth don’t like being dependent on technology and wish to be “liberated” from their reliance. Programmer Shuman echoes this idea in his meeting with Computer Loesser later on in the story when he says, “Why not, then…do away with computers altogether?” So does General Weider when he’s speaking with the members of Project Number about its purpose: “Our goal is a simple one, gentlemen—the replacement of the computer.” But Shuman and Weider’s idea of what it means to be freed from machines has taken on a whole new meaning as a result of having grown overly dependent on computers.

This meaning is revealed in the scene with General Weider and the members of Project Number. After telling them that their goal is to replace all the computers in warships with human beings, he says, “And I see something even beyond this…in the future I see the manned missile.” He goes on to say that, “[A] man is much more dispensable than a computer,” showing just how little worth he, a human being, places in the lives and the abilities of other humans like himself. Like the meeting between Congressman Brant and the President, this moment also demonstrates just how overdependent the humans of Earth have become on machines—but in a much different way. Whereas the first moment illustrates how they’ve forgotten the power of their own brains, this one shows how they’ve become so reliant on machines that they’ve also forgotten the value of human life, and misconstrue the meaning of “liberation” from technology as using themselves instead of computers as sacrificial weapons.

A Tragic Love Story

In his 1970 novel Asimov Analyzed, American author Neil Goble writes about how “The Feeling of Power” is only one of many Isaac Asimov works that “deal with…the degeneration of man’s mental ability through overdependence on computers.” Along with numerous other novels and short stories of Asimov’s, “The Feeling of Power” is set within world where “machines have usurped man in performing various humanly roles”—that is to say roles that humans traditionally do themselves, such as “thinking, story-telling, electing presidents, and love-making.” According to Goble, Asimov doesn’t think that these so-called humanly roles are “any of their [computers’] business.” To support his claim, he includes an excerpt from Marjorie M. Miller’s master’s thesis on Isaac Asimov (written and published at the University of Maryland in 1969), where she writes about how Asimov “consistently values the individual man…above the machine” in his works, and how he believes that “future societies must learn to use and live with their machines without allowing them to become more important than man”—as they do in “The Feeling of Power”.

And therein lies the problem. For if humans cannot coexist with their computers without being completely overshadowed by them, then they can begin to view themselves as inferior to the machines, and surrender to them their power over thought, agency, and creativity. After all, why should a person waste their time doing something that a computer can do quicker, more precisely, and with minimal effort? It’s that mindset—that machines are superior to them—that leads the humans in “The Feeling of Power” to give away more and more of their power to computers, and the more power they relinquish, the more dependent they become, the more they forget that they have the capacity to be powerful. And soon, they find themselves trapped in the vicious cycle of self-devaluation and overreliance, unable to break free.

While he does raise an interesting point, Goble fails to offer any suggestion as to how the humans of Asimov’s Earth might go about learning to coexist with their computing counterparts in such a way that the latter doesn’t “become more important” than the former. Goble notes that Asimov is convinced this must be accomplished through “learning to use and live with…machines,” but he does not prescribe a specific remedy, or put forward a solution, or even give a place to start. He merely points out that there could be potential dangers with technology in time. The question remains then: how can man and machine live together in harmony?

Child’s Play

In his essay “Toys” from his book Mythologies, French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes writes about how the nature of French toys conditions children to be “users” as opposed to “creators” from a young age, and deprives them of the knowledge that they have the power to do and discover things for themselves. This is because these toys are so detailed and supplied to them “ready-made,” leaving little to their imagination. Barthes contrasts the limiting effects that these toys can have on children with the liberating properties of simple sets of blocks, which “appeal to the do-it-yourself” and produce the very “creators” that French toys do not.

The computers in “The Feeling of Power” are very similar to the French toys that Barthes writes about: they’re “prepared” for man; they’re not designed to promote creativity; and they rob humans of the knowledge that their power comes from within, not from some external source. And the humans in the story are like the children who use the toys, who must depend on machines to think and act and create for them—doomed to do so forevermore because they have forgotten that they can do all those things for themselves. Because they have allowed technology to become more valuable than them. Now if only the computers in “The Feeling of Power” were more like simple sets of blocks and allowed for humans to create with the power of their own minds. If they still had the same capabilities but required more input from the humans who used them. Then maybe the two could coexist without humans having to give up too much of their power, and in turn, become less important than their machines.

But what if you’re a child who has grown up playing with French toys? Or someone who has become over-reliant on computers? How do you realize the true potential of your restricted power and make the switch from user to creator once you have already been conditioned to think and act a certain way? Barthes fails to address this, though he does point the way toward the light with his assertions about simple sets of blocks, which are in many ways like “graphitics” in that both can be powerful tools in the hands of human beings, and at the same time, neither possesses the potential to take power from us. In fact, it’s through rediscovering “graphitics” that Aub also rediscovers the power of the human mind, the worth of a person, and the idea that we need not depend on computers for everything.

In an age where our reliance on machines is growing exponentially, and more and more of our jobs are being replaced with computers, Asimov’s cautionary—and shockingly prophetic—tale of a world where technology has gone berserk is extremely relevant. And his message that we must learn to live with our machines while never forgetting how truly powerful we are, is one that we should all pay special heed to.

Reuben Blaff
Reuben brings both left- and right-brain into his writings. Prior to pursuing an MA in astrophysics, he spent two years in English and creative writing. Reuben has also written a novel that didn't get published, a screenplay that never got made and is now hoping to find success in short-form writing.

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