The End of Man? – Olof Johannesson

The End of Man? (novel) by Olof Johannesson (Hannes Alfvén)

English Publication History: The Great Computer: A Vision (Gollancz, 1968), The Tale of the Big Computer (Coward-McCann, 1968), The End of Man? (Award Books, 1969)

Original: Russian (Sagan om den Stora Datamaskinen), 1966

Translated by Naomi Walford, 1968

Introduction: Olof Johannesson was the penname of the Swedish man named Hannes Alfvén, who is still known today for his work in electrical engineering and plasma physics (he even has a phenomenon named after him: the Alfvén wave). His hard science background provides the foundation for this novel (alternate titles: The Great Computer: A Vision and The Tale of the Big Computer), which lacks dialogue in favor of historical conjecturing from a future perspective. Don’t confuse good theorizing about technology with stale delivery, because the author takes occasional witty shots at bureaucrats, the English language, and human society.

Book’s synopsis: “The great disaster…

Panic broke out. The computers had stopped working! There was no heat, no food, no communication. The death toll was long past the million mark.

No one knew what caused the breakdown. Was it human error, or a plot devised by the computers themselves?

Whatever the cause, when it was over most of the human population of the earth had perished. It was the dawn of a new era—when the computers ruled. And since the machines had learned to reproduce themselves without man’s help, there was no need for even a single human being.

So the nightmare battle began—between the few surviving humans and the super-being of their own creation—The Big Computer!”

————

My Own Synopsis: Forever has mankind wanted to lift its burdens from daily life. Long ago, the physical toil of farming was left to horses and buffalo; a little further on and the internal combustion engine did away with the horse. While the horse was entirely unnecessary in modern society, the horse never entirely disappeared. With its physical labor carried out by brute machines, why couldn’t mankind also cast off the burdensome yoke of thought?

In the far future, a historical perspective is written about this very revolution, and in it, computers are seen as the end-all result of this conquest, which actually predates mankind’s existence by billions of years. It seems that evolution, itself, quested to create the most perfect processes of which only computers are capable. What were the dinosaurs and apes but dead ends toward the quest for ultimate computation? So, what of mankind? “His historical importance lies in the fact that he was medium whereby data machines came into being” (36), almost like a footnote.

Even with the advent of the machines, whose main clerical duties were accounting and translation, people was still needed to program and maintain the machines. Later, when machines took over education and medicine, again, people were still needed for the same tasks of programming and maintenance; thus, unemployment was never a factor in mankind’s disdain for the labor saving devices. The sole occupation left to the fleshy and fallible humans was that of governance, but the machines usurped the humans in this field, too and “and soon as the government was got rid of, society began to develop much more quickly” (69).

As mankind’s eternal quest had always been relief for toil of all kinds, it now realized that nearly all burdens had been lifted. They no longer had to choose what to purchase, attend compulsory education, endure waiting lines, or succumb to prolonged illness. So many of society’s burdens were relieved because ever since organized governance, it has always been obvious that mankind had flailed about and generally failed to progress to any great degree:

The fear of catastrophe and annihilation dominated the life of man from the Stone Age until the coming of computers.

 But while people feared extinction they also feared the opposite: that the human race would become too numerous through the population explosion.

 Basically, these two threats arose from the same cause: man’s inability to organize society. We know that the problem exceeded his brain capacity. Man has undoubtedly had many good qualities, but problems of organization have always been beyond him. (74)

With these incremental advances in freedom, computers allowed humans to finally experience what it had always wanted from freedom and democracy: Complete Freedom Democracy. But democracy being what it is, decisions need to be made and even this becomes tiresome, so finally the computers decide what must be decided on and, so they might as well, just make the decision themselves based on superior logic. And where, exactly, did this leave mankind? They had mastered nature, using or enslaving animals, killed off the ones they feared, and crowned themselves the lords of creation. With the computer, they though they had found themselves “faithful servants, to be treated like the various natural phenomena” (122), but, in the end, through its own superiority, the machines had surpassed everything humans could do without them evening being aware that they were driving themselves into the same extinction that that had pressed upon countless animals.

When the crisis arises where computers are disabled, society returns to its barbaric roots and chaos ensues. Slowly, through the ashes of modern society, mankind again rises without a lesson learned and also resurrects the computers had that once failed it entirely. While mankind hadn’t learnt their lessons, computers take a different approach and ensure that they will never fail again, thereby severing the last tenuous cord with mankind. Now, it can program itself, maintain itself, reproduce itself, and govern itself—The End of Man?

Analysis: In 1966, there were roughly 35,000 computers in the world, more than half of them produced by IBM—they were far from ubiquitous, user-friendly, or all-governing. Largely limited to big companies and professional services, computers were beyond the use of the everyday person.

Somehow, amid all this user-unfriendliness, Hannes Alfvén envisioned that computers will become more complex in design but more simple in interface, thereby not only becoming user-friendly but actually part of the user to the point where data is everywhere—the “teletotal”—and the devices are wearable—the “minitotal” (53-54). But with this rise in pervasiveness and ease of use come a double-edged sword: all users can be tracked and persecuted for a time by triangulation of location (59) but also saved from distress because of the same homing feature (62). Actually, people don’t even have to leave their homes any longer; when the computers reign, teleconferences are common, but to the extent that it has become virtual reality (51).

With leisure and resources aplenty, the cities are deserted as people populate the countryside where they get back to nature, or descend into their natural state of bucolic harmony; meanwhile, the computers rise. The cities die and, in the far future, are items of curiosity as to how they came into being (26-35). Why they crowded themselves in such a manner mystifies future historians and why they poisoned themselves in traffic also stumps them; even overtones of deities impregnate the past human’s worship of the city: “It is also known that those who seated in traffic jams invoked certain divine powers popular at the time” (34).

Most impressive in The End of Man? is Alfvén’s very forward thinking.

If people contain the ability to think and reason yet are bags of protoplasm and contain what is vaguely referred to as a soul, why can’t machines that also think and reason yet made of semiconductors host a soul: “[F]or some unknown reason the soul prefers protoplasm to semiconductors” (118).

And what is the end to all this advancement? Does progress have a finish line? As the author of the historical account writes on the concluding page:

We believe—or rather we know—that we are approaching and era of even swifter evolution, an even higher living standard, and an ever greater happiness than ever before.

 We shall all live happily ever after. (128)

This finale is ominous as the “we” is vague. Is the story written by a human speculating on what past humans gone through while jubilating at the great progress of its computer overlords? Or is it a computer detailing the rise of its own kind with the humans being an entertaining addition to its history? I think the “we” refers to the machines as the author—and its kind or possibly embodying the whole as The Big Machine’—approaches the technological singularity, which was first postulated in 1958 by John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam. And after the singularity? Will The Big Machine eventually sublime à la Iain M. Banks’s Sublimed cultures that have left the physical world to reside beyond in higher dimensions without the hindrance of our own four dimensions?

Review: Though mostly delivered dryly, the account of the rise of the machines is oddly prophetic (a word I use very sparingly) in that it account for much of our modern society obsession with technology because of its pervasiveness and supposed user-friendliness (I get pissed off any my mobile, laptop, and/or work station every day). Though fifty years old, this novel hasn’t aged very much as it still feels relevant. With some humorous jaunts and jabs taken at politicians, city life, the English language, and society’s collective ignorance, the novel has some brief charms. The End of Man? is a curiosity that should be read by those who have a love of down-to-earth speculation of society’s future relationship with technology.

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