This is the latest installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.
When you’re looking for representations of technology in literature, it often turns out that Jules Verne got there first. He imagined machines decades before they were made real: submarines, rockets, and “cars” (these were robotic elephants with velvet-lined passenger salons, but still) that powered his characters’ adventurous voyages. Verne gets amazingly right the way people will come to use these technologies, how they will work, and what they will look like. His work is often cited as inspiration by the scientists and engineers who later realize his dreams.
Robert Goddard built the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, a natural outcome of a childhood spent reading Jules Verne’s tales. A sickly child, he had plenty of time to read, consider, and make notes in margins. Wernher von Braun, the German-born scientist who became critical to the success of the American space program, hoped the rockets he designed would enable space exploration as described by Verne and H. G. Wells, and lamented that his V-2 was used by the Nazis for destruction rather than discovery. He may have been rather too glib when he said: “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.”1 When von Braun’s Saturn rockets powered the US Mercury and Apollo programs, he gave credit to Verne’s self-fulfilling prophesies: “The science in [1865’s] From the Earth to the Moon is nearly as accurate as the knowledge of the time permitted … [H]e was read with great respect by working scientists, so carefully did he do his scientific homework.” According to von Braun’s accounting, “the debt modern astronauts owe [Verne] is apparent.”2
Verne did his homework, but he knew that that alone was not enough to sell his improbable vision. So he allowed one of his characters to voice the skepticism a contemporary reader might have felt regarding a rocket (or what may more precisely be called a space gun) powerful enough to transport humans to the moon. This character, Captain Nicholl, is not particularly likeable, and Verne’s more heroic characters answer all his challenges. A reader who may have initially had doubts will soon grow weary of Nicholl’s unimaginative reluctance, his pedantic insistence that the project “ought not to endanger the safety of all for the pleasure of one individual.”3 Let’s light this candle, already!
Verne’s work inspired scientists and engineers to realize dreams that once seemed impossible, to find ingenious solutions to technical challenges. He helped us envision our own future and then construct it. To read those early predictions is to have one’s sense of wonder and awe restored, to let the intervening decades of familiarity, complacency, and weaponization fall away as you reenter the dream of the possible. It can make you—as the otherwise unmemorable 2015 film Tomorrowland suggested—nostalgic for the way we once imagined the future.4 Verne’s what ifs were ennobling, with virtuous goals. In some ways they permit us to believe the V-2 was anomalous, an incorrect application of the dream.
Some literary prophesies, though, warn us of exactly those sorts of unintended consequences. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and DeLillo’s White Noise remind us to be mindful of the risks of hubris, of byproducts spilling into water, or Airborne Toxic Events. Anthony Doerr’s story “Village 113” eulogizes what was lost when the Three Gorges Dam was completed: “Memory … is a village slated to be inundated.”5 Jim Shepard’s water protection engineer in “The Netherlands Lives with Water” proclaims the value of the Dutch attitude of collective risk, a value that has become clearer to American readers since Katrina and Sandy. Shepard writes: “We had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other: either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away as individuals.”6 The China Syndrome and Jurassic Park are calls for caution; both nuclear power and cloning are inextricably linked with these artistic portrayals of their risks. Art is placing a steadying hand on the wheel of a vehicle tech wants eagerly to pilot into parts unknown. It’s an odd sensation to read these relatively recent warnings of a future we’re already living: they are prophesies written in future perfect tense, a dream that “will have come true” by the time you’ve read about it.
Take, for example, the novels of Jennifer Egan, whose “eerie prescience” is remarkable: she has anticipated social networks, expensive “tech detox” retreats, and our new forms of quasi-verbal communication.7 In her 2001 novel Look at Me, Egan shows us that her damaged, former-model heroine Charlotte’s vanity makes her susceptible to the enticement of technology to share her “true self” with a 24-hour audience. I think Egan wants us to be horrified at the prospect of this, to cringe when a tech guru derides TV and books as “not real enough.” Yet after more than a decade of reality TV and Facebook, Egan is being read by active participants in just the sort of oversharing, privacy-conceding technologies she was warning us about.
“I’m optioning the rights to people’s stories, just ordinary Americans,” says the “boyish person” recruiting Charlotte. Egan nails that peculiar dot-com costume of casualness—ironic T-shirts and hoodies—that can mask ruthlessness: “an Armani jacket and cuffed white Converse basketball shoes, holding aloft a briefcase that appeared to be covered in crocodile.” Juxtaposing slick and hipster, with his briefcase announcing he’s a predator among predators, this dude is not a hero. Egan underlines the point: “He was one of those rare individuals whose shadow self—a fat, anxious boy who wanted desperately to be powerful—was more pronounced than his surface.” He “shimmies his way” into pitching his “service”: “Each one of these folks will have their own home page—we call it a PersonalSpaceTM—devoted exclusively to their lives, internal and external.” He presents this as a method for increasing empathy and connection, cutting across race and class: “Does a coal miner dream about coal? I’d like to know that!”8
It’s an odd sensation to read these relatively recent warnings of a future we’re already living: they are prophesies written in future perfect tense, a dream that “will have come true” by the time you’ve read about it.
Charlotte is skeptical. She’s seen the pitchman’s “shadow self.” She’s our hero, not Verne’s tiresome naysayer, Captain Nicholls. We are meant to be dubious, to see and appreciate the downsides, to feel our stomachs clench when Charlotte signs on. And in 2001, perhaps readers did. But now, they may well grow impatient with Charlotte as she wrestles with the decision to join the sharing service. Grow up, modern readers may murmur: even my mother’s on Facebook. We have grown comfortable with broadcasting our lives, and with the gap between our performative social media identities and our true selves. We have acquiesced to a loss of privacy, accepted it as the cost of participating in the global marketplace of ideas, books, and cat videos. Scores of us have performed our lives for the cameras of reality television. It is unlikely that most audiences feel increased empathy, however, for the players: we watch to judge, to sneer, to feel superior. We are living Egan’s worst-case scenario: we have constructed her imagined future.
But, somehow, we feel recognition without responsibility. We have not been made to feel fully complicit in this, nor empowered to change it. The prophecy feels inevitable.
Dave Eggers’ allegorical The Circle (2013) and the subtler A Hologram for the King (2012) similarly sound alarms that have gone unheeded. The New York Review of Books wisely asked Margaret Atwood to review The Circle.9 Atwood’s prophetic books intend to politicize and empower us to change the course we’re on once we can see (thanks to Atwood) where it may lead. Our sense of recognition when the women of A Handmaid’s Tale are veiled, objectified, victimized, and silenced is unsettling. Her republic of Gilead is a “misogynist, racist theocracy that has risen to power on an apocalyptic backlash against liberation movements in the late 20th century.”10 It’s certainly debatable, in the current American political climate, whether we have learned the novel’s lessons.
Eggers gives us the future-perfect prophecy of The Circle, a Google/Facebookian corporation with a sprawling, utopian “campus” and the goal of global interconnection and transparency. The company history starts with a well-intentioned “TruYou” profile that eliminates online anonymity. This is the perfect target: a technology designed to improve our lives by getting rid of faceless trolls and bullies, and the threat of identity theft, snowballs into “unintended consequences.” Eggers gets just right the online urge to “take attendance,” counting likes, retweets, and “Zings,” the importance of presenting oneself in ways that are both cool and tasteful and apparently “authentic.” In her review, Atwood lauds his verisimilitude even at the level of brand names: “Better than reality, some of these, and all too plausible.”
Maybe these authors haven’t made their readers suffer enough to compel us to grab the wheel and steer hard for a new path. Eggers’s Mae, for example, is a selfish cipher eager to participate in her own corruption. From the novel’s beginning, she’s jealous of her friend Annie, who gets her the dream job at The Circle; insulting to her ex, who simply wants to build antler art and doesn’t want a “platform”; tone-deaf with her parents; and disbelieving of those who don’t appreciate the opportunities and gifts provided by The Circle. Having never known her as particularly heroic, it’s hard to be chilled by her descent into the toxic “unintended consequences” of nonstop online interaction and performance. Her Circle coworkers sneer at civilians for being “illogical” and “irrational”: “Some people freak out about chips in our heads,” judging them for their lack of sophistication, rather than feeling responsible for improving their understanding. Because the novel’s characters are not multidimensional humans but caricatured types that advance Eggers’s message, it’s impossible to weep when these chess pieces fall.
Alan, the hero of Eggers’s A Hologram for the King, is adrift in the desert, waiting to make a presentation about a new technology that he does not understand, steeping in nostalgia for his own past. Both The Circle and Hologram are set to become movies this year, both featuring the charismatic Tom Hanks. With Hanks and the much-loved Emma Watson (as Mae) involved, the stakes of these stories may seem higher, the characters more sympathetic and well-rounded. Hanks is a Vernian techno-optimist who also produced the documentary series From the Earth to the Moon. Speaking at my college this spring, he shared his enduring awe for the scientists and engineers who were “solving the unsolvable.”
Hologram’s Alan is also nostalgic for his prior job at Schwinn, an American bicycle manufacturer—this is just about the most potent symbol Eggers could use to invoke patriotic engineering heroism, those times when we were tinkerers and manufacturers, when “humble bicycle mechanics” could overcome steep odds and build a flying machine, before outsourcing and digitalization.
Has tech become too abstract? And have we allowed this to happen, as we have become comfortable confiding in Siri without considering whether she’s taking notes? If so, the disaffected shrug with which we now read these prophetic stories should be reason enough to drive a generation to crack open their laptops and learn to code, not to mention join me in the shop.
I applaud Eggers and Egan for the way their novels make humans accountable; often, in the “worst-case freakout” stories artists tell about new tech, it’s the machinery that has agency.11 Think of Blake’s “Satanic mills”; Hawthorne’s “harsh shriek” of a locomotive; Twain’s “monstrous,” teeth-gnashing steamboat; or the eerily calm Hal in 2001. I appreciate that these two modern novelists blame or credit people, not technology, for all of the what-ifs. That’s especially important as machines inch closer to passing the Turing test, evincing a kind of intelligence that is rightfully disquieting.
“A tool always implies at least one small story,” historian David Nye wrote in Technology Matters (2006): an act of imagination that led to technological development or refinement. But, as Jon Turney has written, “The stories we tell ourselves about technology—typically, optimistic ones from would-be innovators, pessimistic ones from their critics—are usually too simple.” Imagining the tool, or technology, should certainly include all the what-ifs, and also “extends to what the tools will help us to achieve.”12 Really, art and tech ought to be co-pilots on our voyage forward, collaborating and exchanging ideas: co-designing our shared future.
- Michael J. Neufeld, Wernher von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (Vintage, 2008), p. 184 ↩
- Quoted in Ron Miller, Spaceships: An Illustrated History of the Real and Imagined (Smithsonian Books, 2016). ↩
- Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon (1865), in Works of Jules Verne, edited by Charles F. Horne (F. Tyler Daniels Company, 1911), p. 174. ↩
- To indulge this retro-future nostalgia further, check out Joseph Corn and Brian Horrigan’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); and please read posthaste Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2002). ↩
- Anthony Doerr, Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010), p. 131. ↩
- Jim Shepard, You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011). ↩
- Elisabeth Donnelly, “The Eerie Prescience of Jennifer Egan’s Fiction,” Flavorwire, September 5, 2014.
- Jennifer Egan, Look at Me (Nan A. Talese, 2001). ↩
- Margaret Atwood, “When Privacy Is Theft,” New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013.
- Janet Larson, “Margaret Atwood and the Future of Prophecy,” Religion & Literature, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1989), pp. 27–61. ↩
- Jenn Stroud Rossman, “Too Bad About the Trees,” Public Books blog, June 2, 2016.
- Jon Turney, “How to Design the Future,” Aeon, March 19, 2015.