“Man’s attitude to computers is a very positive one.”

Although many people will look back on the West through the images of O’Sullivan and others and see a less spoiled time, a time when you could get away from civilization in a meaningful way, the King Survey, of which O’Sullivan was the photographer, was but the leading edge of the organized efforts of government and industry to spread westward. You can imagine environmentalists gazing longingly at an O’Sullivan print, dreaming of that lost time and place, all the while beholding one of the very instruments of its demise.

In my TOIP I can’t  help but see parallels with another book I’m reading (this for pleasure), George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral. I bought the book, which is subtitled “The Origins of the Digital Universe” thinking it would be centered upon Alan Turing. I had read a biography of Turing in the mid-1990s–an excellent book, The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. I thought maybe it would be fun to revisit that story from a different angle.

What I found instead what something altogether different. Dyson presents a jumbled hodgepodge of stories and vignettes of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and the ENIAC computer. Von Neumann plays the central role in many of the stories, even when offstage, while Turing’s presence is more felt than related. The book is a valuable one no doubt in the telling of the history of computing but it can be an odd sort of read at times. Dyson takes care to tell you office numbers and the position of that office within the Institute’s building of each of the main characters. He tells of their salaries and stipends.

But the book can be fascinating at times. My favorite image from the book–a literal image, in the photo section–is of a cathode ray tube with a grid pattern of white dots upon it, 32×32 dots in size. The shock comes when you realize that this is not a display of data held somewhere else in the computer but the actual storage of the data itself. You can literally see the data, in digital form.

Dyson’s basic theme of the book, which he inserts now and again, is that the origins of the digital universe–which we find ourselves entering now–began with this effort in early computing. He sees the new age that is beginning as one where the computer–now writ large to encompass the entire interconnected, digital ecosystem–begins its domination of man. In other words, his subtitle may refer on one level to what went on at Princeton during and after Word War Two but also to the point in time we now find ourselves in.

He makes all this explicit, at last, in the penultimate chapter and does so by drawing an extended analogy with a children’s story written by Hans Alfvén, a Swedish astrophysicist. As you might expect, the computers take over in the end, finding little use for the humans.  We’re not at that part of the story yet, in real life. We’re still in the early chapters.

Alfvén’s tale is now forgotten, but the future he envisioned has arrived. Data centers and server farms are proliferating in rural areas; “Android” phones with Bluetooth headsets are only one step away from neural implants; unemployment is pandemic among those not working on behalf of the machines. Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want, and Google defines what we think.

In the next paragraph he continues:

The ability of computers to predict (and influence) how people will vote, with as much precision as the actual vote can be counted, has rendered politicians subservient to computers, much as Alfvén prescribed. Computers have no need for weapons to enforce their power, since, as Alfvén explained, they “control all production, and this would automatically stop in the event of an attempted revolt. The same is true of communications, so that if anyone should attempt anything so foolish as a revolt against the data machines, it could only be local in character. Lastly, man’s attitude to computers is a very positive one.” Recent developments have outpaced what even Alfvén could imagine–from the explosive growth of optical data networks (anticipated in the nineteenth century by optical telegraph networks in Sweden) to the dominance of virtual machines.

Heady stuff! Makes me think of Dyson as a sort of digital Neil Postman.

Readers might be better served worrying about how the interconnectedness of it all might relate to their personal freedoms in regard to their fellow man–an old fashioned worry. As Google, for example, sucks up personal data (did you read that privacy policy, no?), at it is repeatedly caught downloading data from people’s hard drives as their mapping car drives about, and as it reverse-engineers the Google search engine to bypass privacy settings on user’s browsers, people will slowly awaken to the fact that the constitutional protections that they have so long enjoyed, and which have shaped and allowed their personal freedoms, don’t really apply to corporations. It isn’t the rise of a digital New Master Race we are waiting for but the result of the cold war between government and corporate control versus people’s new ability to organize using that same technology.

But you wonder what the scientists and mathematicians were thinking back in those card-punch programming days. Did they support the development of atomic weapons or feel that if the Germans (or Russians) were researching it, too, then they had no choice? Did they accept the fact of the military research program as an unavoidable evil but one that would give rise to progress in weather forecasting, economic modeling and all the other fields that might benefit from such computing power? Or did they simply look away from the moral issues and kneel at the altar, conveniently placed, of science for science’s sake?

You can ask similar questions about Google and also about the members of the King Survey.

Did they ask themselves questions about whether what they were doing was the right thing to do? And if they did did they come to the conclusion, no doubt correct, that if they didn’t someone else surely would?

For Christmas my brother gave me Michael Light’s 100 Suns, a picture book of nuclear fireballs from the many atmospheric tests that correspond to the work described by Dyson on the ENIAC. The back cover reproduces one of the images in the book of STOKES, detonated at 1500 feet, held aloft by ballon. In the foreground crouch a few of the 499 soldiers who witnessed the explosion, about the same size as that at Nagasaki. Some face away from the blast, covering their faces with their arms or hands while others face forward, heavy googles in place, seemingly transfixed by the blinding light.