The End of Man?

The End of Man? by Olof Johannesson (Hannes Alfvén)The End of Man front
Award Books, 1969
Price I paid: 90¢

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!

Wow, guys. Wow. I’m still not sure what I just read but what I do know is that whatever it was, it was not in any way related to what the back of the book said it was. I’m serious. They described an entirely different book that happens to be broadly connected in some extremely vague way to this one, such as the fact that they are both written verbally with a symbolic system that can be mentally compared to a spoken one, thus being understood by the language center of the brain. That is the connection.

First off, though, that cover. For reasons I cannot fathom I absolutely love that cover. I have no idea what it’s supposed to represent or anything, because it’s not at all related to the book either. I particularly like Mr. Green & Pink lounging under a green witch’s hat.

What this book turned out to be is a sort of history report written by an unknown author at some unknown point in the future, detailing the development of computers, their integration into human life, and their ultimate superiority over man. There’s no great rebellion or any of that stuff.

I had to look this book up, folks. What I discovered was actually pretty fascinating.

Olof Johannesson was a pen name used by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hannes Alfvén. Alfvén was a pretty interesting figure in the world of astrophysics, talking about plasma and electrodynamics and stuff like that. He was also a fairly controversial figure, railing against the peer review process and being opposed to the theory of the Big Bang. He was often relegated to obscure journals since his ideas would challenge the accepted ideas of physics at the time. He tended to get pretty mad about that.

Wikipedia also tells me that he had a “long-standing distrust of computers” but there’s no citation for that, so I can’t be sure, beyond what I’ve read of this book. The book was written as a satire, not just of man’s future dependence on the computer but also of man’s inefficiency and inability to govern himself.

The book is at times spot-on cynical toward humanity and distressingly prophetic toward technology. I’ll see if I can summarize.

It starts off talking about the evolution of life on Earth, from single-celled organisms on through humanity. The tone of this section is odd: it frequently discusses the evolution of life in terms of the forthcoming development of computers. For example, the development of nerves and sense organs are described as precursors to computer circuits. I had trouble deciding whether the narrator was a human or a computer, and I suppose that’s intentional.

The development of the computer is described in even weirder terms. Once the first computer is made (in a converted stable), it became possible to measure time in microseconds, and thus all dates are reckoned from that. The book makes a quick point of saying that a tiny error crept in early on, so later it became necessary to point out that this first computer was created six microseconds earlier than previously thought. Time is reckoned as Before Computer (B.C.) and After Data (A.D.). There wasn’t any indication that the computers had any kind of religion or whatever, so this obvious parallel to the first computer being Computer Jesus was just strange. That kind of play on Christianity doesn’t come up again, either.

Once computers get going is when things get interesting. Computers are gradually integrated into everyday life, first as calculators, freeing man from the onerous task of doing math, and then working their way up into making all the important decisions from him. People are eventually tasked with two jobs: maintaining the computers and programming them. Teachers, politicians, businessfolk, and scientists are all replaced by computers, as well as most other jobs.

What I particularly liked is the glowing way this kind of replacement was described. First off, we are introduced to the idea of the teletotal, which is a means by which a person can link to another computer and have a “face-to-face” conversation. This gradually replaced most human contact. Politicians no longer needed to meet in congressional halls or parliaments, they could just teletotal themselves to the meeting. Likewise business meetings and schools. Stores were no longer necessary because you could just use your teletotal to look at an item and have it sent to your home.

How absurd!

Eventually it was decided that teaching machines themselves were pretty much unnecessary, since why would a person actually need to know things? There’s no reason to cram information into the head of a person who could just look it up on their teletotal whenever they needed to know it.

Eventually the teletotal evolved into the minitotal, a small computer worn on the wrist like a watch. With this you could instantly contact anyone you needed to, call up information on the fly, and figure out where you were and how to get where you were going.

Such madness!

Minitotals were even connected at all times to radio transmitters, and using the radio signals you could pinpoint exactly where a person was at any given time, so if a crime was committed you could instantly see who was there at the time and either arrest them or bring them in for questioning. It eventually became mandatory to have a minitotal for exactly that reason.

My favorite bit, though, and what I considered the most hilariously satirical, was how computers eventually replaced human government. The book states again and again that the human brain is just not capable of handling the data necessary to run things smoothly because of incompetence and greed. So they made computers make the decisions, but gave people the illusion of making the decisions. “True democracy” developed because, thanks to the teletotal, anyone and everyone could vote on matters from the comfort of their own home. Anyone could connect to anyone else and give them their opinions on governmental matters, and so lively debate could continue. The computers, in their infinite wisdom, were able to determine which measures should pass and which shouldn’t, because they were so damn smart. To preserve the illusion of democracy, though, each person would have measures presented to them in a numbered list, with item one being the best one. They could vote for any of the other measures, but why would they? People eventually made computer programs to just automatically vote for option one so they wouldn’t have to be bothered with the process.

What made me laugh is the way the book said that this in no way curtailed freedom. People were, of course, able to vote for any option they chose, and even to share their opinions with others. Most people chose not to. This was compared to our modern system where most people would just automatically vote along party lines anyway. It wasn’t that the computer government prevented people from thinking, it just sped up the not-thinking system already in place.

Where the back of the book spends most of its time talking about The Great Disaster, where the computers stopped working, the book spends maybe ten pages of its 120 or so. No one knows what caused the Disaster, but several (very cynical) options are presented. Mostly the blame is placed on the humans. What did happen, though, is that the whole system broke down. Computers were denied electricity and thus everything went to crap. Since everything in the humans’ lives were controlled by computer, they couldn’t fend for themselves at all at first. People froze because their computer-controlled heating systems failed. People starved because the computer food factories shut down. No one knew anything about anything because they’d always been able to just look it up on the computer if they needed to know it, which they probably didn’t because the computer would do whatever they needed it to do anyway. Things were grim for mankind.

Eventually people were able to recover, thanks in part to the unconquerable human spirit. Really they were just pretty decent at looking around themselves and seeing all the old technology sitting around and reverse-engineering it. They got computers going again in a short while.

What was once described as a symbiosis between man and computer eventually just became a computer society. Computers learned to build and program other computers, and eventually supercomputers. These computers were pretty satisfied with their lot in life, just doing everything and keeping the few remaining humans in perpetual comfort, and the book ends by saying that the future will be super awesome because of it.

I think saying that the book is a satire about computers is being a bit simplistic about the matter.

What places this book as a pretty decent work of science fiction is that, ultimately, it’s about people. Yeah, the book is about computers and is possibly narrated by a computer, but Alfvén seems to posit that all the problems that arise will be because of human ignorance. I think that’s pretty spot on.

But there’s also the fact that this is meant to be satire, so I wonder if that’s what he really felt. Maybe computers are the problem after all.

I’d say it’s most likely a combination of the two. The ultimate problem with computers, to Alfvén, seems to be that they give humans the time and energy to just be human, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. We’ve all heard about people railing against our over-reliance on computers, and I think The End of Man? (what a misleading title) is arguing that the problem isn’t with computers, it’s with the way people use computers to do what people are already doing, just faster and with less effort. Humanity’s greatest resource is creativity and cleverness, and the book makes it pretty clear that those things aren’t replicated into computer programming, so the real problem is that we don’t put our own strengths to use while at the same time we use the computers to shore up our weaknesses.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this.

The book was pretty fascinating, though, and eerily prophetic when it came to things like telecommuting, Internet shopping, and smartphones. Where I think the book did best is in the fact that it wasn’t a story with any characters or conflict. It really broke from that mold and yet managed to tell a story on a global scale that actually made sense. Really, the book was a sort of scientific paper, which you’d expect from a physicist, I guess.

The book failed in a lot of ways, though. It was pretty dry and it would bring in some elements that I guess were supposed to be satirical but didn’t really work. What was the deal with Computer Jesus, for example? That didn’t fit at all. I feel like maybe Alfvén was just being clever.

On the whole, though, I feel like this is a kind of book I’d like to see more of. I think in some ways we’re tied too closely to the traditional novel format, with characters and conflicts and plots and all that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not deriding that kind of thing, but this book was pretty refreshing. I think it’s the fact that I do like reading history and getting the big picture, and The End of Man? was a nice sort of future history big picture kind of book. It lacked the human element, of course, but I feel like that was intentional and worked to its advantage.

I’m not gonna say this was a good book, but it was definitely interesting. And short. Thank Computer Jesus it was short. Any longer and this review might have been a lot angrier.

One thought on “The End of Man?

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