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In 1914, in his novel The World Set Free, H.G. Wells wrote of a future featuring “atomic bombs,” in which “it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city.” That was thirty-one years before Trinity — before the detonation of the first atomic weapon in the sands of southern New Mexico.
Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrentheit 451, written in 1953, described ear-buds, those ubiquitous little earphones everyone wears today. He called them “seashells,” but we’d recognize them today — as we would the insular cocoon they created for the perpetually distracted wife of that novel’s protagonist.
Arthur C. Clarke predicted the geostationary orbit, that distance from the Earth, about 22,236 miles, at which a satellite will circle the planet precisely once each day, and so appear fixed in the sky above the same point on the Earth’s equator. He introduced this idea in 1945, more than a decade before the Russians shocked the world by placing the first artificial satellite, the short-lived Sputnik, in a far lower orbit. (In 1960, Clarke would feature the still-nonexistent geosynchronous communication satellite in his short story I Remember Babylon, which presaged, among other things, satellite television and broadband pornography.)
Science fiction writers predict the future. That’s their job. They get it wrong more often than right (a good thing, considering the prominent role of alien invasions and global catastrophes in the genre) but they do sometimes get it right, or get it wrong, but in ways that foreshadow our evolving reality.
H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke are acknowledged giants of science fiction. Not so Albert Teichner, a World War II veteran who most likely passed away in 1989, though biographical information is scarce. But the handful of stories Teichner wrote includes Cerebrum, a fanciful account of Facebook and Snapchat which he penned in 1963.
No, of course, it isn’t really about modern social media, nor even the internet. But it does imagine a future in which everyone is networked with everyone else, their instant messaging coordinated by a central switching authority called, prosaically enough, “Central Switching.” It’s a world in which people are constantly connected, are distracted from the world around them by their non-stop mental messaging, and, having instantaneous access to every fact, know less and less, and grow lazier with each passing year.
Most interestingly, it’s a world in which one can be cut off from the great switching center, isolated from the perpetual stream of information and communication, and, so disconnected, become a social outcast and pariah.
That, at least, is nonsense. After all, it’s unimaginable, isn’t it, that the powers behind the internet could ever flex their digital muscles to reward and punish the consumers of their virtual wares?
I mean, Google, for instance. They wouldn’t do something like that.