[To read the first post in this series, go back to October and work your way up.]
After reading the above Acknowledgement page in Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, published in 1958, one wonders (or is it just me?) why writing a simple children's chapter book in the late 1950s would require a tour of the computer room at IBM, at the time the biggest and most influential computer corporation in the world. One wonders why the authors would feel the need to hire a Ph.D.-level manager at IBM to "painstakingly" read the manuscript in advance of publication. Painstakingly? To prevent a fatal error of fact in a fictional work for children? Why?
Today, nearly every school in America has technology-assisted classrooms, and nearly every student can turn to the internet for help with homework, but back in the fifties it truly was the stuff of science fiction. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its HAL-computer-run space station and supercool videophones, wouldn't hit the bookstores for another ten years. There has to be more to this than a couple of writers, whose Danny Dunn series up to that point included such scintillating titles as Danny Dunn on a Desert Island, deciding to get a little crazy at IBM.
But maybe not. Maybe I'm just getting unreasonably paranoid and cynical in my golden years. Maybe it was just a coincidence that a simple book for kids written in 1958 posed an ethical dilemma that wouldn't actually exist in the real world for another fifty years.
In the end it doesn't really matter. What matters is that everyone who cares about children and cares about the direction our society is racing like so many internet-addicted sheep to the edge of a not-far-off cliff takes note of the fact that the science fiction of today can unexpectedly become the reality of tomorrow, and that the limitless dreams of rich, brilliant men hungry for change, power, and control have set an agenda that will strip mankind of its very humanity, and no, I am not engaging in hyperbole for the sake of shock value. How many of you have ever heard of transhumanism, know who is behind it, and have any clue what its implementation means for the human race? I'll be willing to bet not many. I refuse to add to their internet presence by linking to the Wikipedia article on transhumanism, but you can look it up. Be prepared, though. It's not a short piece.
In the fifties, the best computers were mainframe computers. They were huge. The bigger, the better. IBM was the undisputed leader in that field until microcomputing became the thing in the late 1970s. Then, Micro (get it?) Microsoft took over, and Apple and all the rest. Computers became smaller and smaller, and faster and faster. Now we have nano (as in really small) computing, which lets doctors inject little robotic antibodies into our arteries that can go around and do nanosurgeries. And wearables and smart glasses and Siri and Alexa and on and on and on. I actually heard some educated type being interviewed on NPR last year state that she had no problem with robots being physically intimate. I still haven't quite recovered from that one.
I did not set out to write a blog about current social issues in education, about the horrific intrusion of technology, or even about children's books. But as sometimes happens, one thing leads to another, and you have the Law of Unintended Blog Posts exercising its authority over lowly amateur writers like me. In other words, I want to finish this endless Danny Dunn Down-the-Rabbit-Hole post and get on with what I really want to be blogging about, which is religious life.
Like writing about Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, to write about technology in the twenty-first century would be like trying to write the 15- (or is it 14- ?) volume The Liturgical Year by Dom Gueranger, the first Abbot of Solesmes. Could it be done? Yes. Ought one to try, when one has other more pressing issues to raise? No. So let me conclude here by urging you to research this most insidious of evils, transhumanism, and asking yourself how you can fight against it in your own life and in the lives of your children and grandchildren, who in the next twenty years will inevitably be faced with decisive moral choices regarding the role of technology that we Boomer dinosaurs can't even begin to imagine.
"It seems strange to ask questions of a machine," the child wisely opined in a book written sixty years ago. Today, it seems strange not to. Even stranger is re-reading a book you read as an innocent fourth-grader through the weary eyes of an aging adult. You come to realize that some things never change. Hairstyles and skirt lengths may rise and fall, but the world is still full of people trying to avoid hard work.
After five decades of watching computers get ever smaller and their powers ever greater, your gentle blogger realized to her dismay that Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine was no longer the charming children's book she remembered. It's more than simple tale about smart kids growing up in the 1950s using a computer to do their homework and getting away with it; it's an open window into techonological goals being set by educators and computer geniuses back before most homes had color TVs.
As a nine-year-old, I didn't pay any attention to the Acknowledgment Page when I read the book years ago, but I did this time. Seems the University of Pennsylvania's Educational Service Bureau was already asking the question of whether using a computer to assist with homework assignments was helpful or harmful for young minds. They concluded that in order to program a computer to do your homework, you had to know the subject matter first. Therefore, it wasn't cheating. (This incredible factoid appears on the Acknowledgment Page, and for anyone who cares to read it, I invite you to read Danny Dunn, Part Three.) This may have been true in the early 1960s, but most certainly does not apply to today, when Google's prodigious AI capabilities insist on finishing the words in the search box for you before you can even think of them yourself.
Danny Dunn's mentor, Professor Bullfinch, named his contraption "Miniac," short for "Miniature Computer." This sounded so much to my adult ears like Apple's Mac® that I had to spend an hour or so looking up the origin of that brand name just to be sure it wasn't that Steve Jobs liked the Danny Dunn story, too.
The story goes that Steve Jobs had been to visit an apple farm, inspiring him to select that name for his company, and that later on Jeff Ruskin picked Macintosh to go with that. Never mind that Macintosh doesn't go with the correct spelling of McIntosh apples. I prefer my own theory, which is that they went with the Apple logo because it was going to be an infinitely tempting product, like the infamous apple in the Garden of Eden, but what do I know?
Back in the 1950s, a miniature computer was one that didn't fill an entire warehouse. Did they know, way back then, what was coming down the microchip assembly line in the not-too-distant future? Do we?
To be continued...
The opinions expressed on this website are my own personal views and do not necessarily represent those of the Catholic Church.
If I have erred in any statement, whether directly or by implication, in any matter pertaining to faith or morals, I humbly invite fraternal correction.