You will sometimes hear it claimed that “science fiction failed to predict the personal computer” or that “science fiction never foresaw the Internet”. Science fictioneers dispute this, citing Isaac Asimov’s 1958 story “The Feeling of Power”, which not only predicted personal calculation assistants but foresaw the atrophy of human skills among those who became dependent on them, or Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye which is, however, uncomfortably close to the advent of the MITS Altair 8800 in January 1975. As to the Internet, Mark Twain’s 1898 story “From the ‘London Times’ in 1904” involves the “Telelectroscope”:
As soon as the Paris contract released the telelectroscope, it was delivered to public use, and was soon connected with the telephonic systems of the whole world. The improved ‘limitless-distance’ telephone was presently introduced and the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussible too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.
But what if I told you that a humourous short story published in the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction by Will F. Jenkins (a golden age science fiction author better known by his pen name, Murray Leinster), “A Logic Named Joe”, included, as commonplaces:
- personal computers
- a global network
- search engines digesting all human knowledge
- natural language query and reply systems
- censoring of queries by authority
- subversion of censoring by an (insufferably) clever youth
- existential risk to civilisation due to rogue information systems
Now, bear in mind, this story was published in nineteen forty-six! That’s just one year after the ENIAC started operating, five years before the UNIVAC I was released, and twenty-eight years before the introduction of the Intel 8080 microprocessor, which launched the first generation of personal computers.
Now, due to the dead hand of eternal copyright, this story will be locked up until 2045, so you can’t just go and read it right now unless I were to tell you about a buccaneer who posted a PDF under the fluttering standard of the Jolly Roger.
When this story was written, “computer” generally meant a person, usually female, who operated a mechanical or electromechanical calculator, the word “software” had not yet been coined (various sources date it to 1953 or 1958), and “Google” was a character in the comic strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith dating from 1919. So the author called the machine and information system “logics”—seems logical to me.
“A Logic named Joe” was adapted as a radio script for the NBC Radio science fiction series Dimension X and broadcast on 1950-07-01. The story was abridged for the radio production and the ambiguous ending of the original story changed to a nice, clean wrapping up of the package for the listening audience, but the essence is there. Due to the inanities of U.S. copyright law, all audio recordings made prior to 1972-02-15 are in the public domain, so here you go. Enjoy!