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Podcast Part 2: Pournelle On ARPAnet, Totalitarianism, And Productivity

In this second installment of our four-part series of podcast interviews with sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle, the iconic <em>BYTE</em> columnist explains how the Cold War launched the computer revolution, and why the Internet will never die.

Daniel Dern

April 7, 2012

8 Min Read

From the Boskone 49 science fiction convention BYTE's Daniel Dern interviewed famed science fiction author and BYTE veteran Jerry Pournelle. In this segment, the second of a four-part series of podcasts, Jerry covers totalitarian societies, how the need for better intercontinental ballistic missiles paved the way for the computer revolution, why improved productivity is a problem for society, and why the Internet will never die.

Click on the graphic below to listen to the podcast. Keep reading for the full transcript.

DANIEL: These days, it's not just computers but the networks. Arguably, the most prescient story is A Logic Named Joe, by Murray Leinster, which says, "If you hook a lot of information up and let everyone get to it, interesting things may happen."

The question is, where do we see that going, looking forward?

JERRY: Well, we know one thing: Back in 1970, there was a thing called the Cold War. And there were these societies called totalitarian societies, where everybody had a certain set of beliefs, and the government enforced that.

Click here to download an MP3 version of this podcast

And Arthur Koestler famously said, back in those days, that a sufficient condition for the disintegration of a totalitarian society would be the free exchange of ideas within it.

And in 1970, they put me on a panel where somebody said, "Say something profound." So I thought fast, and did... what I said was, by the year 2000, everybody in western civilization--I didn't really foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union--but everybody in western civilization would be able to get the answer to any question that had an answer.

Which is to say, I sort of extrapolated the old ARPAnet that was happening in 1969 and 1970 to something. I didn't forsee anything as big and pervasive as the Internet. But still, the free exchange of ideas within western society, and that included everything, any question you wanted to know, you could get an answer. It seemed to me that would happen by the year 2000. I think I was right on that.

And the corollary to that was it would cause the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in fact it did. But it was just quicker than I thought it would be.

DANIEL: What was the question someone asked that collapsed the Soviet Union?


JERRY: Within a Soviet society, I think the question somebody asked within the Soviet Union was, 'Why the hell are we putting up with this? Why are you doing that?' If everybody can ask, 'Why the hell are we doing things the way we are?' it does seem to be it will have an effect on the way we do things. Look at what's going on in China.

DANIEL: One of the challenges, I know, 10, 20 years ago, it was said that if, say, the government wanted to shut the Internet down, or industry wanted to privatize it, within two to three days, hackers with closets full of stuff would rebuild a new one using phone lines and the like. My guess is that the stuff is still around [but] the infrastructure control could easily be jury-rigged to prohibit that. Are we simultaneously creating centralized power like the Great Firewall of China or the dreaded Obama "kill switch" for the Internet, which I know he declined to get built in.

JERRY: I know that within my neighborhood, I could easily set up a wireless system that would encompass Studio City with what I have lying around in the back room of Chaos Manor. And I presume that since I'm semi-retired, since I'm well out of the business, I presume that in Cambridge and in Boston, you have plenty of that. If they shut down the Internet, I would guess that you would have an Internet back up within a month, in Boston. Just the people I'm talking to in this room I'm talking to would be able to do it.

DANIEL: That's true, you could do it with a Wi-Fi mesh, and just bypass the carriers entirely. Looking ahead, what do you see might happen--putting your science fiction writer hat on, which gives you more margin of error to be wrong, because we're not here to much to predict the future as to look at what might be and do to us--what do you see coming along?

JERRY: Well, understand, I don't believe you can predict the future. But I think you can invent it. Now that's not original with me. Dandridge Cole said it a very long time ago, and many have repeated it in one way or another. But it is true. In one sense, the Air Force invented the computer revolution because it wanted to have more accurate ballistic missiles. And the reason it wanted that is because accurate ballistic missiles is because accuracy is a great deal more effective than increasing the yield. You can make bigger bombs or you can make more accurate bombs. And 'more accurate' is a lot more cost-effective.

So the Air Force wasn't intending to produce the computer revolution when it decided that what it needed was a lot more investment in large-scale integrated circuits. But it had that effect. So the future you think you're inventing may not be the one you get. You may get something quite different from what you think you're doing.

But I do see what we are trying to invent, and that is probably what science fiction writers can do... we invent futures in our head, and in doing that, we come up with the requirements for making that happen. If that makes sense.

DANIEL: Is there anything you are working on, either yourself or with Larry [Niven] or other people in the science fiction realm that you care to share some of the assumptions for?

JERRY: Larry and I are currently working on what amounts to a fantasy, which is to say, some of the people in this country get sufficiently disgusted with the education system and everything else in this mess, and turn to some other means to try to make things better... what would you do?

It's a fantasy in the sense that politics doesn't work that way, and things don't work the way you want them to. But at least we are going to try to play that game for a while.

One thing I see which is something science fiction writers have dealt with for the last 50 years is, 'What happens when productivity gets really good?' At the moment, the United States is still essentially the largest manufacturing country in the world. We still manufacture more goods than I think anybody else. If not, we're right up there, close to it. The difference is that we no longer employ 30% of our population at doing manufacturing jobs. We've become more and more productive, and it takes fewer and fewer people to do it. And more than that, the people that do it have got to be more and more highly skilled--and this isn't Lake Wobegon. Half the population is below average. And what happens when there isn't anything for them to do? You can think, well, there are things they can do, and at one time, in England, domestic servants took up 20% of the population--and it was generally not the brighter half of the country.

But we have an attitude that says basically being a housemaid is not an honorable thing to do, it's disgusting. So the question becomes, is it better to be a housemaid or on welfare? I don't have an answer to that, I think we have better start thinking about questions like that. What do we do with the low half of the bell curve in a time when productivity gets better and better all the time?

DANIEL: I don't have that answer either. I'm going to change up now, and ask, what are some of the things you are currently looking at in the Chaos Manor testing lab side of the house. Any particular products, technologies?

JERRY: I used to be the guy you could ask that question of. But I have to say, I'm damn near 80, and am semi-retired. People still tell me things, I still see what's going on to some extent. But I'm hardly at the forefront of technology the way we were in BYTE days when we were giving the technology awards at Comdex and really kept up with it.

I have to say, by the way, that the BYTE editorial staff, both in the old print mags, and during the Internet days, was probably the brightest group of people and one of the best intelligence services I've ever known. And I've worked for a number of intelligence services in my time.

But I don't have that support group any more. I used to pretend I knew everything, and get away with it. But I have to confess, the reason I could pretend that is because we had this big group of people in Peterboro [New Hampshire, site of one of the early BYTE offices] and later in San Francisco, kept me able to pretend it.

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About the Author(s)

Daniel Dern


Daniel P. Dern is an independent technology and business writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected]; his website, www.dern.com; or his technology blog, TryingTechnology.com

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