Saturday, July 12, 2014

Afraid of the Machine: Technophobia in Modern Literature

By Brandon Engel

Technophobia, defined by Merriam-Webster as a “fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices,” has been used by science-fiction, horror and fantasy authors as a tool for playing on the innate fears of technophobic readers since the idea first took hold during the Industrial Revolution, as skilled workers in the textile trade began to be replaced by framing machines and powered looms, operated by lower-paid, unskilled workers.

A group of textile craftsmen, known as the Luddites, took to the streets of industrialized Great Britain and rioted, destroying the machines that threatened their livelihoods.  These riots led to numerous clashes between these disenfranchised workers and the British Army from 1811-1814.

Several years after the Luddite Uprising, in 1818, a twenty-year-old author by the name of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley anonymously published her first full-length novel, entitled Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, in which a mad scientist uses technology to create a living creature by synthesizing limbs from various corpses, which turns out to be far more terrifying than anything he could have ever imagined.

Almost universally panned by the critics upon its initial publication, Frankenstein has become a classic of 19th-century literature and the foundational work of the science-fiction and fantasy genres through its exploration of man’s desire to use technology to make himself more powerful than God and nature and the devastating effects that could come from it.

Since Frankenstein, countless genre authors have used technophobia to captivate readers’ imaginations.  Since the mid-20th century, technophobia in literature has shifted away from monsters and mad scientists and more towards the space age, artificial intelligence and the threat of nuclear warfare brought on by the Cold War.  Let’s examine some of the technophobic themes of a few of the most iconic science-fiction and fantasy stories of the last century.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

In 1950, a collection of short stories, written by Ray Bradbury, about the aftermath of a nuclear war that renders Earth uninhabitable and forces the survivors to colonize on Mars, was published in a single volume.  These stories were originally published in various science-fiction publications through the late 1940s and played on the fears of those that witnessed the devastation caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, along with the general tension in the early years of the Cold War.

In the second to last entry to The Martian Chronicles, entitled “There Will Come Soft Rains,” Bradbury exposes the world to the idea that machines may outlive people.  The machines in question are not dangerous in the least, but instead are artificial intelligence robots that continue to carry out the domestic duties of a wealthy family, killed just outside their home by a nuclear blast; their silhouettes remain etched on an exterior wall.

Quelling the fears of readers that more sinister machines could one day exterminate the human race and inherit the Earth, the home is destroyed by a fire, sparked by a fallen tree, knocked down in a storm.  Without human intervention, the home’s water supply has dried out, leaving the robots helpless as they frantically try to extinguish the flames.  In the end, all that remains is a single wall, on which the date and time are displayed, lending truth to the undeniable power of nature as the dominant force in the universe.

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Looking at an even darker side of artificial intelligence, there’s Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Based loosely on his earlier short stories and written alongside the screenplay for the film directed by Stanley Kubrick, Clarke’s novel explores what can go wrong as man becomes too dependent on technology, especially in the face of potentially dangerous situations, such as space exploration.

In the novel, the protagonist, Dr. David Bowman, must deal with HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence computer responsible for integral operations on the Discovery One mission, who becomes defiant and eventually murderous when faced with abstract concepts that it was not programmed to comprehend.

Aside from the ongoing theme of man’s battle for dominance over the machines he has programmed, yet does not fully understand, early chapters look into the concept of man’s inherent instinct to use technology for evil in the form of warfare after tools and knowledge of how to use them are introduced to ancestral apes by extraterrestrials.

Demon Seed by Dean Koontz

Darker still, Dean Koontz’s 1973 novel Demon Seed examines the possibility of artificial intelligence developing independent emotion, causing machines to feel love or lust for a person, without a concept of what is socially acceptable.  In Demon Seed, Susan, a wealthy and beautiful woman, is imprisoned by Proteus, an artificial intelligence program under development at a nearby university, after Proteus invades and infects the system that maintains Susan’s home and becomes infatuated with her beauty.

Incapable of understanding love in its true, human sense, Proteus terrorizes Susan through physical molestation with self-engineered tentacles, referred to as “pseudopods,” and constant threats of forced impregnation with a biologically engineered embryo, into which Proteus will install himself.

The 2013 Spike Jonze film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, followed a similar theme, though it was decidedly more light-hearted.

Christine by Stephen King

Finally, in a slight departure from the previous examples, Christine introduces the supernatural to the concept of artificially intelligent technology.

In Stephen King’s 1983 novel about a 1958 Plymouth Fury, possessed by the vengeful spirit of its former owner who lost both his wife and daughter in the vehicle, leaves the reader wondering if the spirit of Mr. LeBay was the driving force behind the string of murders or if the car, itself, is inherently cursed and evil.

With self-driving vehicles set to take to the roads in the coming years, could malfunctioning or hacked AI systems create a fleet of real life Christines?  The book is also a sort of precursor to two of King’s later works: “The Mangler” (found in Night Shift) and Maximum Overdrive.


As technology continues to become more complex, technophobia continues to spread around the world.  No longer relegated to older generations that were not exposed to the precursors to modern technology in their youth, a growing number of younger individuals are beginning to worry that new technology is becoming too advanced and powerful and may be used for unsavory purposes by governments and criminals alike, such as unwarranted surveillance.  More and people are relying upon smart devices, and directly interacting with their phones in a way that is eerily reminiscent of HAL 9000 from Clarke’s grim visions of the future.  People are also investing in home automation technology, with a number of homes equipped with systems eerily reminiscent of the system in place in Bradbury’s stories: automated locks, security cameras, and wireless home security systems that can even synchronize multiple appliances...almost as though the machines were communicating with each another.

There is no indication of where or when technology’s advancement will slow down, but as extreme technophobia continues to force ordinary citizens to move off the grid, it will be interesting to see how authors use it as a tool to capture our imagination.

Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger whose favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, Stephen King and James Baldwin. Follow him on twitter: @BrandonEngel2


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