Shockwave Rider: Brunner's Information Age
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Welcome to John Brunner's information age. In Brunner's
novel the world has been hooked up to a somewhat more pumped up version
of the internet than we have today. In this world, Sandy, a renegade
computer genius is forced to flee when he realizes that the government
has discovered how he uses their computer system to jump from identity
to identity. After being captured by the government and escaping once again, he
helps a small group
in a Utopia commune to overthrow the corrupt governments of the world
and replace it with direct democracy through the internet.
You have to hand it to John Brunner, he certainly has some insights
to the future of technology. In this novel he shows that
he truly understood computers and the affect that they, when networked, were
have on civilization. He even writes about worms, aka computer viruses,
and the havoc that they can cause. However, as he does in practically all of
his novels, Brunner plays up the pessimistic view of technology far too
In Brunner's world "information overload" is a common psychiatric
illness. People are so overwhelmed by information, and the changes they
make in life, that it is not uncommon for people to go into shock. I find this
entire idea pretty silly. Though there are real psychiatric illnesses that
can be caused by drastic changes in environment (i.e. shell shock)
Brunner's illness seems relatively silly because it depends on people
making large changes in their lives that are for the most part volountary
(some of the examples he sights are redecorating homes, or changing jobs).
It would seem to me that long before someone drove themselves or their
loved ones crazy through "information overload" they would stop making drastic
in their lives. Another almost psychiatric illness he sights is a kind
of information paranoia. This fear comes from people worrying that others
are profiting off of information they do not have. How exactly a small group
of individuals could find information, important information, that others
cannot is not explained by the author. He does say that large corporations
are able to hire computer experts to participate in industrial espionage, but
would not account for the general distrustfulness people might have for their
Also, Brunner writes of the crippling affects to science caused by the
age. According to Brunner scientists are so deluged by new information
they cannot even begin to sift through it, and so instead stick to old
theories that could be discredited by new data. This is really dumb.
The only thing scientists want to do is sift through data, the more the
merrier. The only reason a person ever becomes a scientist is if he wants
to discover new aspects of the natural world. Men do not become scientists
to spend their lives proving everything they read in a text book, and trying to
ignore information that can yield a new perspective (no matter how much of
it there is). Even the example Brunner uses shows how ridiculous this
supposed consequence of the information age is. Kate, one of the main
in the novel, had a father whose discoveries were never accepted by the
scientific community because they could not be reproduced by anyone else.
According to Brunner, the non-acceptance of these findings
was a perfect example of the rigidity of the scientific community. Brunner
does not seem to understand that data in an experimet, and all subsequent
can only be accepted by the scientific community as fact if other scientists,
the instructions provided by the original experimenter, can replicate the
experiment. Anything else
is just magic.
It is ironic then that Brunner in the end uses the internet as a means of
providing a new, seemingly
utopic order to the world. At the conclusion of the novel it seems that all the
world has to do is vote positively
for two philisophical reforms
1. "That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it,
and since we can abolish them, we must."
2. "That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain
illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one
of us can know."
followed immediately with the final line of the novel
The Outcome of the Plebiscite......Well-how did you vote?
It is surprising that Brunner did not add a third principle
to vote on, like ...... "should we all buy the world a coke" ...... or maybe
something a little more simple minded like ......."can't we all just get along".
Everyone wants world peace and universal happiness. I am sure I could walk
around town with a petition demanding world peace, or an end to world hunger,
get tons of signatures. The real problem comes in the implementation. In this
area, Brunner provides
very little. Other than a vague tax reform that would stagger taxes based on an
income, Brunner seems to leave the rest up in the air. Good intentions mean
nothing without a plan to reach those ideals.
I am now going to go off subject, and state another reason that I disliked an
to what had been a pretty good science fiction novel. Brunner spends
most of his novel writing about all the dangers of the information age, and how
it has taken
away the pleasant community feel that comes from living in the same place with
the same group of people.
This theme climaxes with his glowing descriptions of "Disasterville U.S.A.".
Having his characters in the last thirty pages of the novel decide to overthrow
the governments of the world
and institute humanitarian reforms
is sudden and unexpected, and seems more of an attack on greedy capitalists
(who, unlike in many other Brunner
books have not played an important role so far) than the detrimental effects of
the information age
that have occupied most of the book. Brunner just could not seem to hold his
strong liberal leanings
from penetrating his novel, and so really hurts the ending.
A good deal of the time Science Fiction only gets part of the future right.
John Brunner, at least in terms of the setting of the future, is very correct.
His book foresaw the internet when most science fiction writers were still
imagining big supercomputers
acting as separate entities, programmed by tons of punch cards. However the
pessimistic view he takes of
the effect of this new future I find unbelievable. But then again,
what do I know, this essay might have well caused someone to experience
information overload :-)
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