Lit 80, Fall 2013
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The Difference Engine

October 12th, 2013 | Posted by Sheel Patel in Uncategorized

The advent of the computer and the internet has drastically changed the way the world functions and has even greater implications for the future. But what if the computer, or a simpler form of it, was invented in the early 1800’s rather than during the 1980’s? That is the subject that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling tackle in their novel The Difference Engine. The book delves into the idea of a society where Charles Babbage was successful in creating an iteration of a computer and the effects it takes on society in England. Although this book may seem dry and bland to many, the purpose and message can be seen through the descriptive narration rather than any firm plot. Gibson and Sterling provide and immersion-like experience where one can see the new technologies that have taken over society, stemming from Babbage’s Difference Engine. Things like automated cashiers, credit card systems, and even personal identification numbers can be seen in this faux society, centuries beyond their fruition in the real world. Other technologies like the kinotrope, a primitive version of a projector screen, can also be seen and its effects on society are immense.

One of the major points that I found interesting was the idea that Globalization, or the interconnecting of the world, seemed to have sped up due to this technology. Gibson and Sterling showcase this fact through the scenes of the novel where Dr. Oliphant is interacting with Japanese businessmen. These man bring along a robotic tea-pouring woman but yearn for Japan to learn and utilize the technology Britain holds. During the 1800’s in real life, many people did not leave their own countries and the world was still very defined in terms of national boundaries. Although there was a lot of trading going around the world, the images we have today of globalization and the interconnectedness of the world was not present. The fact that Japanese businessmen where essentially begging Oliphant for information on how Japan could access this technology and stating that “they would be willing to do anything for it,” showcases the fact that technology causes some countries to progress faster than others. In a society where technology was emerging, countries who did not learn to utilize it would rapidly fall behind in all aspects of the economy. Gibson and Sterling make this interesting connection between this faux world and today and inherently showcase the significant impact technology and computers have had on shaping interactions between nations and the world’s economy.

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