Lit 80, Fall 2013

In the early 1900’s, complex electric circuits came into being and boomed with the help of inventions such as the Edison’s tinfoil dictation machine, light bulb, and Bell’s telephone. Half a century later, the late twentieth century ushered a new information era with the inventions of the computer, internet and advances  in telecommunication and digital data transfer systems. Although it is irrefutably clear about the technological significance and the rich potential legacy the first emerging computer has left mankind, what would happen if a more primitive computer had been invented in the 1800’s, more than a century earlier? Would it change the information age as we see it now?

In their novel The Difference Engine , William Gibson and Bruce Sterling attempt to introduce us to exactly that kind of alternate history, specifically, a Great Britain in its Victorian age where Babbage actually manages to successfully invent the difference engine (computer). Gibson and Sterling, in the book’s settings, not only draw parallels to current technology and real people, such as surveillance systems, credit cards, Charles Darwin and “clackers” (hackers), but also delve into the imaginary aspects to give us a newer glimpse of other “more weird” inventions, such as the use of “punch cards” to program computing engines.

It is interesting to note that Gibson included many symbols and references that occur both in The Difference Engine and in Neuromancer , another novel where he defines the cyberpunk/cyberspace genre. Both books depict a society in which masses of people completely support and rely on fast emerging technology to live their daily lives. For example, in Neuromancer, almost all people can and do transfer between the real physical world and a digital cyberspace, whereas most people support a dominating Industrial Radical Party for rapid technology boom in The Difference Engine. There are, however, clear differences between these two as well. Neuromancer provides us with two domains, the real and the digital, which are bases on the 1980’s (when Gibson wrote his novel), whereas as The Difference Engine focuses more into historical aspects and educational guesses of an alternate piece of history that had not happened in real time.

Another aspect Gibson and Sterling delineate in The Difference Engine is that rapidly emerging new technologies causes intense industrial competition between countries. Those countries that cannot keep up with the fast pace of the information era will be eventually made obsolete. The novel implies this fact by exploiting on Japan’s rapid industrial rise in the twentieth century in real history. In the books settings, Britain aids Japan, who is desperate to boom to the point of even doing anything in return for the British, to become a leading nation in information technology and computer engines.

The Difference Engine, in a nutshell, gives us a comprehensive view into alternate history of early digital technological boom and its potential widespread effects on the industry and the society.



Gibson, William, Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

The computer is arguably the most indispensable cultural artifact of our generation. They are essential to our world’s infrastructure – it is the primary method of communication, information transference, transaction, and so much more. We have developed a subconscious reliance on technology to function as a society. Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine entertains a very profound and intriguing related concept in the most thorough way possible – what would our lives be like if the computer (namely, the Babbage’s Difference Engine) was invented almost 200 years before they were actually invented? Gibson and Sterling’s attempt to delve into this hypothetical situation is admirably ambitious and impressively complex. They depict a “speculative past” that loosely parallels our actual past, making assumptions about the supposed trajectory that technological inventions may have taken, as well as societal development that might have occurred following Charles Babbage’s successful creation of the computer. The setting of the novel takes place in 1800’s Victorian London onwards, and features important figures or organizations in London’s history (or fictional analogues) such as The Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, the Luddites, the Labour Party, etc.

The value of reading this novel is not necessarily derived from its plot – it is instead the distinct structure and rich narration that make it stand out. The novel is divided into five separate iterations of a story, with the fifth iteration being written by the “Modus.” Essentially, iterations are revealed to represent computer-generated alterations of a similar story, which raises some interesting questions about the recording of history and the seemingly infinite variable possibilities of computers. The authors also took on the formidable task of creating a logical environment of an imaginary past. This includes creating systems of politics, economy, communication, and even fashion – they had to communicate an entire, immersive society different than our actual society merely through the art of storytelling. The technological innovations of the imaginary society have many notable counterparts in our real world, which makes the story a unique experience – it serves as a form of social commentary on our present society. Specifically, the balances of power and relationships in the novel based on the hypothetical invention of the computer may perhaps demonstrate how people use technology and information to obtain and consolidate power and develop relationships in our real world. While this novel’s plot might have come across as seemingly disjointed or incoherent, it is a very intricate display of society that neatly explores an alternate past, comments on our real-life present, and suggests an alternate future.

Information is Power

October 11th, 2013 | Posted by Shane Stone in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? highlights how the information age we live in is going to affect who is in charge of our future. He hypothesizes multiple scenarios that suggest the government or the siren servers could fill this role . William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine allows readers to see a potential world in which the information aged occurred earlier and as such has resulted in a change of society. In their suggested society, information is a dominant power that is greater “than land or money, more than birth” (Gibson and Sterling 1991). The people within society that possess sums of information have formed guilds based solely around knowledge. Although there were societies, like the X-Society, based on the principle of advancing knowledge in the true timeline, very few had any sway with politics or society. In this hypothetical society, they not only influence it, but are in charge of it. Lords are no longer gentleman of high birth, but rather are men whose information resulted in industrial change. These men have “the very globe at their feet” and impact the decisions made by even Queen Victoria (22).

In Lanier’s novel he suggests that the Golden Rule and people’s inherent desire to live in a society without theft will result in a similar etiquette for electronic information . Unfortunately, it appears as if he is too opportunistic because in the world Gibson and Sterling create, someone’s information is just as useful if not more useful than the person from which it came. As some people rise in society others have become obsolete. When Mick is betrayed by Houston he explains to Sybil that Houston has no need for Mick’s services “so long as he’s got my information” (57). Later, Wakefield is frightened at the prospect of his information being erased because he knows once his information is gone so too does he. Though some of society immensely benefit from the information, many more suffer as a result.


Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991.