The Difference Engine acts as an excellent lens through which to view both contemporary society and the intellectual ideals which characterize it. The novel presents us with a society that operates on the same information-focused infrastructure that defined the late 20th century, but also subscribes to many Victorian era morals that defy modern standards. Some of the ways that characters use the boons of computing technology would be considered downright despicable to a modern viewer, but follow logically from the social morals of the time. For instance, take Ned Mallory’s set of values.
He had, of course, read admiringly of the engineering feats of Suez. Lacking coal, the French had fueled their giant excavators with bitumen-soaked mummies, stacked like cordwood and sold by the ton. (pg 136)
In the eyes of a modern academic, the idea of casually burning pieces of history and cultural heritage, solely in the name of efficiency, is horrifying. At the time, it was a testament to mankind’s growing power over nature and the ability of information-centric thinking (efficiency) to expedite progress. The novel then leads us to consider what modern day practices with technology which seem normal now will be seen as equally abhorrent 150 years in the future.
The novel also chooses an excellent time period to discuss the growth of an information-centric culture. At the dawn of the actual 19th century, western society was still on the cusp of the industrial revolution, having just begun to seriously discuss malthusian economics and phrenology. It marked a point where society no longer regarded people simply as people. They were their punch cards and productivity reports. They could be defined as variables in a mathematical model, or even the dimples on the backs of their skulls. It could not be more fitting to view this time period through the lens of a computer. The ultimate message of the novel appears to be that, if given the necessary technological headstart, this society would have continued breaking down and objectifying the patterns of reality until information was the only thing of importance. By the novel’s conclusion in 1991, society exists within a computer as a series of simulations, where information is all that is important. This is the ultimate manifestation of societies detachment from humanity in favor of data.
In some ways, our society now has sobered in its quest for information and progress. We will catalogue private information in the name of security, but we won’t burn a mummy for fuel. Still, information mining and all forms of data-centric mentality are still rampant, made moreso by the advantages afforded by plastics, electricity, etc. The society of the difference engine got to where they were without an internet. If that is the ultimate fate of their civilization, what can we expect of ours?