Lit 80, Fall 2013

The Difference Engine Response

October 14th, 2013 | Posted by Matt Hebert in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)


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?

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.

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.