Lit 80, Fall 2013

The Difference Engine

October 12th, 2013 | Posted by Sheel Patel in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

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.

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.