The Soul of a New Machine

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Kidder, Tracy (full name: "John Tracy Kidder").[1] The Soul of a New Machine. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. NYC: Avon, 1981.

Non-fiction, with the subject, as identified by Wikipedia, "Computer engineering."

According to Tracy Kidder on the Tracy Kidder website as of October 2022, "With the touch of an expert thriller writer, Tracy Kidder recounts the feverish efforts of a team of Data General researchers to create a new 32-bit superminicomputer. A compelling account of individual sacrifice and human ingenuity, The Soul of a New Machin endures as the classic chronicle of the computer age and the masterminds behind its technological advances."[2]

In the Wikipedia entry,

The Soul of a New Machine is a non-fiction book written by Tracy Kidder and published in 1981. It chronicles the experiences of a computer engineering team racing to design a next-generation computer at a blistering pace under tremendous pressure. The machine was launched in 1980 as the Data General Eclipse MV/8000.

The book, whose author was described by the New York Times as having "elevated it to a high level of narrative art" is "about real people working on a real computer for a real company," and it won the 1982 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.[3]

Significant here as real-world computer background given the date and reception of Kidder's book: the story "Cyberpunk" appeared in Amazing in November 1983; William Gibson's Neuromancer was published in 1984; Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology appeared in 1986. So see Soul for an introduction for laypeople to actually-existing computer science, technology, and subcultures in some crucial groups in the run-up to Cyberpunk as a movement or fad (depending on one's tastes and politics). Note though that those groups weren't SF authors, and that we make no assertions about familiarity among cyberpunk or other SF authors of either Kidder's book or details of developments in the computer industry. Zeitgeist is an amorphous term, and the English "in the air" is no better; but that's what Soul is useful for: for background on the Zeitgeist, what was "in the air" in the period of a move toward the production of much relevant literature of the 1980s.

Users of this wiki might note especially:

• Chapter 5, "Midnight Programmer"; for:
 •• The computer game Adventure (our italics) and the degree to which people can be, in their imaginations, sucked into the world of the game. Cf. and contrast the literalizing figures of getting sucked into a game in, e.g., the film TRON (1982) — or more willingly flying, so to speak, through Cyberspace (Avon edn. pp. 86-89).
 •• Discussion of AI, "as they say, artificial intelligence" with computers and how the programmers "often spoke about" their machines "as if they had personalities" and recognize that the developers "tend to have to anthropomorphize the computer," even as (already) "A lot of people" presumably in the industry "are really tired of anthropomorphizing computers," but recognize also that "it sure is an easy way to talk about them," especially with this group the communications utility they called "Trixie" (p. 90).
 •• Programming as a kind of addiction, what one professor of computer science at MIT called "'the compulsion to program'" (p. 96).
  ••• Bringing these motifs together — Soul is a variety of literary work, with motifs — Kidder quotes one programmer, "Writing microcode is like nothing else in my life. For days there's nothing coming out. The empty yellow pad [sic: actual paper pads they write on] sits there in front of me, reminding me of my inadequacy. Finally it starts to come. I feel good. That feeds it, and finally I get into a mental state where I'm a microcode-writing machine. It's like being in Adventure [our italics]. Adventure's a completely bogus world, but when you're here, you're there" (p. 102). 


• Chapter 12, "Going to the Fair" (the National Computer Conference, "NCC"); for
 
 •• Norbert Wiener and Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine among computer makers ca. 1980 and discussion of issues still with us.
  ••• Promise and threat of computers: Kidder quotes and paraphrases Wiener, "In 1947 he wrote" — stating it as a potential problem — "that because of the development of the 'ultra-rapid computing machine, ... the average human being of mediocre attainments or less' might end up having 'nothing to sell that is worth anyone's money to buy'" (p. 240; cf. Vonnegut's Player Piano, 1952). Kidder goes on to note that "Since Wiener, practically every kind of commentator on modern society, from cartoonists to academic sociologists has taken a crack at the sociology of computers. A general feeling has held throughout: that these machines constitute something special [...]. Almost every commentator has assured the public that the computer is bringing on a revolution. By the 1970s it should have been clear that revolution was the wrong word. And it should not have been surprising to anyone that in many cases the technology had served as a prop to the status quo" (pp. 240-41).
  ••• AI and AL (artificial life)

"Artificial intelligence" had always made for the liveliest of debates. Maybe the name itself was preposterous and its pursuit [...] something people shouldn't undertake. Maybe in promoting the metaphorical relationship between people and machines, cybernetics tended to cheapen and corrupt human perception of human intelligence. Or perhaps this science promised to advance the intelligence of people as well as of machines and to imbue the species with a new, exciting power.

"Silicon-based life would have a lot of advantages over carbon-based life," a young engineer told me once. He said he believed in a time when the machines would "take over." [...] He seemed immensely pleased with the thought. To me, though, the prospects for truly intelligent computers looked comfortably dim.

To some the crucial issue was privacy. (p. 241)

  ••• Leaving the NCC computer fair, and walking down a street in NYC, Kidder "was struck by how unnoticeable the computer revolution was," with "nothing commensurate in sight — no cyborgs, half machine, half protoplasm [...] no armies of unemployed, carrying placards denouncing the computer; no TV cameras watching us — as a rule, you still had to seek out that experience by going to such places as Data General's parking lot. Computers were everywhere, of course [...] but the visible differences somehow seemed insignificant" (p. 242). 
  ••• Notes Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1976) and the idea "that the new machines introduced in the nineteenth century, such as the railroad train, made larger changes in 'the lives of individuals' than computers have," with one of the computer folk Kidder was dealing with citing bulldozers having "had a hell of a lot bigger effect on people's lives."  On the other hand (students of CP note well), "Computers probably did not create the growth of conglomerates and multinational corporations, but they certainly have abetted it" — conglomerates and multinationals, we will add, were certainly in earlier works by, e.g., H. G. Wells and F. Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. Computers "make fine tools for the centralization of power [...]. They are handy greed-extenders. Computers [...] greatly extend the reach of managers in high positions; managers on top can be in command of such aspects of their business [even as prosaic as payroll] to a degree they simply could not be before computers" (p. 243).
  




RDE, finishing, 9/14Oct22 f.