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Homo Programmatis

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, a lot of people thought it was going to ruin everything.  What would happen to peoples’ memories if they could just look things up in a book?  And besides, common people should be kept in their place.  If they wanted information, they should be obliged to go to their master or their priest.

We face a similar attitude today when it comes to the Digital Culture.  Many educators and commentators claim that it’s demolishing attention spans and destroying peoples’ ability to absorb written material.  They fear that digital technology is creating a generation of cultural illiterates.

But it seems to me the larger question is this:  what exactly is cultural literacy?  Obviously it‘s something defined within very sharp boundaries of time, geography, and history.  For example, an aborigine in Australia and a librarian in New York City might both be considered culturally literate within their own milieus.  But how good would the librarian be at finding water in the Outback?  And how successful would the aborigine be at using an online card catalogue?

Colleges and universities delight in their role as arbiters of cultural literacy.  But if you’ve read the course descriptions in a few college catalogues, it’s clear that the mumbo-jumbo of the academic world has a fatal similarity to the flabby, marshmallow dialects of corporate and political bureaucracies.  Honesty and directness are sidestepped completely—blandness and political correctness rule as banality comes to a slow boil in an unsavory, polysyllabic stew.

It’s my belief that the true architects of cultural literacy are the doers and the makers, the designers, inventors and creators—the people who forge the new vocabulary and create the new syntax.  We only have to read about the events of the day in a newspaper or online to see that the most dynamic energies of our culture flow through science and technology and media as well as the printed word.  It’s clear to me that by definition cultural literacy by its very nature is multivalent.  The ability to grasp the contents of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is on equal footing with the ability to grasp 300 lines of code in a Java app.  To choose one over the other shows the worst kind of cultural bias.

In the beginning of human history it was tool making that separated our species from so many long extinct competitors.  And tools are more than the handmade variety.  After all, language is the ultimate tool—it allows concepts and ideas to be explained and shared.  And science and technology are the logical by-products of language and our tool making culture.

Programming languages are arguably the most extreme development of tool making.  Just as biological evolution tilted in favor of those early humans with flint chipping abilities, natural selection and the biological imperative of the 21st Century will tilt toward those with an innate feeling for digital culture and the language of machines.

It is interesting to speculate on what will happen over the next millennium.  Will an entirely new species emerge, eclipsing Homo sapiens?  Is the human race as we know it moving toward extinction, facing a die-off similar to that of the Neanderthals?  And what will mankind’s successor call itself?  My suggestion would be Homo Programmatis.


I can’t remember the first time I read a story by Philip K. Dick (PKD), but it must have been well over fifty years ago.  His mad, prophetic visions lit up my mind and invaded my consciousness.  I practically inhaled his early books:  The Solar Lottery, Dr. Futurity, and Eye in the Sky. 

PKD’s strange concepts and incandescent imagination moved my thinking in new directions.  Eye in the Sky is a particularly good example.  In this book, Reality (with a capital R) is shown as an infinitely malleable piece of plastic, capable of being molded into any conceivable shape.  It all depends on whose Reality it is.  For the paranoid character in the book, the world is awash with conspiracies and plots.  Everywhere he turns, people are out to get him.  Another character, a puritanical religious nut, lives in a world where there are no such things as penises or vaginas.  When the other characters fall into her “Reality” they are horrified to discover that there is only a smooth patch of skin where their genitals used to be.

I continued to follow PKD through the 60s and 70s and was amazed how he continued to develop.  In The Man in the High Castle, he posited yet another type of Reality, one where alternate realities were stacked on top of one another.  Who could tell which one was real?  Are there real realities, are there fake realities, or are the real and the fake somehow mysteriously mixed together?

PKD’s last few books are simply amazing.  In A Scanner Darkly, a narcotics detective with brain damage (a damaged corpus callosum) splits into two different personalities.  In one identity he is a detective; in the other he is an undercover agent, posing as a drug dealer. The detective side of his personality relentlessly tries to hunt down the drug dealer who his own undercover self.

In his lifetime PKD was a mere blip on the literary landscape, just another pulp science fiction writer.  But in France, critics recognized him as one of the USA’s greatest authors.  Finally, he got some respect in his own country:  a front page tribute in The New York Times Book Review.

Since his death in 1982 Hollywood has discovered him.  Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, The Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Screamers, and Paycheck are just a few examples of movies based on his stories.  And I’m sure there’ll be more to come.

In a box in my attic I have about forty books by and about Philip Dick.  I have read many of them multiple times and will continue to open up that box when I need a little inspiration.  What a talent, what a writer, what a Science Fiction genius!


Lately I’ve been thinking about the odd contradictions that exist in all of us.  For example, when I visited England years ago I stayed with my Aunt Dorothy.  She was soft spoken, polite to a fault and a very charming person.  Yet on Saturday afternoons she liked to sit in front of the television and watch Pro-Wrestling.  She delighted in watching these huge muscular men knocking each other about the ring.  “Slam him to the mat!” she would cry out.  My jaw dropped open.  Was this the same lady who was making polite conversation over a cup of tea only moments before?

I’m curious about these incongruities because I’m a writer.  I like to try to figure out what makes people tick and I’m always astonished when I see such startling contradictions.   I don’t think it’s a Jeckle and Hyde type of thing.  Usually there’s nothing pathological.  In fact, it’s a trait that’s all too human.  But I still have trouble getting my head around it.

While I’ve given up trying to understand these contradictions, I still love to observe them and then try to create characters that show these quirky contradictions.  And I just love it when I see other writers using these odd character traits to kick a plot into high gear.

For example, I’ll never forget the opening scene of As on a Darkling Plain by Ben Bova where a seemingly rational scientist attempts suicide in sheer frustration over the enigma presented by alien artifacts found on Titan.  Or in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, where an ostensibly reasonable psychology professor named Robert Vaughan has an erotic obsession with car crashes.  He targets a fatal collision with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine for his ultimate orgasm.

But maybe the best examples are found in the works of Philip K. Dick.  His characters show these wild contradictions on almost every other page.  Are his characters crazy?  Well, maybe a little bit, but they are no less human.  In fact, they’re just like the folks we rub elbows with in the break room.  They’re people with lots of problems and limited coping skills.  They’re not like you and me, of course!

When it comes to these inexplicable contradictions, Walt Whitman has the last word:

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

The Computer Ticket

1401It’s hard to believe, but my father was a computer salesman in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1940s.  He worked for a company that sold mechanical computing machines the size of a refrigerator.  They were designed to compute an Aged Trial Balance and they were the very latest thing.  My father’s assistant was a sturdy young man who rolled the bulky machine about on a dolly.  I wonder what my father would have thought if I could go back in time and show him a super slim laptop loaded with an Aged Trial Balance program.1401

In the late 1950s we moved to the U.S. and my father became the director of a data processing center.  One Saturday morning he showed me their IBM mainframe.  A programmer proudly demonstrated the machine by feeding a set of punch cards into it. Moments later the machine belted out in a high-pitched whine the melody of “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.  My father seemed impressed, but not me.  “But Dad,” I said, “The machine doesn’t have a sense of rhythm.  It doesn’t know the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes!”

When I was 18 my father had this career advice for me:  “Computers — there’s the ticket!”  But getting into that field was about as appealing to me then as a double hernia.  I had more practical ideas, such as being a novelist or a jazz musician.

But I couldn’t get away from computers.  I kept bumping into them in books I.  In Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick I read about a hyper-rational computer wreaking havoc on a totalitarian society.  In Colossus by D.F. Jones I read about American and Russian computer systems merging into super-consciousness and deciding to rule the world.  And then there was Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads in which computers churned out bestselling novels.   How humiliating for a would-be novelist!

The faster I tried to run away from computers, the more they seemed to catch up with me.  I finally landed at a software company, first as a technical writer and then as an EDI programmer.

I soon found out that programmers were actually much more interesting than computers.  I saw them blow up and walk out the door over a point of logic and react to criticism like a mother who had just been told that she had an ugly baby.  I saw them working 36 hours straight, absolutely ecstatic when they had a breakthrough, or banging their heads against their desks when they failed.  They were passionate, intense, and larger than life.  They were amazing.

Finally it dawned on me.  I would write a book about people like these.  Not the same people, but imaginary characters filled with intense passion and bubbling over with that odd mix of logic and irrationality.  I finished the book a while ago.  It’s called The Infinity Program and will be released by the Camel Press on April 1, 2014.  It’s about a systems programmer who meets his ultimate challenge when he encounters a sixty million year old alien information system.

BEMs and Chauvinists


BEMIn the Science Fiction of the 1930s and the 1940s, I’ve always been amazed at the sheer number of covers  featuring beautiful, scantily clad young women being carried off by bug-eyed monsters.  The women in these stories are always weak and helpless, meekly clutching their hands together, waiting for some muscle-bound macho male to save them.  It never seemed to occur to the average male reader back then that this view of women was not only patronizing.  It was demeaning and contemptible.

I was happy to see the Science Fiction community turn this around.  The genre was definitely ahead of the curve.  For example, Meta, in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld (written in 1960), is a woman with a unique genetic inheritance that makes her incredibly strong.  Not only beautiful, she is skilled and accomplished, able to face any challenge.  In a bar room scene, early in the book, she gives fair warning to an obnoxious drunk who’s groping her.  “Touch me one more time and I will break your arm,” she warns him.  One minute later she does exactly that.  Throughout the book Jason DinAlt, an amusing male anti-hero, jumps behind her when the trouble starts.  Or in those reckless moments when he tries to leap into the fray, she just brushes him aside with one hand and warns him to stay out of the way.

Later on in the genre there are more rounded portraits of women.  For example, there is Amanda Morgan in Gordon Dickson’s The Spirit of Dorsai.  She is brilliant, gifted and one of the leaders on the planet Dorsai.  With a ragtag army composed of women and children, she beats back an armed invasion of Dorsai.  She defends her home world with grit, guile, gumption and pure courage.  There are not many men or women who can compare to her.

In more recent times, the fabulously gifted Stephen Baxter has a host of strong women in his novels.  In Manifold:  Origins, for example, Emma Stoney survives on a deadly world by traveling with a pack of savage, slope-headed anthropithecines.  With toughness, intelligence, and amazing courage she more than holds her own in their primitive society.

I can only hope that someday our society will catch up with these women in science fiction.  When the percentage of women in the Senate and the House reflects the percentage of women in the general population, the world will be a better place.

When I think of those lurid covers of the 1930s and 1940s, I have a fantasy about going back in time and presenting Thrilling Wonder Stories with my own cover.  It would show a triple breasted, female, bug-eyed monster carrying off a handsome young man.  There would be a look of abject horror on his face and he would be wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts.