Thursday, February 16, 2017

Of automobiles and computers


Novelist Booth Tarkington first published The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The novel is about the downfall in finances and prestige of the richest family in Indianapolis. A key plot point is introduction of the automobile by inventor Eugene Morgan at the turn of the last century. A scene in Chapter 19 takes place at the dinner table during a party, and a main character, George Amberson Minafer,  who is still stuck in horse-and-buggy times lambastes Morgan’s invention, saying: “Automobiles are a useless nuisance . . . They’ll never amount to anything but a nuisance. They had no business to be invented.”
After the personal affront, Morgan is forced to defend his invention powered by the internal combustion engine. His words are particularly prescient, seeing author Tarkington wrote them around 1916.
Now let’s pretend the novel was written in 2016, a century later, and George Amberson Minafer has just lambasted the “computer” as a “useless nuisance” and “had no business to be invented.” And let us further pretend that Eugene Morgan invented computers rather than automobiles, and is forced to defend his invention.
What follows is Morgan’s soliloquy in The Magnificent Ambersons, with two changes. I’ve substituted the word “computer” for “automobile.” And in one instance I’ve inserted “central processing unit” for “gasoline engine.”
Give this one-hundred-year-old paragraph a read.
“I’m not sure he’s wrong about computers,” Morgan said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization – that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But computers have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of computers; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the central processing unit, but would have to agree with him that computers ‘had no business to be invented.’”


R.D. Byron-Smith’s novels and non-fiction works are available in paperback at Amazon.