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The Isaac Asimov Story That Predicted Our Social Media Society

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Isaac Asimov

Anyone concerned about social media's saturation of our society need only take in a few news headlines to have their fears confirmed. ‘Teachers Tripped Up by Facebook Rants and Bikini Pics’ reports The Guardian, warning would-be teachers "scrutiny doesn’t end with the job interview," and to take care in using social media, or better still avoid it altogether, for fear of possible future embarrassment. The day before, BBC News posted a report entitled ‘Not in Front of the Telly: Warning Over ‘Listening’ TV,’ cautioning owners of the new Samsung Smart TV against private conversations when using the vocal-command remote control option, as a third-party (the company responsible for converting spoken messages into text) may overhear details of your personal life. Shocking, but these examples of our self-surveillance society would not have surprised the late Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest science-fiction intellects of the twentieth century, who over fifty years ago published a short story expressing concerns for privacy in the computer age. Indeed, writing in 2012, Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, used Asimov’s story, ‘The Dead Past,’ as an example of how surveillance technology, both of the state and of the private person, has radically altered, if not destroyed, our concept of privacy.      

Warning – Spoilers Ahead

Asimov's ‘The Dead Past’ first appeared in the April 1956 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, one of the greatest of the old-style sci-fi pulp magazines, and still running today under the title Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The story's setting is around the year 2045, and fans refer to it as one of Asimov’s ‘Multivac’ stories, this being the name of a proto-Internet mainframe computer, accessible through smaller computerized devices.

The plot of ‘The Dead Past’ concerns Dr Arnold Potterley, a university lecturer in history, who

Carthaginians
applies to use the government’s Chronoscopy machine, through which, potentially, will allow for the viewing of any scene from the past. Potterley wishes to use the device to confirm whether the Carthaginians practiced infant sacrifice, a story Potterley suspects as propaganda written by contemporary Roman writers. Thaddeus Araman, “Department Head of the Division of Chronoscopy,” denies the request due to the cost, the unlikelihood of success and the long waiting line (at least two years) ahead of Potterley, also wanting to use the government’s sole Chronoscopy unit.

Frustrated to the point of distraction, Potterley convinces Jonas Foster, “a new instructor in physics,” to investigate the science behind the Chronoscope device, a neglected branch of science known as ‘neutrinics.’ Initially reluctant, Foster’s intellectual curiosity peaks on learning the government has banned all forms of neutrinic research, leaving Sterbinksi, the deceased inventor of the Chronoscopy machine, as both the first and last man to conduct work in the field. Angry at yet further evidence of governmental inference in science (as is often the case in Asimov stories, the government and the UN have a far stronger role in daily life than in our world), Foster agrees to build a Chronoscopy device in Potterley’s basement, aided by the sole surviving text-film on Sterbinski’s work, stolen from the New York City library by Foster’s uncle, Ralph Nimmo. An influential and eccentric science writer, Nimmo also provides his nephew with the requested materials to build the device, although Foster keeps the purpose of his work secret from his uncle, to protect him from government attention.

Although Foster is successful in building the machine, he has bad news for Potterley: due to the ‘uncertainty principle,’ the absolute maximum any Chronoscopy can go back in time is 125 years, meaning Potterley can never look upon his beloved Carthage, which fell to Rome in 146BC. However, this is fine by Potterley’s wife, Caroline; we have learned how the Potterley’s only child, a daughter named Laurel, died aged three in a house fire twenty years before. “What do we care about Carthage and ancient times?” she asks her husband. “It’s Laurel we can see.”

Potterley will have none of this. “What will you see? The past. The dead past...Will you live three years over and over, watching a baby who’ll never grow up no matter how often you watch?” Potterley knows his wife would spend the rest of her days watching Laurel’s three years of life on the Chronoscopy machine, sending herself mad in the process. Potterley wrecks the machine and Foster flees the house.

A couple of days later, Potterley visits Foster in his classroom, to apologize for his behavior. However, Foster has learned enough to know almost anyone can build a small, portable Chronoscopy machine in their workshop, and doesn’t see why the government should stop people from doing so. Potterley suspects he knows why: “For the government to encourage Chronoscopy would have meant everyone’s past would be visible....organized government might become impossible.” Time-viewing, the historian feels, will fall into the province of those yearning for lost loved ones, and not for knowledge's advancement. “We’ll have a whole world living in the past.” Potterley warns Foster against taking his work further.

But Foster determines to buck against the government’s suppression of neutrinics, so writes down all he knows on the subject, seals the paper in an envelope and arranges for his bank to place the envelope in a vault for release after his death. Foster calls his uncle to let him know of the envelope, but not what it contains. Foster notes “He had never felt so ridiculously self-conscious as at that moment.”

The next day, Foster receives a visit from Araman, with Potterley in tow; the historian has reported Foster to the authorities. Araman will make sure Foster will never work on neutrinics again, even if it means locking him up in jail for the rest of his life, without charge or a trial. Nimmo then barges in, with the science writer hoping to persuade his nephew away from the field he suspects he is working in, for the sake of his future career. Araman also threatens Nimmo with indefinite imprisonment for “unauthorized research.” Nimmo and Foster rail against the government official, who loses patience with the three. As Potterley theorized, the government knows people would use a Chronoscopy to watch their distant past for late parents or lost loves, “but when does the past really begin? Isn’t it obvious that the past begins an instant ago?” cries the official. “What if you focus the Chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren’t you watching the present?”

1939PeepShow
The reality strikes Nimmo, who realizes this would result in “damnation.”  Once people tire of watching the deceased, they will turn their Chronoscope onto the living. Araman explains: “The housewife will forget her poor dead mother and take to watching her neighbor at home and her husband at work.” With everyone watching the immediate past of everyone else, the concept of privacy will cease to exist, “each man his own peeping Tom and no escape from the watcher.” Araman admits those in charge of the government’s only Chronoscope have used the device for “titillation,” while his department have watched the last six months of Foster’s and Potterley’s life via the Chronoscope, once alerted by the historian, in order to confirm their suspicions. The sealed envelope is already in the government's possession.

However, Nimmo delivers the sickening news that, thinking the government had suppressed neutrinics research out of mere tyranny, he has told all he knows of his nephew’s research to several small publishing presses, who even now, are spreading the news of how to construct other Chronoscopes: "I suppose there's no way of putting the mushroom cloud back into that nice, shiny uranium sphere," he surmises, gloomily.    

All four men realize the horror of the new world where they now live. Araman states that while in the past, every act or habit came with its own degree of privacy, this has gone forever. The historic moment of the ‘inventors’ of the Chronoscope together is doubtless being watched by hundreds of thousands of unseen Chronoscope viewers in the future. “I congratulate you,” Araman tells the three. “Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever.” 

Should anyone think this tale unlikely, consider the St Paul’s, Minnesota, McDonald’s worker, filmed recently experiencing a meltdown after being sacked from his job, the hot new viral clip of the day. At the time of writing, this clip has over 30,000 views on YouTube and is only a matter of hours old. Kozinski quotes the infamous 2007 case of Lauren Caitlin Upton, a teenage beauty pageant entrant who, under pressure, gave an incoherent and rambling answer to a question posed by a competition judge. Needless to say, the clip soon, if not instantly, found its way onto YouTube, where it has since accumulated over sixty-one million viewings with the total rising every day. Would you like the most embarrassing moment of your young life available forever, for everyone to enjoy whenever they please?

We record more of our lives, and the lives of others, than ever before. Should you stumble in the street and fall over, who’s to say someone nearby didn’t, accidentally or otherwise, film the incident on their iPhone and is even now uploading it to a clip hosting website? As Kozinski puts it: “No matter how private, dangerous, hurtful, sensitive, or secret a piece of information may be, any fool with a computer and an internet connection...can post it online, never again to be private or secret.” Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past’ takes our instinct to film our lives, and watch the lives of others, to its logical, terrifying conclusion – blanket coverage of everyone’s life, available to everyone else always, a situation entirely of our own making. In these days in which we can film our children’s lives from their birth, perhaps that child, as a person in old age, is watching you read this article, on some device a hundred years from now? Welcome to the goldfish bowl...

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Bibliography

  1. "The Dead Past." Red Library. 10/02/2015 <Web >
  2. Unknown "Not in Front of the Telly: Warning Over 'Listening' TV." BBC News. 09/02/2015. 10/02/2015 <Web >
  3. Alex Kozinski "The Dead Past." Stanford Law Review. 12/04/2012. 10/02/2015 <Web >
  4. Kathryn Nave "Teachers Tripped Up By Facebook Rant and Bikini Pics." The Guardian. 10/02/2015. 10/02/2015 <Web >

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