Moonage Daydream: Science Fiction, Human/Computer Interaction, and Feedback Systems


“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. […] Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.” – Ray Bradbury (Unknown, 1995)

Feedback systems are key to current human/computer interaction and machine intelligence paradigms. The ability for a system to self-regulate through feedback makes it less mechanized and more interactive. In media, science fiction as a genre can and does extrapolate contemporary technology and science to explore a plausible future from that foundation of knowledge. Through that mechanism, the authors and writers of science fiction explicitly or implicitly use feedback systems in their explanation of technology. Inherently, science fiction reflects or is a critique of the time period in which it is written. Using science fiction as a kind of anthropological tool for discussion of feedback systems, a greater appreciation of how attitudes about human/computer interaction and machine intelligence have changed over time.

Science fiction is now ubiquitous within American media. However, the genre is not particularly old and its popularity is relatively new. An agreed-upon founding work of the genre is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published in 1818. Science fiction has gone through distinct eras since then. It is important to appreciate the differences between the eras, as well as exemplars of each, when discussing feedback systems because the eras each have their own distinct mentality in terms of what defines the genre. That will also color the discussion of technology and feedback systems.

Overture: A Brief and Relevant History of Science Fiction

The genre of science fiction is widely regarded as founded in 1818 with the publishing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Alexander, 2014). Generally speaking, the genre uses advanced science and technology as plot devices, or a means to solve a problem, to earn its branch on the tree of speculative fiction, but that is not a complete definition. In fact, science fiction is challenging to define adequately. Robert Heinlein (1957) offered this: “a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”

The history of science fiction can largely be described in three eras: Early Science Fiction, Golden Age Science Fiction, and New Wave Science Fiction / Soft Science Fiction / Contemporary Science Fiction. Early Science Fiction is the birth and formative years of the genre. Here, it is not uncommon for science fiction stories to be woven into other genres – not quite strong enough to stand on its own yet. Jules Verne’s work, for example, is often a romance story wrapped in science fiction. Verne’s The Green Ray (1883) is about a man and woman trying to observe an optical phenomenon visible immediately before or after sunset, but instead they gaze into each other’s eyes and fall in love. How saccharine! That is not to suggest that Early Science Fiction lacks merit or does not deserve further inspection. Several important literary works come from this era written by authors such as Shelley, Wells, Verne, and Butler.

Golden Age Science Fiction has three clear exemplars: Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. These authors are known as “The Big Three;” they were considered luminaries of the era (Freedman, 2000). Works from Golden Age Science Fiction generally strive to be plausible, at least in the understanding of reality and science at the time (Roberts, 2006). The works of Verne are perhaps more fanciful and romantic; whereas Asimov is perhaps known just as well for his nonfiction works of science as his science fiction (Seller and Jenkins, 2000). In a sense, science fiction grew up. Additionally, science fiction made its way into the various new media formats such as radio and movies.

Finally, there is the conglomeration of New Wave, Soft, and Contemporary Science Fiction which is much more splintered and complex. Science fiction is now a part of every popular medium. As if it were a pendulum swinging back and forth, science fiction is once again more interested in literary value, perhaps at the cost of scientific accuracy or plausibility (Roberts, 2006). Some members of the Golden Age adapt and grow with the shift – notably Heinlein. His later works have a tendency towards Soft Science Fiction (Heinlein 1973, 1980, 1984). Others nearly abandoned the genre – notably Asimov. Much like other mediums undergoing a period of post-modernism, science fiction is now able to self-reference and self-critique and dabble more strongly in farce (Moorcock, 1963).

Theme: The Importance of Feedback Systems

A feedback system is a part of a larger system. Feedback systems take information from the larger system and then reinsert that information back into the larger system at different point. This is typically “earlier” in the larger system, in a sense of the signal flow, which lends the name feedback. The information is fed into the system to a prior point, or “back.” Another common feature of feedback systems is that they sometimes transform or interpret the information they receive before inserting it back into the larger system. Through the use of feedback, systems are able to self-regulate (United States Naval Academy).

Feedback systems are a major component to the current paradigm of machine intelligence and human/computer interaction (Wiener, 1954). With the ability for feedback, a system is able to fight entropy of information, as well as act in a manner more like human intelligence than without feedback systems. Wiener (1954) uses the example of an automatic door’s pressure plate. It is not sufficient for any amount of pressure to activate the door, but instead only a human-like amount of pressure. To achieve this, a feedback system is used in the circuit and the door is now functions in a more intelligent way. By understanding how western society implicitly and explicitly discusses feedback systems in science fiction, it will be possible to explore how the conceptualization of human/computer interaction and machine intelligence changes over time.

Variations on a Theme: Feedback Systems in Early Science Fiction

As a product of the 19th century, Shelley’s Frankenstein has a vastly different set of technology than that of the present. Victor Von Frankenstein’s laboratory is described as an attic that is lit by a single candle. Present around the laboratory are various devices and chemicals (Shelley, 1818). What is not present in any explicit sense is a feedback system, but this makes sense. As of writing in the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was brand new and only recently had society begun to transition to use of machinery and electricity (Wikipedia, 2014a).

But what is present is a biological feedback system: the monster. Frankenstein assembles the monster from pieces of different people and seeks to reanimate them (Shelley, 1818). In other words, Frankenstein builds a biological feedback system. Frankenstein’s creation comes to life when hit with a jolt of electricity (Shelley, 1818). While Shelley is more likely exploring the ethics and dangers of creating life, feedback systems are the core of this story. The monster is a collection of feedback systems because, much like humans, it has senses that take in information. It then processes that information, and responds to its environment. Admittedly, this connection is somewhat tenuous. It takes a modern, broad conception of feedback systems and applies it in a manner that may not be consistent with the time period’s usage of the term.

Verne (1867), however, frequently wrote about machinery in a more explicit fashion. In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne describes the technology used to send an enterprising group of travellers to the moon. Perhaps the most salient example of a feedback system in From the Earth to the Moon is the space capsule’s oxygen production machine. While the machine itself is fanciful, a minor plot point is that the regulator system on the machine goes out of alignment and the crew feels oxygen-induced euphoria. Here, a feedback system is not only explicit but also a plot device. Failings of machinery are not uncommon in all kinds of science fiction, but here the feedback system is what fails, not the machine itself. This elevates the importance of the feedback system and the value of machine intelligence. Granted, this is a very crude intelligence, but it represents the pinnacle of technology of the time. For context, the modern thermostat was only invented a mere 30 or so years earlier (Nagengast, 2001), making the notion of self-regulating systems reasonably new.

H.G. Wells (1895), another luminary of early science fiction, put forth a tale of the exploration of time with The Time Machine. Wells never got into the workings of the aforementioned machine. The reader knows it has levers, a chair, and a control panel but not much else is known (Wells, 1895). Wells’ (1895) machine may not use a feedback-controlled system at all, but at best the feedback systems are implied. It is impossible to be sure, but given the nature of the Time Traveller’s interactions with the machine, it does not seem to have any feedback systems. The rate of passage of time is controlled by the position of the lever (Wells, 1895). This is similar to how a steam engine can operate. This anti-example serves to be just as interesting, however. The time machine is so central to the plot of the book and so fascinating of a concept that it earns its place as the title, and yet very little discussion of the machine itself happens. The de facto insinuation is that how the machinery works is not important, merely that it does function. Another possibility is that Wells had no notion of how to construct such a machine and so left it to imagination. This is understandable since time travel is still an elusive, if possible, technology. Wells (1895) instead focuses on evolution and social issues, and this is what makes The Time Machine science fiction as opposed to science fantasy.

In another novel by Wells, The War Of The Worlds (1897), technology takes an even more prominent role in the story: alien invaders from Mars attempt to destroy the human race, using wildly advanced technology. Fascinatingly, despite the major role technology plays in the story, Wells makes little attempt to expound on its functions. The Martian technology is foreign and fanciful, but Wells keeps the machinations of it nearly entirely opaque (1898). In fact, Verne, his contemporary takes a jab at Wells for that very reason (Jones, 1904). There is one standout example, though: Wells describes how Martian automobiles roll. Not on wheels, but muscle-like contractions around an axle (Wells, 1989), not unlike an advanced electroactive polymer technology seen today (Wikipedia, Electroactive Polymers, 2014).

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), is a deep meditation on machine intelligence and Darwinism seated in satire of the Victorian British Empire. In Butler’s story people of the fictional nation Erewhon have banned machines out of fear that they could become intelligent. Butler’s point was lost, perhaps because it was so far-fetched, but he was very seriously concerned, having read Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) prior to writing his novel (Butler, 2004).

As shown through previous examples, when feedback systems are discussed in Early Science Fiction, they very well may be very important to the story. However, it also seems that given the timing of Early Science Fiction with the Industrial Revolutions, the wonder of machinery might have outpaced some authors’ ability to develop plausible systems that would merit explicit discussion – such as Wells’ time machine. As such, feedback systems play a more implicit or even absent role. It also implies that, with Butler’s notable exception, machines are not even conceived to be possibly intelligent, even on a basic level. Or at the very least, feedback systems were not associated with intelligence in the same way as contemporary western society.

Variations on a Theme: Feedback Systems in Golden Age Science Fiction

A common theme in Golden Age Science Fiction is machine intelligence, and human/computer interaction. Luminaries of this period include Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Also, science fiction now exists in more mediums than before with the advent of radio, television, and movies. As such, Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey deserve discussion. Generally speaking, Golden Age Science Fiction takes the science portion more seriously: some authors even digress for swaths of novels to discuss science before returning to the narrative.

In 1942, Heinlein wrote a short story titled “Waldo” in which telepresence was first imagined, as well as haptic feedback. A waldo was a device that mimicked the human hands but could be operated remotely. Additionally, they provided scaled visual feedback to the user, meaning if the waldos were smaller than real human hands, the operator would get a visual feed as if they were that much smaller (Heinlein, 1950. In the story, the protagonist constructs ever smaller waldos to eventually work on the cellular level (Heinlein, 1950). Waldos, however, were not a dummy pair of gloves. Instead, they transmitted the tactile sensations they received to the operator’s hands (Heinlein, 1950). This is an example of a highly explicit and central feedback system as a plot device.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) was the first mention of powered exoskeleton infantry armor as it is conceived of today (Weiss, 2001). Heinlein describes the function of the suit in detail, outlining a series of feedback systems necessary to make it function as desired. The suit moves with the soldier without additional human power. Additionally, it greatly enhances the human’s strength and speed (Heinlein, 1959). The suit’s use of feedback systems regulate its movement so as to not burden or injure the human inside. Again, feedback systems are highly explicit and and a major feature of the plot.

Perhaps the most iconic computer of Golden Age Science Fiction is found in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a joint effort between filmmaker Kubrick and author Clarke. The film and book were written concurrently, though Clarke is given full credit for the novel (1968). The computer in question, HAL 9000, is intelligent by human standards (Clarke 1968, Kubrick 1968). HAL also possesses several explicit feedback systems beyond intelligence: audio / video inputs, control panels, and sensors (Clarke 1968, Kubrick 1968). This allows HAL to take input from the world it to inform its decision making process. Of course, in 2001, HAL ends up being an antagonist who goes insane and kills most of the crew (Clarke 1968, Kubrick 1968). Murderous inclinations aside, HAL possesses a series of highly explicit feedback systems as well as machine intelligence. The mode of human/computer interaction is conceptualized as being similar to talking with another human. HAL can have information put into it via control panels when convenient, but much of the interaction with HAL is done with colloquial verbal communication. HAL can go one step further than verbal communication: it can read lips, much to the chagrin of the human crew (Clarke 1968, Kubrick 1968).

Asimov (1942) also tackles machine intelligence and human/computer interaction in a big way with his introduction of The Three Laws of Robotics:

“A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” (Asimov, 1942, p85)

Not only does this form a short manifesto on machine intelligence, but also infers a series of feedback systems. For example, the first law is directly guided by feedback systems: if the robot is about to act in a manner that would harm a human, feedback from this information would halt the robot. Machine intelligence, as well as human/computer interaction, is implied in the second law. If a robot is to receive orders, humans must be able to give the order in some manner. Additionally, the robot must be able to interpret the orders.

Though not seated in literature, Star Trek is a major collection of works of science fiction, spanning decades and arguably eras of science fiction. Though it began after the Golden Age of Science Fiction, its heritage is seated deeply in the Golden Age with it’s strong regard for hard science fiction. Possible era-spanning aside, Star Trek in its two most recognizable configurations – the original television series and Star Trek: The Next Generation television series – contains numerous examples of human/computer interaction, feedback systems, and machine intelligence. Additionally, during the two decade gap between the original series and The Next Generation, there is a demonstrable difference in extrapolations of then-current technology.

The mode of human-computer interaction in the original series is centered around buttons and levers, with a comparatively limited use of screen-based displays. The computer was able to talk, but barring a few notable exceptions like the Enterprise’s elevator system, it did not respond to voice commands. In The Next Generation, screens are present everywhere, as well as a contextual graphical user interface on touchscreens (Memory Alpha, 2014). Additionally, the computer was highly responsive to voice commands of many different kinds, from food orders to tactical commands (Memory Alpha, 2014b).

Feedback systems can and do routinely play major functions in plots for several episodes. For example, “The Doomsday Machine” (Daniels, 1967) in the original series, features a run-amok planet-eating machine that is on a trajectory to eat several densely populated planets. The machine has a defense system no doubt run by feedback systems which causes it to attack the most imminent threat posed to it (Daniels, 1967). While the mechanism is not described or explored, the outcome of the function of the planet-eating machine makes the feedback system inevitable.

The holodeck, an eminent technology of The Next Generation, uses a series of feedback systems to function. A holodeck technology is an immersive virtual reality where a computer-controlled simulation creates a material, though ephemeral, reality around the people on the holodeck (Memory Alpha, 2014a). In the simulation, there are no specialized interfaces or devices that a person must use to interact with the simulated environment. Though the deck is of finite size, it can trick the people on the holodeck into making it seem nearly limitless through optical illusions and other psychophysical tricks (Memory Alpha, 2014a). The use of psychophysical tricks implies a feedback system, but it is both nuanced and vague. Clearly, the holodeck needs to respond not just of the position of the people in the holodeck, but where they are looking and moving. Without eye tracking, optical illusions, such as those that imply depth along the z-axis, would be impossible with current understandings of optics. To track eyes, a feedback system would be necessary.

The holodeck is also a model of human/computer interaction due to the fact that people on the holodeck require no special equipment to interact with the simulated reality. From some perspectives, such as Ascott (1967), Krueger, (1977) and Wiener (1954), this is the ultimate form of human/computer interaction because it is seamless and effectively indistinguishable from reality. Through a series of complex feedback systems, the mode of human/computer interaction is changed substantially.

Variations on a Theme: Feedback Systems in New Wave Science Fiction, Soft Science Fiction and the Present

New Wave Science Fiction is a primarily literary movement, where science fiction writers begin experimenting with the form and function of the literature itself (Moorcock, 19363). Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus! trilogy (1984) is an example of New Wave Science Fiction because it is absurdist, and written in a non-linear fashion. The scientific portion of the novel is reduced to nearly a farce, and serves as framework for the narrative as opposed to the substance of it. The book explores a series of conspiracy theories, using time travel to tie it all together (Shea & Wilson, 1984).

Similarly, Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977) features seemingly possible technology, but it too is used mostly to make a setting for the narrative to unfold as opposed. The protagonist takes a fictional drug and has a variety of experiences while on the drug, blurring reality (Dick, 1977). Again, the scientific aspects – the formulation of the drug, for example – are not particularly relevant to the story. The main scientific interaction could be described as the implicit neurophysiology changes in the characters caused by the drug.

Whedon, a prominent writer and producer of science fiction content from the end of the 20th century to the present, represents a decidedly different tone in his relationship to technology, human/computer interaction and machine intelligence. In Firefly (Whedon, 2002), technology seems similar to present day technology with the noted exception of faster-than-light travel, starships, and thlike. Typical keyboards, levers, and buttons are used regularly on interfaces (Unknown, 2014). In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Whedon (1997) has story arcs dealing with machine intelligence, but the “how” is glossed over almost entirely, much in the way that Wells never explained how his Martian invaders might function (Jones, 1904). This suggests a major shift away from being interested in how technology works to how people work or Soft Science Fiction.

Much like Whedon, Scalzi also diminishes the role of technology in his stories. For example, in Red Shirts (S2012), a major plot device is that the technology on board the starship works only because the author specifically wrote it that way. In Old Man’s War (2005), technology is discussed to some extent, but again the people are the larger focus. For example, the faster-than-light system that the ship uses is explained to be actually jumping through dimensions, however the characters’ experience with being young again is explored in depth (Scalzi, 2005). This developing theme of interest in people over science fiction is a defining trait of Soft Science Fiction (Sterling, 2014). Soft science refers to branches of science that deal with humanity, like sociology, psychology, political science, and linguistics (Sterling, 2014).

Coda: Analysis of Feedback Systems in Science Fiction

With exceptions, Golden Age Science Fiction is the most explicit in terms of feedback systems. Ideally, some type of content analysis would bolster these case studies, but the culture and values of the eras seem coherent. And the changes in tone can be found mirrored in texts discussing feedback systems in human/computer interaction and machine intelligence.

Early Science Fiction has no corresponding human/computer interaction text. Understandable, given that the modern computer will not exist for decades yet and as such no theory existed to discuss human interactions with them. However, given the context of the time in which it was written: during or immediately after the Industrial Revolutions, machinery was just beginning to become relevant to the daily lives of many people in society (Wikipedia, 2014a). In fact, society as a whole changed drastically and technology, in the layperson’s sense, was present now more than ever. And the possible wonders of self-regulating systems were only just starting to be explored. But overall, reactions to the major societal shift seem to be the central topic at hand. Only a few authors had the gall to suggest machine intelligence was possible: Butler was mocked somewhat mercilessly for suggesting machines could be intelligent at all, let alone surpass human intelligence (Butler, 2004).

Golden Age Science Fiction has some stunning parity with human/computer interaction literature. Wiener (1954) is speaking of human/computer interaction when he uses the term “cybernetics.” And to him, feedback systems are tantamount to not only interaction, but intelligent interaction (Wiener, 1954). Without feedback systems, machines cannot self-regulate or respond to conditions that would impact their function (Wiener, 1954). Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein all recognize this fact through their stories. Asimov’s Three Laws, Clarke’s HAL 9000, and Heinlein’s waldos all rely on feedback systems to be able to function.

Perhaps because computers are no longer a novelty, or not a novelty in the same way they were during the Golden Age, New Wave, Soft and Contemporary Science Fiction generally seem to mirror more of Wells’ explication of technology. Technology is present, but how it works is of lesser importance. Just the same, a fair amount of explicit discussions of feedback systems can still occur. Science fiction is now mature enough to have its own nostalgia, it seems. And as such, there are many splinters and subgenres. It is too diverse a group to make sweeping statements, but it is safe to say that people are again more of the focus than the technology or how it might work.

And just the same, this theme appears in human/computer interaction literature. For example, Krueger (1977) writes more about the mode and meaning behind interaction than the technical function of it. Ascott (1967) describes the computer as a tool and how far it may go, but writes little about the uses of feedback to control the system. And this could mean that the unit of analysis has changed. Previously, the circuit was interesting, now the system of circuits and what they can do are interesting. Perhaps there is some poetic humor to be found between computer chip design and human/computer interaction: the chip designer spends their life making ever-smaller and powerful chips and as they do, the human/computer interaction researcher remembers less and less that the chips exist at all.


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