How a Prophetic 1946 Short Story Anticipated Today's Web, But Not The Changed Role of Women

Many science fiction stories have anticipated future developments, but probably the most surprising was Murray Leinster's extraordinary story "A Logic Named Joe". Written long before anyone had seen a computer, or even a TV set, it imagined a future world where every home would be equipped with a computer ("logic" in the story) that is connected to a "tank" (a server) and that all the tanks would be connected together to make a global network. Considering that this comes long before MIT and DARPA started talking about the "Galactic Network" this is already very impressive.

But it is in the services the "logic" provides that Leinster really surprises us, because he talks about things which were still in the realm of science fiction just ten years ago.

"You got a logic in your house", the story begins, "It looks like a vision receiver used to only it's got keys instead of dials... Say you punch 'Station SNAFU' on your logic  whatever vision program SNAFU is telecastin' comes on your logic's screen. Or you punch 'Sally Hancock's Phone' and ... you're hooked up with the logic in her house an if somebody answers you got a vision phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast, or who won today's race at Hialeah or who was the mistress of the White House durin' Garfield's administration or what is PDQ&R sellin' for today, that comes on the screen, too."

So Leinster's "logics service" provides you with a late 2000s range of web services, including video calls, streaming TV, search, weather news and everything else we take for granted today so it would be hard to believe that this was published in May 1946 if it weren't for a telltale line at the end of the opening paragraph.

"The only thing it won't do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said "Oh, you think so do you?" in that peculiar kind voice. Logics don't work good on women. Only on things that make sense."

This part doesn't surprise me at all. Science fiction writers have no trouble anticipating technical developments but always seem to assume that the social world will remain forever unchanged. Leinster could extrapolate what little he had heard about future television and computer developments and imagine the world wide web, data mining, Skype calls and much more. But he could not imagine a world where women are mostly treated like human beings.

He was wrong on two other social questions, too. First of all he imagines that the "logics service" would be provided by a single company that operates the network, the servers and all the terminals. In fact one of the key enabling concepts of the Internet and later the World Wide Web is that they are built on standards and are neither owned nor controlled by one corporation.  In addition, the story is told in the first person by a service technician working for the logics company and is entirely written in an irritating register writers use when they want to make you understand a person is uneducated. Again, he could probably never imagine that the support engineer of today probably has a university degree and is maybe even a woman, something else difficult to imagine in 1946 even though we now know that there were women working on secret military computers at the time.

But the story is a fascinating example of how literature often anticipates technology but very rarely social change, and I hope that it inspires writers to do something about it.  If you'd like to find out how the story ends read the full text of A Logic Named Joe. There is also a period radio show recording available from A Logic Named Joe (audio) at The Internet Archive  And if you'd like to discuss the idea you can find me on GooglePlus, Facebook, Twitter always with the name "andrewhennigan".


This note is based on the Lecture "When Literature Meets Technology: How Fiction Anticipates Technical Developments But Ignores Social Change" created and presented by Andrew Hennigan. Email for more information. 


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