I have been a fan of Isaac Asimov’s short stories for several years. I enjoy stories which wrestle with interesting ideas, even when I disagree with the conclusions. Asimov was an atheist, and so I certainly do not always agree with him, but he could tell fascinating stories. I have read some of his Foundation series, and they are interesting, but I enjoy his short stories even more because they deal with interesting ideas in a succinct manner and often end with a punch. The following are two of the stories that I find especially interesting.
In this story a scientist (Phineas Welch) and an English teacher (Scott Robertson) are having drinks and discussing a new technology which Welch has developed and uses to bring dead people of the past into the present, but Welch sent them back because they could not adjust to modern culture. Welch then tells Robertson that he brought back William Shakespeare and enrolled him in Robertson’s Shakespeare class under a different name. Shakespeare was dumbfounded by the interpretations that people had imposed on his writings over the past 500 years. Shakespeare failed the class and was so embarrassed that Welch had to send him back to his own time.
The Immortal Bard is my favorite Asimov story. Anyone who has been through both high school and college has had at least one English or literature teacher who would apply wild interpretations to works of literature which the authors never would have imagined. I hold firmly to the conviction that a written work, or movie, or song, etc. means what the author meant and that we should seek to interpret such works according to the author’s intended meaning as closely as we can discern it.
When the author is pushed out of the discussion of interpretation, the door is opened to wild and arbitrary interpretations. If a written work only means what the reader thinks it means, then it will have as many meanings as readers. If that is the case then does it really mean anything? As a Christian with a special interest in theology, this is especially important to me regarding interpretation of the Bible in the formation of a solid theology, but this also applies to works of literature, art, movies, theater, and law and the constitution. Undoubtedly the significance and application of a text can vary from reader to reader, but they should always align with the author’s intended meaning as closely as it can be discerned. Reading a work in its original language (if it was translated) and studying the historical background and culture of the author can aid this effort. As E. D. Hirsch wrote, “A red object will appear to have different color qualities when viewed against differently colored backgrounds. The same is true of textual meaning. But the meaning of the text (its Sinn) does not change any more than the hue and saturation of the red object changes when seen against different background. . . . This permanent meaning is, and can be, nothing other than the author’s meaning” (Validity in Interpretation , p. 216). Hirsch also writes, “The interpreter’s job is to reconstruct a determinate actual meaning, not a mere system of possibilities” (Ibid., 231).
Sometimes discerning the author’s intended meaning can be very challenging, but it should always be our goal in interpretation. Discussion of individualized significance is fine as long as the author’s intended meaning is kept in its proper place.
In this story Niccolo Mazetti is at home listening to his Bard, a computerized story-teller. He has grown bored with it because after many years it no longer tells a unique story. Every story is merely a repeat of elements from previous stories about kings and princesses. His friend Paul Loeb then arrives with a great idea.
Niccolo had no ambition for life. He took all the usual subjects at school, but nothing special, and he would end up working as a computer operator like everyone else. (In many of Asimov’s stories, a master computer called Multivac manages much of daily operations on earth while many of the people merely enter the information it needs to make its decisions. Something similar is in view here.) Paul was different. He took special classes in math, circuitry, and computer programming and would probably become a computer engineer.
Paul explains that he saw some old computers. He mentions a time before people had computers and had to do everything themselves. Niccolo has trouble believing him. Paul then tells him his idea. He suggests they start a “squiggle club” in which they would use squiggles to send each other secret messages. The squiggles are what we call writing, and decoding the messages is what we call reading.
In Niccolo’s and Paul’s time, people had come to depend on computers so much that they no longer learned how to read and write. Most people had no concept of reading and writing. They merely talked to their computers, and their computers talked back to them. Most people did not consider that there was a time without computers. Most people also had no ambition. They merely became computer operators and let the computers handle most tasks.
While discussing his idea, Paul downloads a book about computers into the Bard to give it new material from which to create stories. It then tells another fairy tale about a computer. Niccolo comments that it is still telling the same junk. After he and Paul leave the Bard tells another story about a Bard who was mistreated by humans. It then learned of other computers who managed factories and farms, managed populations, and analyzed data, and they did those tasks better than humans.The Bard in the story knew that the computers were wiser and more powerful than the humans and would “always grow wiser and more powerful until someday-someday-someday.” Niccolo’s Bard becomes stuck on the last word due to a corroding component, but the implication seems to be that as computers handled more and more tasks for humanity, and as humans became increasingly more dependent, increasingly less involved and less informed, and with increasingly less ambition, the computers would eventually control them.
This story raises some interesting questions. I am not worried about artificial intelligence becoming so advanced that it overthrows humanity. However, as computers assume more tasks, humans will need to find other jobs. What will those jobs be?
More importantly, as computers do more and more for us, will people see less need to think and learn for themselves? For example, I remember when I would memorize people’s phone numbers. Now we do not need to remember them because our cell phones remember the numbers. We only need to select a name from our list of contacts. Of course, phone numbers are a minor example that should not concern anyone, but this can be taken further. As people become increasingly accustomed to finding information online, will they be less motivated to learn that information for themselves? Will they simply conclude that they only need to look up the information whenever they need it? Easy access to knowledge, however, is never equivalent to knowledge. With so much easy knowledge in close reach, will some people cease to learn? When they depend more on computers to tell them everything, with less personal knowledge with which to judge that information, will some people become less discerning and simply accept what a computer tells them?