It is simplistic to see either individual literary stories or authors as optimistic or pessimistic about technology. Does a happy ending constitute optimism or conformity to a popular convention in the pulp sf genre? And does noting the limitations of technology constitute pessimism? Even within the genre of science fiction, which is popularly stereotyped as being about technology in the future, attitudes reflect a continuum from a belief that technological developments represent progress towards greater human happiness to the belief that technological developments will lead us to be increasingly dependent on the machine, less in touch with the Earth and so on.
Moral dilemmas in science fiction are typically concerned with the misuse of technology (especially by the military, politicians or industrialists) rather than with technology itself being problematic. And authors are not easily categorized simply as optimists or pessimists. Few writers would advocate a return to a 'pre-technological' existence, although William Morris in his News From Nowhere (1890) does reflect a romantic longing for rural living. H G Wells is often seen as optimistic and utopian about technology but his views did grow darker as he aged. And Clifford Simak's stories problematically explore the optimistic possibility of reconciliation or harmony between Technological Man and Nature whilst his often elegiac and nostalgic tone also suggests pessimism.
And it is misleading to assume that stories apparently reflecting technophilia or technophobia necessarily either dominant intellectual stances or the climate of popular opinion. Indeed, even where there seems to be a broad academic consensus about what can be seen as periods of widespread technophilia or technophobia in society, it would be foolish to underestimate the diversity of opinion within the population, particularly between social classes and, I would suggest, generations. Despite all these objections, an optimism/pessimism split in literary writings about technology is seen as important by many commentators.
From ancient Greece to the Middle Ages attitudes towards technology were generally optimistic. Later, Descartes (d. 1650) and Newton (d. 1727) were to establish the ubiquitous tradition of portraying the body, the mind and the universe itself in mechanical terms, a framework whose inheritance tends to divide us in modern times into mechanists and vitalists. Clockwork and hydraulic automata were common gimmicks from the seventeenth century onwards, and Descartes himself apparently possessed a mechanical doll called Francine which he took with him on his travels (Frude 1983, p. 121). Such animated dolls became increasingly lifelike, and some French life-size dolls demonstrated in the early eighteenth century actually played the musical instruments they held. The designer, Jacques de Vaucanson, later developed punched cards for the control of weaving machines, an idea which in a version by Jacquard was later to impress Charles Babbage, the father of the computer (ibid., pp. 121-2).
Jonathan Swift satirized scientific inventors in Gulliver's Travels (1726), although his narrative use of such new perspectives as microscopic and telescopic magnification suggests his simultaneous fascination with new technologies. Perhaps the strongest early critic of technology was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), who rejected the ideology of progress, and saw humankind as enslaved by machines. Rousseau's ideas were a major source of inspiration for Romantic anti-technological thinking. On the popular level, between 1811 and 1816 in England the Luddites were smashing the machines which were automating their work. And William Blake wrote in 'Jerusalem' (1820) of:
For the present, we may note the circumstances in which the literary genre of science fiction was born. As Asimov puts it:
It was in that interval that modern science fiction began... Modern science fiction, because of the time of its beginning, took on an optimistic note. Man's relationship to the machine was one of use and control. (Asimov 1981, pp. 136-7)
The industrial revolution led in the late 19th and early 20th century to a widespread faith amongst the middle classes in the idea of technological (and social) progress, despite the misery it brought to many workers. The vision of apparently unlimited production seemed to offer the tantalizing possibility of everyone being able to attain something of the lifestyle of the leisured classes. From the largely materialistic perspective of nineteenth century utopians, technology appeared to offer utopian possibilities, and many utopian visions were technologically sustained. However, in the early years of the twentieth century technology was cast as the villain in utopian fiction for the first time. Before 1909 there were utopias without machines but no dystopias created by technology. E M Forster's 'The Machine Stops' (1909) was the first. The faith in the machine which was so common in nineteenth-century utopias had begun to be replaced by a distrust or fear of the machine. Again, we will return to Forster's story later, and merely note it here as a landmark.
Asimov's own commentary continues:
The fear of supplantation rose again. In 1921, not long after the end of World War 1, Karel Capek's drama R.U.R. appeared and it was the tale of Frankenstein again, escalated to the planetary level. Not a single monster was created but millions of robots... And it was not a single monster turning upon his single creator, but robots turning on humanity, wiping them out, and supplanting them.
From the beginning of the science fiction magazine in 1926 to 1959 (a third of a century or a generation), optimism and pessimism battled each other in science fiction, with optimism... having the better of it. (Asimov 1981, p. 137)
By the 1930s technological advance had become so rapid that science had acquired an awesome mystery in the popular imagination. Pulp sf writers such as John W Campbell Jr. in 'The Last Evolution' (1932) and 'Night' (1935 as by Don A Stuart) implied that the power of mechanical devices was limitless. And later, the idea of the computer becoming God, or God-like, is found in Fredric Brown's 'The Answer' (1954, in Mowshowitz 1977 & Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) and in Isaac Asimov's 'The Last Question' (1956). In 'The Answer' all the computers in the world, wired together, are asked whether there is a god. The answer is: 'Now there is.' More subtly, in Arthur C Clarke's 'The Nine Billion Names of God' (1953, in Mowshowitz 1977) a computer speedily completes the task set by God for Man and ends everything.
The emphasis in 1930s sf on the limitless power of machines lacked any exploration of the social consequences of such technological advances (though John W Campbell Jr., as editor of the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction, did demand a consideration of social consequences). Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) both portrayed astonishing technological developments and focused on social consequences, though from a purely negative polemical perspective, of course. And it is worth noting that regarding automation, Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) became something of an archetypal worker figure struggling to adapt to the discipline of the machine. Within the sf genre Robert A Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon (1942, as by Anson MacDonald) did consider the social implications of technological developments.
Asimov's first robot story, 'Robbie' (1940, in Lewis 1963, Asimov 1968a & Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985) was one of many sf stories in the 1930s and early 1940s featuring lovable and altruistic robots. In 'Robbie' the robot seems to be entirely under human control and to exist only to serve human ends. It is programmed to entertain and protect a child, and it eventually saves her life. Asimov's Caves Of Steel (1954) explores its hero's anxieties about machines and his mechanical environment, but as Patricia Warrick notes, the story illustrates 'Asimov's faith that man and machine can form a harmonious relationship' (Warrick 1980, p. 61).
Amongst science fiction writers there was a general optimism about automation until after the Second World War, when the dangers of technological progress seemed more real. However, outside the sf genre the fiction of writers such as Forster and Huxley reflected strongly critical views. And despite a general faith in science and technology, in the cinema of the 1930s the mad scientist became a popular theme in such films as an influential version of Frankenstein (Universal 1931) (with Boris Karloff as the monster), Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1932), the Island Of Lost Souls (1932) and The Son Of Frankenstein (1939). The image of the mad scientist remained a common cliche in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
The key event in transforming the climate of popular opinion about technology was the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945. This momentous event stimulated considerable scepticism about the technological 'progress'. Post-holocaust stories began to flourish, with survivors who typically turned against technology. From the 1950s onwards, although the mad scientist became far less common in films, there have been few sf films celebrating science and technology. And even technophilic science fiction now tended to be rather more cautious and less naively optimistic. However, Jonathan Benthall suggests that 'the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s were a period of considerable hope in technology' (1976, p. 60).
Certainly, the launch of Sputnik in 1957 ushered in the Space Age. But on the other hand, Brian Aldiss argues that fear of dehumanisation characterised science fiction in the 1950s (Aldiss 1986, p. 340). David Porush notes that 'automation was a buzzword of the 1950s and early 1960s embodying all the neo-Luddite fears of humans being made redundant by and forced to become subservient to machines' (Porush 1985, p. 86). Asimov (1981) and Benthall (1976) date more widespread disillusionment with technology from around the mid- or late 60s.
Computers and robots were frequently interpreted as a threat to humanity in sf of the 1950s and 1960s. The film The Invisible Boy (1957) was the first to depict a super-computer as a threat to the world. Another, The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton (1969) offered a claustrophobic depiction of scientists living underground where they are dwarfed by gleaming technology. Technology can itself be seen as the enemy in this film, since it is a space probe returning to Earth which brings with it a deadly virus.
However, some commentators argue that in recent times the robot has been rehabilitated, as in Barrington J Bayley's The Soul Of The Robot (1974) Asimov's 'That Thou Art Mindful of Him (1974, in Asimov 1978) and 'The Bicentenial Man' (1976, in Asimov 1978 & Asimov, Warrick & Greenberg 1985). Both in content and treatment George Lucas's film Star Wars (1977) clearly revels in technological marvels, and the robots there are nauseatingly cute. In the post-war period Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke have been among the sf writers most positive about technology.
Jonathan Benthall suggests that 'every generation seems to rediscover the Romance of Technology as if it were something new (only to clutch in due course at revolt against technology. At times a special gathering of forces - economic and cultural - results in a concentrated enthusiasm for technology during a limited period' (Benthall 1976, p. 60). Economic booms, stimulating technological developments, seem to be associated with waves of enthusiasm.
Most broadly in sf, we can discern a shift from a concern with adapting technology to human purposes to a concern with the more problematic issue of human adaptation to technological environments. In such contexts, as also in critical writings, technology is no longer seen as neutral tool.