Comprehensive Examination in English – Session Two – June 2002

Click here to view the exam.


Part A


Since the 1960s, when computers began to slowly make their way into our daily lives, people have examined the relationship between human beings and computers in both academics and entertainment. The original Star Trek television series, for example, repeatedly warned of the dangers of allowing computers to make important decisions for people and societies. In one episode, entitled “The Ultimate Computer,” a computer called M5 was placed in command of the starship Enterprise, proceeded to kill a few people and nearly wound up destroying all of Starfleet for the sake of its own survival. Computers in science fiction stories are often presented as cold, unfeeling, and often indestructible or interminable, i.e., immortal, hence the very opposite of humanity, which inevitably causes conflict between men and machines. In such stories, men usually win, indicating the triumph of independent thought and feeling, as well as the will to survive, over cold, unadulterated logic and the absence of emotional encumbrances. Despite the preponderance of computer technology in today’s society, and the widely-held belief that they will only become more and more advanced, and more and more integrated into our lives, human beings and computers seem to be an ill-fitting match. Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” and the untitled short story (Passage II) by the noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov both reveal that as computers work their way into our lives, we face the danger of taking that relationship too far.

Nature is a very common theme in poetry, but computers and nature combined poetically presents a conundrum. Computers, of course, do not occur in nature; they are machines manufactured by human beings. Yet Brautigan’s poem seems to suggest that someday they will, a seemingly absurd notion on its surface but thinly veiled as an exaggerated warning of our expanding reliance on computers. Brautigan’s overall theme seems to be that we are progressing toward the point where computers actually will occur in nature, that they will replace trees and flowers as well as human beings. The poem’s tone is sardonic in a way, professing a certain eagerness for this time to come, yet with an underlying sarcasm pervading the piece, revealed by repeated instances of paradox and oxymoron. Brautigan combines traditional, almost too-familiar, images of nature (“pure water touching clear sky;” “deer stroll peacefully”) with paradoxical, almost absurd notions of computers inhabiting the natural world (“a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony;” “a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics”). Such descriptions may be mildly amusing, but the real warning comes in the final stanza, where Brautigan suggests that the “cybernetic ecology,”  itself a contradiction in terms, will enable human beings to be “joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters;” in other words, that human beings will essentially become animals in a computer-run world, analogous to the common perception of lower-order mammals in a human-run world. The final line, referring to the eponymous “machines of loving grace,” is the ultimate paradox, in that machines are certainly not capable of such emotions, although we do psychologically tend to assign higher-order emotions to machines (and to animals as well). Brautigan may be implying that such thinking is dangerous; he may even be suggesting that computers are becoming the next step in our evolution, the next rung up the Darwinian ladder.

That may very well be, but one universal truth about computers, at least today, is that they can only do what they are programmed to do by human beings; they cannot think independently or creatively or intuitively, which is why they always seem to lose those aforementioned sci-fi battles. Asimov, however, uses a first-person narrative point-of-view to make a computer the narrator of his story, thus implicitly endowing a machine with a quality generally reserved for human beings: self-awareness. The machine even has a name, Joe, and therefore by implication a gender (male), and “his” job is to find the perfect woman for his human “colleague,” Milton. This self-awareness and gender identification, the personification of an inanimate device, become even more significant later in the story, as the highly particular and emotionally stagnant Milton, frustrated by Joe’s fruitless efforts to find him the perfect mate, programs Joe with an exhaustive and detailed history of his own life and mind, to the point where Milton and Joe literally think alike, and, more disturbingly, become interchangeable. In the end, Joe literally takes Milton’s place as he prepares to welcome the woman he discovered as the perfect mate for Milton, who is now, by extension, essentially the perfect mate for both of them. Asimov’s clever use of personification through first-person point-of-view provides the same warning as Brautigan’s deeply sardonic poem: that computers are taking over our lives, and if we go too far, they will replace us.

Computers are extraordinarily useful tools that become more and more versatile, more and more capable, and more and more powerful, every day. Is it really likely that they will “take over the world,” as so many writers, filmmakers and philosophers have suggested? Some would say they already have. Brautigan’s speaker seems to hope that they will, suggesting that the jaded poet is convinced that they will, although Asimov is a bit more cautious; he suggests, probably rightly, that it will ultimately be up to us.