Pete Saw It Coming

I write mostly fantasy stories. The main reason I don’t write more science fiction is because the future can’t be predicted. No matter what you guess, you’ve got a 99% chance of being not only wrong, but foolishly wrong.

Read some SF from the ’40s and ’50s sometime. It’s awe-inspiring in its ineptitude. The men projected for the year 2000 wear hats, the women wear aprons and stay in the kitchen, and everybody smokes cigarets. Flying automobiles powered by tiny nuclear reactors are all the rage.

In Isaac Asimov’s much-ballyhooed robot stories, the robots’ brains are built out of positronic vacuum tubes. The transistor hadn’t yet been invented, you see, but the positron had just been discovered, so its properties were bound to bestow magical powers. (Oops — didn’t mean to mention “magic” there.)

And of course, nobody foresaw the Internet. Arguably more important than the printing press, and it caught SF writers by surprise.

But Pete Seeger saw it coming. Oh, not the Internet itself. What he saw was the social consequences that would inevitably follow. He saw what it meant.

In about 1980, I was working at Keyboard magazine. Down the hall was a magazine called Frets. Pete Seeger was a famous banjo player (still is, I believe…), so Frets put him on the cover. Shortly after that issue was published, Pete dropped by the offices, and I actually got to meet him. After five years at Keyboard, I had met a few famous musicians, but with Pete I wasn’t a journalist, I was just a fan. Wow, what a thrill to actually meet the guy!

Our offices had recently been equipped with ugly brown Kaypro computers. Every editor had one. By today’s standards they were laughably primitive. Even so, they were a huge improvement over typewriters. They had 64Kb (that’s kilobytes, not megabytes) of RAM and dual 5-1/4″ floppy drives.

Pete was interested in the computers, but maybe what impressed him was the fact that every editor had one. I wish I could remember his exact words; I’ll have to paraphrase. He said, “That’s what will keep the government from taking over everything: Ordinary people can have these machines.”

The governments of China, Singapore, and the Middle East will testify that Pete knew what he was talking about. If they could outlaw personal computers entirely, they would, because PCs are dangerous to despots.

Here in the U.S., you can still access any kind of information you crave. A few mouse clicks and you can check in on the latest 9/11 conspiracy theories or whatever. You may want to avoid thinking too hard about the giant robots that the FBI and CIA have monitoring your web usage. There are other ways of controlling dissent that don’t require crudely shutting off access to information. But we do still enjoy some freedoms — and Pete saw it coming.

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