An Analysis: Regarding Larry Niven, and Ringworld

This is regarding io9's here linked post from 2008.

Yes, old post I know, 11+ years. How long has Gawkmodo even been around? Still, poignant today, in this Dumpian era we’re finding ourselves. Sort of dismayed to find Niven possibly one of THOSE guys - even though I don’t really care about him really. Been trying to get into Ringworld, and...it’s just really really shite isn’t it.

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So many wacky concepts in it I don’t really know where to start, except that they have Star Trek transporters in this book - except they “dial” the destination. FOR REALZ? Like with an old-fashioned rotary dial? The book was published in 1970 (and thus would have been written prior to then), and I don’t know if phones typically featured a keypad at that time; I don’t think so, based on what I recall of movies and TV shows and whatnot of the era (I wasn’t even born then, so...) My family didn’t buy a push-button telephone until sometime in the early 1980s I believe, 1983 possibly.

Anyhow. The idea you would dial destinations with numbers - either with an actual dial or with a keypad - a couple thousand years into the future or whenever this book is supposed to take place is fucking LUDICROUS.

Like, you’d look up in a phone book the area code for Barcelona (or replace with your preferred destination)? Wut.

This is another example of sci-fi writers picking up one futuristic thing or technology, but then only carrying it halfway through in their implementation. Like in many 1950s sci-fi stories about robots, moon bases, rockets and so on, you often have scientists, who all carry slide rulers on their persons wherever they go. Just in case they need to do some heavy calculations on the spot. ...Have you actually* SEEN a slide ruler, in person, at any point in your lifetime? lol

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I have. My father, who was born in 1938, had one he used when he was a student, and when I was young I fooled around a bit with it not having the faintest idea how it worked. (This was the late 1970s, so by then slide ruling was already a lost art.) Then, being a stupid fucking kid I LOST IT. So, it’s gone now. Feh!

ANYWAY. lol

Take Star Trek. The original show from 1966 or whatever. Whenever. You had the crew plugging these little cartridges into their bridge consoles that were “data tapes”. They were tiny, compared to the actual data tapes used with mainframe computers at that time, so I guess that counts as the futuristic bit. Today, the very idea of using data tapes for such a purpose is just dreadfully quaint and antiquated of course, and it’s only been a little over 50 years since the show premiered, whereas Captain Kirk sails his starship in the 23rd century. Tape, for starters, has no genuine random access capability, as you have to spool it from one end to the other possibly to read particular pieces of data. Which is very slow and cumbersome.

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Tape drives of that era tried to go around this limitation by using fast-accelerating DC motors with immense performance and ran the tape through a vertically zig-zagging buffer apparatus to avoid the sudden and explosive acceleration of the tape reels to simply snap the tape in half. Still, you cannot really fight physics, so tapes largely went by the wayside by the end of the ‘70s, barring legacy applications, except for as an archival media where it still lives on today for long-term storage of very large data quantities.

The show writers of course had no concept of how storage technology would pan out in the future, so could not foresee the explosive development that’s taken place in the harddrive industry, which went from 5MB stored on a multi-platter, full-height, 5.25" diameter drive in the early 1980s, to 100MB on a half-height 3.5" drive at the end of the ‘80s, to 20 GB by the late ‘90s, to hundreds of GBs in the aughts, to upwards of 20 terabytes in this decade.

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Not to mention solid-state flash media, of course. At least Star Trek: The Next Generation had some forethought on this subject; that show used chewing gum sized sticks of plastic that were supposedly holographic storage with vast, re-writable capacity.

So going back to Larry Niven’s Ringworld, you have an incredible, super powerful and complicated invention (near-instantaneous, seemingly basically free teleportation to destinations all over planet Earth, in this case), controlled by this incredibly archaic, anachronistic input mechanism.

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...Wouldn’t you think that this powerful, fabulous technology would require an equally powerful, fabulous computer to run it - a computer which might just as well respond to VOICE INPUT?

Like with the slide ruling future scientists of the 1950s, whose creators had not - and could not - have foreseen the invention of the pocket calculator, Larry Niven on his hand did not, and honestly could not have foreseen the explosive development of the digital computer that would have made voice control absolutely trivial at such a far-flung point in the future. Voice control was TOO SIMPLE a solution - he was used to dialling numbers, so of course people would continue to dial numbers in the future too, like scientists used slide rulers in the 1950s, and therefore also in the future. Like, how many sci-fi stories don’t involve a character buying/reading a newspaper? We don’t even read newspapers NOW - they’re all busy slowly going bankrupt!

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Today - a short sidebar - we rarely actually dial numbers anymore. Most of us have our smartphones, and in our smartphones we have address books, so we would just tap on a contact and the phone would automatically dial the number for us, if we’re calling the oldfashioned way rather than voice-over-IP. Do we even know our contacts’ phone numbers anymore...? Our parents/kids and close friends, probably. But beyond that, how many do we manage to keep track of, seeing as the human brain tends to forget abstract things like series of numbers if we don’t exercise those memories at least semi-regularly.

Continuing: I’m not sure if Niven ever actually spent that much brainpower thinking of how exactly his teleporters would actually work, internally. If perhaps they would largely be much like the now-ancient relay-powered crossbar switch telephone exchanges that connected and routed phone calls after manual operators went the way of the dinosaurs and up until the digital era took over - you had no “brain” supervising the procedure; it was a straight-up machine that was designed to do one thing and one thing only. Depending on which control lines were active a certain set of relays would pull, activating other control lines and so forth until your phone call was connected. Like a sewing machine which can do zig-zag or straight seams, sew forwards or backwards or possibly lots of other stuff too based on the position of some set of control knobs. It’s all mechanics inside, no CPU or actuators or anything like that.

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Perhaps he expected his teleporter to basically be like an old-style washing machine, where the various washing programs are simply cams on a control knob which slowly turns, where each solenoid for valves and motor control and whatnot are activated at specific points by switches closed by the cams on the rotating control knob. There’s no governing system here, no CPU that can respond to any spoken voice.

“Stop! I command you to stop! I forgot to add fabric softener!”, you yell at the washing machine. It sloshes on, dumbly ignoring you.

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It’s fun thinking about these things at 5 in the morning, isn’t it? lol

*Edit: Speling! D’oh.

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