It is difficult today to remember how intimidating computers were for non-technical people in the early 1980s. In previous decades, the machines had been corralled into computer departments at universities and large businesses, and were the responsibility of trained personnel. However, in the early 1980s, people who might have been perfectly happy never getting closer to a computer than a Star Trek re-run were told that personal computers would be soon be on their desks at work. This created demand for books that introduced computers, defined basic jargon, and reassured American readers that they could master the machine when it inevitably arrived. The panic probably reached a peak in 1983, as did the response. In 1983, Time Magazine called the personal computer Man of the Year ("Machine of the Year" under the circumstances). In 1983, "The Soul of a New Machine" won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1983, Michael Crichton published Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers.

Crichton was already successful as a novelist, having published The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery, Congo, and other books. Several of these had already been made into movies. Of course he would become vastly more famous later, with Jurassic Park and the television show ER

Electronic Life is written as a glossary, with entries like "Afraid of Computers (everybody is)" "Buying a Computer" "Computer Crime", and so forth. The book shows signs of being hurriedly written, as few of the entries reflect any research. The computer crime entry, for example, is three pages long and contains only four hard facts -- specifically, that institutions were then losing $5billion to $30billion a year on computer crime, that Citibank processed $30billion a day in customer transactions using computers, that American banks as a whole were moving $400 billion a year in the U.S., and that the Stanford public key code (not otherwise described) was broken in 1982. No examples of computer crime are given, though by 1983 such accounts were appearing in the mainstream press, and dedicated books on the topic had been around for at least a decade (I own one British example dating to 1973). Detailed descriptions of such capers make for good reading, so Crichton's failure to include any tells us that he did not take the time to visit the library when he wrote this book.

Electronic Life is of interest to modern readers in only two respects: first, Crichton's descriptions of then-current technology provide an amusing reminder of how far we have come. Second, and more significantly, Crichton's predictions for the future are worth comparing with what has actually developed.

As an example of the first sort of passage, on page 140 he points out that if you ask your computer to compute 5.01*5.02-5.03/2.04*100.5+3.06+20.07-200.08+300.09/1.10, there will be a noticable delay as it works out the answer. Later he suggests that a user would do well to buy a CP/M based system, because of all the excellent applications for that platform.

Crichton writes science fiction, and he knew very well that computers would soon do more than was possible in 1983. Such predictions are largely absent from this book, but a few entries do let us see what he expected for the future (other than resurrecting dinosaurs, I mean). First, Crichton correctly expected that computer networks would increase in importance. He saw this as a matter of convenience -- computers can share pictures, which you can't do with a verbal phone call, and computer networks can operate asynchronously, so you can leave information for somebody and have have them pick it up at their convenience.

He also makes predictions for computer games, first explaining that there are several types of games

  1. Arcade Games (which are in turn split into 'invader games', 'defender games', and 'eating games'.)
  2. Strategy Games (chess, backgammon, etc.)
  3. Adventure Games (text-based interactive fiction)
Crichton dismisses computer games as "the hula hoops of the '80s", saying "already there are indications that the mania for twitch games may be fading." He thinks that parents should not worry about their children playing games because, "it's a way of making friends with the machine." (that's not how I think about Tomb Raider 3, but to each his own). He was wrong here, of course, and missed entirely how games would eventually drive the high end of the home computer market.

Most interestingly in his predictions, Crichton clearly expected that computers would soon be as normal as home appliances like washing machines. He never anticipated that, through vastly increased numbers and reduced cost, they would become omnipresent and perhaps invisible.

The book is little more than a collection of off-the-cuff musings, and as such the most interesting entry is probably "Microprocessors, or how I flunked biostatistics at Harvard" in which Crichton lashes out at a medical school teacher who had given him a 'D' fifteen years earlier.

This book is a curiosity, not worth buying at a garage sale unless you are a Crichton completist.

Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers by Michael Crichton, 1983
Time Magazine, January 3, 1983

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