Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Oracles

We'll take today's text from a story in the Fifth Galaxy Reader, "Perfect Answer," by L. J. Stecher, Jr., originally published in 1958. I liked it quite a lot when I was young; re-reading it makes its flaws very obvious, but the flaws also illuminate.

The two protagonists are a galactic exploration team, and they have discovered that the galaxy is awash with Homo Sapiens, practically one inhabited world in every viable solar system, and all of them primitives who greet space explorers with either worship or homicidal intent. It's a puzzlement.

Then they come across a civilized world, but one that is oddly decadent. They have such technology as automatic translation machines, but have no idea how they work. When asked, the inhabitants reply, "We asked the Oracle how to make one and it told us."

So, first error in presentation. You don't build things by just being told how to make them. To build a translator (or automobile, or even a stone house) you need pre-existing infrastructure like semiconductor fabs, or foundries, or stone quarries. Knowledge alone isn't enough.

Next, one source of answers simply would not work for an entire world. This is the alien-planet-as-desert-island analogy that I once railed against when critiquing Clarke's Law. A civilized world has billions of people on it, far too many to crowd into a room.

But the Oracle does indeed reside in a room, and our explorers are given an audience. It reveals that it was created by an extra-galactic race (from the Magellenic Cloud) as a weapon that worked by answering all questions truthfully. This destroys the institution of science in those who possess it (no need to pursue answers when they are handed to you an a plate), and when taken to a empire's home world, wrecks said empire.

One of the two explorers wants to steal the Oracle and take it back to Earth, rigging it to answer only his questions. The other wants to head back empty handed and warn Earth. They fight. The first guy dies. The second realizes that he is now stranded, since their ship required two men to operate. But the Oracle could tell him how to save his own life, so….

In one of the Foundation stories, Asimov makes a swipe at what happens when you trade science for scholarship, i.e. when you stop experimenting and just look up the answers. I never bought that argument. Nobody verifies everything that they are told under the authority of science, to attempt to do so would result in another end state—where science keeps reinventing the wheel, over and over again.

However, "Perfect Answer" gets the reaction of the two explorers correctly, or, more specifically, the one that wants to monopolize the gizmo. That is how it would actually work, so our travelers should not have found a happy-go-lucky decadent society, they should have found an authoritarian state in the grip of those controlling access to the answers from the Oracle.

Now you can replace Oracle with "simulation model." But you still need that infrastructure that I spoke of earlier. In science, the infrastructure consists of scientists and the community of science. The community of science is not command-and-control oriented, as many have discovered, to their discomfort.

There is a difference between authoritative and authoritarian, which some people get and some people do not. Authoritarians don't get it. They never do.

5 comments:

black dog barking said...

"Perfect Answer" captures its times. The Organization Man worshiped answers and the orderly structure of a world based on right answers. No uncertainty in those offices!! Later we learn that asking the right questions can be a lot more useful and productive than knowing the right answers.

James Killus said...

There's a much better Robert Sheckley story that is contemporaneous to "Perfect Answer," called "Ask a Foolish Question." The Oracle in question knew all the answers, but the questions were never put in the form that allowed a proper answer. "What is life?" for example, is a nearly meaningless question, and could never be asked in a context that allowed a meaningful answer.

(What? You mean life isn't a jelly doughnut?)

J Thomas said...

I disagree with your debunking. Since the oracle was designed to prevent societies from developing their own technology, it must not simply give a truthful answer to the question "How can I control an empire by getting you to give me the technology to get control but prevent others from getting access to you?". If others are denied access then the strategy fails. So it must do something else.

Clearly the story doesn't go into that detail. One possibility might be to volunteer something else. "Do you really want to prevent others from having access to me, or do you just want to control them?" If others get to create useful things, that's more wealth for the controller to own. Provided he gets to control them. And the extra control doesn't encourage science or independent technology.

There are lots of other approaches. Rather than coaching people to ask the right questions, it could answer the wrong oners. "How can I destroy all my enemies?" "First you must put this Oracle into space, where your enemies can't reach it. Then you do the following...." After the planet is dead it trundles off to the next civilization.

James Killus said...

J thomas, you're try to do the author's work for him. It's a trap; don't do it. The problem is that the setup is simply not well thought out, and it's basically a gimmick story with a somewhat interesting idea at the center. As BDB says, it captured its times.

J Thomas said...

I guess you're right. I do the same thing when I listen to music, I imagine the music it could have been and listen to that more than to the real thing. The payoff is that I get to hear better music....

It should be possible to write a story along those lines that worked out.

The survivor could of course ask the oracle how to redesign his ship so he could get home by himself, without taking the oracle with him. If it's an honest oracle he could even ask it how to destroy it, and how to persuade humanity not to be tricked by it. But that's a level of honesty that seems unlikely....