Computing in the Empire

Part of Babbage's difference engine, photographed by Andrew DunnComputing—the field that we Americans tend to call “computer science”—has been fascinating to me for longer than I knew that it existed, and was what I ended up taking my degree in. One of the most interesting areas of the field, in my opinion, is the history: how various ideas, techniques, products, technologies, and so on came to be and developed, from Babbage (and, by the way, while I bear her name I doubt I’m related to the first programmer) through the present day. And so the question of how the field would develop in the world of the Shine Cycle is similarly fascinating.

Computing was known—at least as an obscure branch of mathematics—for several decades before the arrival of the Chosen; mages (and their clients) could easily enough (though not always cheaply) investigate our world’s history, literature, and such, but until “the world changed” from the influence of the Chosen its popularity, influence, and extent were seen as mere peculiarities not worthy of much study.

All that changed with the arrival of the Chosen: mostly young adults from our world’s present-day (or near future). The sudden lack of many “conveniences” was a large part of the culture shock. (Though the circumstances of their arrival delayed any resolution for a while.) Once they had leisure to consider their place in this new world, several of them chose to apply their comparatively-advanced knowledge and experience with computing to the benefit of their new home. Some of these “experts” had formal education in our world, some were merely “interested amateurs,” and some merely saw the need and its importance and responded (I am reminded of one of the interviewees in the documentary Get Lamp, who wrote the first academic paper on interactive fiction).

Since the development of computing technologies in the Shine and Wild Empire and its allies is largely led by “experts” from our world, knowledgeable (and with further information, as I mentioned above, available if not quite at their fingertips) about over half a century of continuous development in our world, the benefit of hindsight causes the field to develop quite differently there. (I’m sure any knowledgeable reader can think of a few cases where the better solution was discarded because an inferior one had become too widespread to be supplanted—and I’d love to hear your ideas.)

Another factor that caused the development to go in significantly different directions from ours is applied metaphysics. The rule of thumb for metaphysical economics is that the best “mundane” way is either cheaper, easier, or otherwise better than the best a mage can do—but in practice metaphysical workings are far more useful in computing than that would suggest, especially since the one thing they can do extremely cheaply and efficiently is transport information. In our world, one of the limiting factors in computer speed has always been the time (dictated by the speed of light and the length of the relevant wires) it takes for data to get from one unit, chip, or computer to another. But with a mage working on the project, data stored a hundred miles away could be accessed as quickly as data stored three inches away—something that changes the economics of computer architecture significantly—and that’s only one of several possible improvements discovered over the course of only the first half-century after their arrival.

Computers have become ubiquitous in the Empire. But unlike our world, they haven’t replaced or subsumed all other technologies and techniques—mages (who seem to be more likely to be interested in computing, for some reason) find crafting a working to do something usually more intuitive and easier than developing a computer program or electronic device, and some make their livelihood selling “metaphysical artifacts” or their services, so computers are most often what we would call “embedded devices,” enhancing the function of some other item from “behind the scenes.” And in some cases it can be hard to tell whether a device uses the Power, a computer, or both.

When Gondolor defected to the Dragon Empire (in Space and Time), he took with him a somewhat substantial knowledge of the basics of computing, including at the lowest levels. (Though fortunately this was not his primary area of expertise, so his understanding was limited.) From that beginning the Dragon Empire developed its computing technologies along much different lines, influenced by its ruler’s desire for control, by the difficulty of an evil mage to make normal workings function properly, and by Gondolor’s inability to properly explain some of the principles of the designs he knew; computers and data storage tended to be highly centralized, with networks of metaphysical artifacts functioning as terminals distributed as needed.

Any thoughts? Questions, comments, ideas?

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