It is all happening too fast and in too many directions at once. Satellites cruise over our heads on unspecified errands, and spacecraft glide toward the stars, sending back cryptic messages. Biologists are designing, producing and patenting new forms of life. The "death rays" of bygone science fiction have arrived, but they are called lasers. And besides military uses, they are serving as the basis for works of art, as carriers for communications, as tools for surgery and elements in high-fideltiy systems. Robots are busy all around us -- almost unnoticed because they look like pieces of machinery, not like R2D2. Computers are a standard element in our society -- handling many jobs better than people because they do not lose patience or forget, and they never have to stop for food or rest.
In the last generation, human knowledge has burgeoned like that long-ago mushroom cloud at Los Alamos, and now human ingenuity is finding new applications for that knowledge, new ways of increasing it, codifying it and interbreeding one kind of knowledge with another -- applying silicon chip technology to laser technology with the hope of finding a breakthrough in the technology of nuclear fission. The available evidence indicates that our highly advanced activity on the frontiers of knowledge is still probably in a primitive stage. Our scientists are still learning a new alphabet which another generation may use to read the universe like a book.
Technological man had a long, slow gestation. Conceived, so to speak, in the 17th century, and born in the mid-20th, he is taking his first baby steps in an unknown world -- with no parents in sight to guide him. A baby's first steps inevitably involve a lot of falling down, but it doesn't matter much; babies are designed to fall easily without real damage. We have no assurance that technological man will not stumble -- perhaps with catastrophic results.
Most of us relate to technology as consumers of its products, without understanding or particularly caring where they come from and how they are produced, as long as they work. We are techno/peasants. The word was coined last year in Houston as a meeting of scientists, and it designates the bottom end of a new class structure: those who have no idea what is going on in the technological world around them.
"The Techno/Peasant Survival Manual" is presented as a remedy, or perhaps a palliative, for this condition. Rather loosely organized but packed with sensational data, usefully illustrated and studded with highly emotive statements like "Satellite death WILL OCCUR EVENTUALLY" in headline-size type, the manual surveys recent developments in computers, fiber optics, weapons technology, lasers, genetic engineering, atomic power and the exploration and exploitation of outer space. It is colorful, alarming, easy to read and crammed with human interest -- a sure conversation-enrichener. Beyond technological concepts, it touches on subjects that range from the (unsatisfactory) design of toilets on Skylab to a conversation between a patient and a psychiatric computer program: Patient -- "You are like my father in some ways." Computer -- "WHAT RESEMBLANCE DO YOU SEE?" Patient -- "You are not very aggressive but I think you don't want me to notice that."
Computers are not, in fact, very aggressive; they do exactly what they are told -- which may not always be what you think you are telling them. But the companies that manufacture and market computers are aggressive -- and that is why books like "Owning Your Home Computer" have been appearing frequently in the last few years in response to a growing demand. Robert L. Perry has compiled essentially a consumer's guide to the home computer market with a bit of historic and technical Background on the development of microprocessing technology and how computers work. The heart of his book is a chapter called "How to Buy a Home Computer," followed by two chapters describing currently available models, a section suggesting ways computers can be used in the home, a discussion of computer networks such as the SOURCE and MicroNET and a list of more than 1,000 professionally designed programs for home computers and where to buy them. It is a useful volume for shoppers and should remain so for a while -- though, as Perry observes, "the only constant in the home computing field is change."
Some of the relative constants in that field are explored in a book that will be published early next year by Simon & Shuster, "Without Me You're Nothing," by Frank Herbert with Max Barnard. Subtitled "The Essential Guide to Home Computers," the book does not get into brand names but takes the consumer's guide approach one step further; with a very thorough, logically arranged and highly readable examination of what makes the computer tick and how a neophyte can become his own programmer. It is acutely aware of the needs and concerns of the average person approaching computers for the first time, and it may become the blockbuster in the field -- though it will be most useful, perhaps, in conjunction with a book like Perry's which will survey currently available hardware.
None of these books, of course, will instantly transform a techno-peasant into a technocrat -- nor will the purchase of an Apple, Pet or TRS-80 home computer. The technocrats are reading books like "Tobotics in Practice," by Joseph F. Engelberger (Amacon, $39.95), which discusses the various ways robot machinery is used in industry and contains such cryptic remarks as this: "With an MTBF of 400 hours and 26 machines in the system, we can expect a robot failure every 15 hours." Nobody said being a technocrat was all fun.
The rest of this century should witness the emergence of a third class, between the technocracy and the techno/peasantry -- a sort of techno/bourgeoisie, who may not be working directly with the new technology but will know how to talk about it and exploit it. Candidates for that status are probably the prime readers of books like "The Techno/Peasant Survival Manual" and the ones who are now bringing computers into their homes.