You can read Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Feeling of Power, here.
What one man considers forward, another may consider backward.
When stated like that, the premise of Asimov’s The Feeling of Power, seems rather simple. And yet The Feeling of Power is anything but. In classic Asimov fashion, the story touches on big ideas, ideas already familiar to most people, but presents them in a way that exposes aspects we may have overlooked.
The story takes place in what they call New Pentagon during an unspecified time in the far off future. Humans have achieved a level of technology that makes much of what we today consider necessary, completely obsolete. This is, as said before, not a revolutionary idea. It is what Asimov does with the idea that is so fascinating.
Computers have become so powerful and ubiquitous, for example, that humans have lost the ability to do basic math. Arithmetic has all but become a lost art. That is, until the events of the story.
Jehan Shuman, a computer expert of the highest degree, introduces select members of the U.S. military and congress to a lowly technician by the name of Myron Aub. This man, Shuman claims, has made a revolutionary discovery. He sets Aub up to stand in front of these highly dignified men and show them his groundbreaking findings. He proceeds to multiply numbers on a piece of paper.
The reaction is nothing short of hilarious. These esteemed generals and politicians are dumbfounded, but also skeptical. But as Aub continues to perform miracles (simple arithmetic) with his pen and paper and they compare his answers to the calculations of their computers, they are completely blown away.
They speak excitedly about the possibilities, of teaching everyone how to perform these simple functions, of weaning the country off its dependence on computers, of going, as we would see it, backwards. And considering the perspective of the characters, is it not true that these developments would not be backward, but rather forward?
Asimov begins the story with this sort of lighthearted, humorous scenario, but abruptly reminds us that the story is in fact taking place in New Pentagon. The conversation immediately turns to arithmetic’s applications in war, of how much money they could save by relying so heavily on computers in their war efforts. They even speak of manning missiles with living men who would replace the computers and personally guide the missiles to their targets themselves.
After all, while computers are costly, humans are expendable.
After the conversation takes this dark turn, Aub realizes what he’s done, and he kills himself. Regardless, no one cares very much and they press forward.
Asimov very artfully pulled off the same technique I saw Ursula Le Guin use in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: contrast in tone. Asimov prefaced his intended tone with the polar opposite and allowed it to carry on long enough for the reader to grow comfortable. And then he pivots, hitting the reader with the story’s true colors. The effect as I see it is that the story’s theme and tone becomes amplified.
There’s more to it than that, though. It’s not just a matter of swapping tones. The final tone has to make sense. While it is important that it is shocking, it is even more important that the reader can go back however many pages and see the clues that explain it before it happens. Thus, when the reader gets to the intended tone of the story they can see that it isn’t new – it was always there, had they been reading carefully enough.
While it feels almost criminal to assign any story a score, I will do so just to give it a place among all the other stories I have and will read. I give The Feeling of Power by Isaac Asimov 8.5/10. It’s a short story I would recommend to everyone, friend or foe.