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Computers and Technology

 

Author's Note:

COMPUTERS AND TECHNOLOGY

The development of computer technology and electronics in general followed a rather different course in the timeline of the Domination. The precocious development of pneumatic power systems and machine tools made Thomas Babbage's mechanical computer a marginal success in the 1830s, rather than a marginal failure. Mechanical-analog computing was a fact of life by the 1840s, controlled by punch-card memory systems analogous to Jacquard looms. They were expensive and cumbersome, but they gave a distinct impetus to many types of research and engineering.

Next, the vacuum tube came along rather earlier, by about a generation; the same is true for the transistor. Analog data-manipulation technologies (e.g., for numerically-controlled machine tools) were therefore more advanced when digital computing techniques were achieved. All-digital systems are therefore much more limited.

In consequence, the research methods followed by both Alliance and Domination were quite different from our history's. The climate of the Protracted Struggle bred an obsession with security that sharply limited the flow of information and ideas even in the democratic nations of the Alliance. It also resulted in a "crash project" attitude towards research in general; the result was very quick progress in fields where the possibilities were known, but less serendipity, less of the shotgun approach. As an analogy, if there had been a Manhattan Project attack on polio in our 1950s, the result would probably have been a magnificently advanced iron lung. The fact of stable, rather than expanding, population also altered the market structure and reduced demand for innovation in the Domination's timeline.

Consequently, computers in the timeline of the Domination developed on a "big brain" basis. Software what they called compinstruction sets, or instruction sets was "burned in" to central core units, embedding the program. The central cores were generally sealed, with their own internal memories; an interfacer unit translated data from the external memory storage for the central unit to manipulate. The thought of "open" programming was rarely brought up, even as a theoretical possibility it gave counterintelligence agencies the willies.

Personal computers perscomps evolved up from sensor-effector systems like those used on machine tools, rather than down from big-brain computers. They too had embedded programs, and they were mixed digital/analog rather than digital systems. Large, complex jobs like running a spaceship were handled by a central brain, which acted as a coordinating node for a number of perscomp-type subsystems, each handling something like a weapons mount or fuel-flow monitor. Note, however, that the sophisticated use of digital/analog systems was an advantage in some fields like voice recognition.

This computer system had built-in limitations. Many of the embedded programs were quite capable, and the manufacturing facilities in space permitted the use of quite exotic materials silicon/sapphire sandwich wafers, and gallium arsenide but there was less innovation and less pressing need for miniaturization. The existence of heavy-lift missile and orbital launch facilities alone removed a powerful incentive, and nothing like the hacker subculture of our timeline ever emerged. Research was limited to a number of large companies and government institutes, and the number of participants was very small, a few thousand at most. The spillover effect of widespread perscomp use was restricted, because only the largest central-brain units could be used for "software" design or programming of any sort; new programs were bought as physical components and inserted into the core. Computer applications were many and crucial to most aspects of war and business, but they were vastly less flexible than in our continuum; by the 1990s, capabilities were approaching a plateau, a dead-end.

In some respects, this was true of science and technology generally. The precocious development of heavy-lift space capacity biased technological development towards bigger and better applications of known principles; so did the constant rivalry between the powerblocs. The overall result was a technology more powerful than ours, but also rather cruder as if the technological visionaries of the 1930s had been given unlimited funding, and as a result the course of development had been littered with a series of "roads not taken" because attention was focused on the immediately achievable. By the 1960s, there was a built-in bias (on both sides) towards projects which were obviously possible, given massive applications of personnel and funding. The basic mentality was that of engineers rather than scientists, and dam-building, metal-bashing rule-of-thumb engineers at that.

In the end, the world of the Domination achieved what might be called "yesterday's tomorrow."

 


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