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Philosophy Poland Stanisław Lem Commentary

This brilliant Pole predicted algorithmic surveillance, machine learning and even a virus outbreak in Italy

Stanisław Lem is an almost forgotten Polish visionary who predicted much of the technology that rules our world long before Yuval Noah Harari

editor: REMIX NEWS
author: László Lovászy/Dénes Albert

While Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has become something of a celebrity in the world of social philosophy, he had a precursor superior in amost every sense of the word: Polish science fiction-writer and essayist Stanisław Lem (1921-2006).

In his 1975 novella, “Hay Fever”, Lem tells the story of a mysterious disease outbreak in Italy, an attempt to cover it up, and an American soldier’s efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Setting aside the sensationalist claim that Lem managed to predict current events — which of course were nothing more than educated guesses on that happened to closely align with reality — the technology Lem described in his book is what truly should fascinate readers.

In the novella, Lem, writes about a computer that can model, analyze and predict crime patterns based on a multitude of collected data.

The 1975 novella was written in the same year when the first computer store opened in Los Angeles and IBM launched its model 5100 “personal computer” in the price range of $8,975 to $19,975.

What Lem described is very similar to the algorithmic surveillance seen today.

Many of the issues Harari mentions in “Homo Deus” were already tackled by Lem back in 1964 in his essay collection “Summa Technologiae”. In the book, Lem talks about the parallels and discrepancies between biological and technological evolution, discussing both likely it is the technologies will actually come to be. and how they will ultimately make life easier but also lead to a shallower intellectual and spiritual life.

Lem also predicted a range of other innovations, including nanotechnology, which he described as “smart dust” in “The Cyberiad”. Lem described this smart dust as a swarm of miniature drone computers that were tinier than a grain of sand. Once combined, they would be able to operate as a parallel computer network to accomplish larger goals.

He also described technologies like the internet, smartphones, and search engines such as Google. Writing in 1955, he described the following in The Magellanic Cloud:

“Trion can store not only luminescent images, reduced to a change in their crystal structure, that is images of book pages, not only all kinds of photographs, maps, images, graphs and tables – in other words, anything that can be observed by sight. Just as easily, Trion can store sounds, the human voice as well as music, there is also a way to record scents.”

The “Trion Library” was a massive virtual database that people virtually anywhere could access. In the same book, he described what clearly seems to be a reference to the smartphone which was still decades away from being created:

“We use it today without even thinking about the efficiency and might of this great, invisible net which enlaces the globe. Whether it be in one’s Australian studio, or in a lunar observatory, or on board an airplane – how many times has every one of us reached for their pocket receiver and called upon Trion Library central, naming the desired work which, within a second, appeared in front of you on the television screen.”

Toward the end of his life, Lem published “Blink of an Eye” in 2000, looking back at his earlier predictions. At that time, Harari was working on his PhD in medieval war history at Oxford.

Despite living and publishing in communist Poland, Lem was able to produce his work. One of the reasons why he chose science-fiction as a vehicle for his ideas was that the genre was subject to much less censorship and scrutiny. He was the most-published Polish author, selling 20 million copies of his books until Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series overtook him with 33 million copies sold.

Title image: Stanisław Lem in his study. (source unknown)