1970's Traveller Computers in the 2010's

The Traveller RPG first appeared in 1977. It's inspirations were many of the classics of science fiction such as Asimov's Foundation series, Piper's Space Viking, Niven's Known Space, etc. I've never had the chance to do a full game of Traveller - though I saw ads for it in Dragon Magazine throughout the 1980's, the first version of it I managed to get a copy of was Traveller: The New Era back in 1994. That probably wasn't the best version of the game to be introduced to Traveller with, given it's setting was an Imperium that had been shattered by a super computer virus. It seemed incredibly interesting to me, but also very much like you were walking into a party where everybody already knew each other.

I've seen a number of blog posts from people exploring how they would run a Traveller game. I'm not certain I'm likely to run a Traveller game to tell the truth - my inclination would probably be to use either Stars Without Number or Firefly.  But I'll confess the idea does have a certain fascination for me.

One of the challenges for me is the massive leap in technology from the 1970's to the modern day. The Apple II had just come out. The computers that got us to the Moon in 1969 are dwarfed by the smartphones we put in our pockets.

The first question would seem to be would we want to modernize this? My inclination is actually no. For whatever reason the idea of massive computer networks, a super-user friendly internet does not seem right for the implied setting of Traveller. (It's also worth noting I would probably steer away from the Imperium. For me it is just too detailed. I'd certainly raid it for lots of goodness though.)

Digital PDP-11 - Not Recommended
for Starship Use
Image by Stefan Kögl, licensed for reuse under
Creative Commons
The other question would seem to be why is computer technology of the future less than what it is today? It's probably worthy noting this is not necessarily the case in terms of raw power - we do not know what sort of computational power is required to navigate into jumpspace. But it clearly is not the user-friendly cloud-based computing that has become the norm.

One obvious answer is that history diverged in the 1970's. After all there is a tradition in retro science fiction. In some ways it feels a little odd given how hard the science fiction of Traveller tends to be. Though unlike settings like Lensman or Cubicle 7's Rocket Age, we are not being asked to buy into a pulp future but rather being asked to ignore certain advances. With player buy-in this is absolutely doable.

However, one might be able to come up with some interesting explanations as to why computer technology has, at least in some ways, regressed. It is possible there is a technological reason - for example one might suppose that travel into jumpspace wreaks all sorts of havoc onto traditional components. Though that would perhaps not fully explain why that might be the case for planetary based computers.

A social reason seems to me to be more satisfying. Frank Herbert's Dune is ta fantastic example of a society which has shied away from computers. Per Dune's glossary:
Jihad, Butlerian: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."
Most interpretations of this suppose that it was a literal war against computers and robots. A bad experience with artificial intelligence could perhaps mandate no computers capable of supporting an AI be constructed. The recent Battlestar Galactica showcases this technology excellently. And it opens the setting up to some nasty foes. 

However, a second interpretation is possible - one could make the argument that it was a war against the dependency of people on machines. I know I sometimes look like a zombie when my eyes lock on my smartphone. 

Thinking about the ideas I've outlined, the one I like the most is something like Battlestar Galactica remake. The processing power and memory required to simulate human intelligence is, by most estimates, huge. But what if an AI program were able to take advantage of a massive distributed network like what exists in our world? A war against thinking machines would make most societies incredibly nervous - especially if the "robots of doom" were still out there, making everyone incredibly paranoid about having a computer network. 


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