What if ... computers found a use for humanity?

Computers exploiting people? Of course the SF writers have been there already. One of Frederik Pohl's and Cyril Kornbluth's classic SF satires is Wolfbane (1959), whose mechanical aliens "harvest" human beings and wire them into their technology as more or less smart switching components. More recently in Dan Simmons's epic Hyperion Cantos (1989-90), a surreal community of artificial intelligences called the TechnoCore boosts its power with a cunning trick for stealing processor cycles from human brains – like a cyberpunk Dracula.

Meanwhile, if you look at the situation with Richard Dawkins's upside-down "selfish gene" view of biology, computers are already using people. According to Dawkins, humans are clumsy lumps of biotechnology, evolved by our mindless genes simply to make more copies of themselves. From a computer's perspective, perhaps, we are inconvenient but necessary go-betweens in the evolution of better computers.

One prophetic sf novel about information overload and the net, John Brunner's 1975 The Shockwave Rider, had a gloomy aphorism about how the legs race was followed by the arms race, and the arms race by the brain race. (Isn't it time, Brunner added, for the human race?) Think how much silicon processor power has increased since 1960, or 1990 – and how much old-fashioned human wetware has changed in the same period. If there's a Darwinian struggle for improved data-handling ability, an impartial umpire might judge that machines are rapidly closing the gap in the brain race.

The tools which computers could use to manipulate us are what Dawkins calls memes – information viruses, contagious ideas. Once someone believes the meme, "Anyone who doesn't mail ten quid to David Langford will burn in hell forever," they will not only send me a tenner but try to save their friends from hellfire by converting them to the same belief. A more complex and subtle meme, like the contents of T3 magazine, aims to push the buttons of human gratification and ultimately persuade you to buy future issues. And tell your friends.

Already Internet's massed computers seem to be exploiting human users as distributors of the memes they mysteriously choose to circulate – like MAKE MONEY FAST scams, pleas to send ailing kids a million postcards, and dire warnings against the mythical Good Times virus. Sherlock Holmes would ask: who benefits from all this rubbish? Well, it clogs up the net, creating an extra need for more bandwidth, more connectivity ... persuading us to upgrade the hardware.

The most blatant example of this trend is at Microsoft, where – just as fungi joined algae to create the primitive life-forms called lichens – computers and Microsoft programmers have gone into symbiotic partnership. Encouraged by the potential dangled before them by their fast-lane, cutting-edge computers, these programmers create vast and bloated software. Everyone else needs new hardware to run it. (Windows 2000, I am unreliably informed, will require an entry-level 800MHz Octium processor and 2Gb of RAM.)

Who benefits? The programmers get paid to write the next generation of even vaster and more bloated software, and the computer species – which we hope is only acting mindlessly – wins increased think-power and perhaps takes another step towards sentience. It's a standard SF cliche that once computers and/or the net acquire enough complexity and connectivity, they will collectively wake up and answer an ancient theological question with the words (from a famous story by Fredric Brown): "Yes, now there is a God!" Which will cause a fearful clash of memes for millions of orthodox believers who worship only Bill Gates.

But there's still hope for us, even if the computers surge ahead and declare that they are the masters now. Yet another SF writer put it this way, and incidentally predicted the PC/Mac wars:

"Among themselves the machines will war eternally, but they will still require man as the being through whose agency the struggle will be principally conducted. In point of fact there is no occasion for anxiety about the future happiness of man so long as he continues to be in any way profitable to the machines ..."

Which is one of SF's more boggling bits of long-range extrapolation – from Samuel Butler's Erewhon, published in 1872.