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life stops when the machine starts
August 1, 2009, 8:03 am
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , , , , ,

It is amazing how prescient EM Forster’s The Machine Stops is, given that it was written way back in 1909, long before the internet was invented and the digital age even begun. Forster manages to encapsulate the anxieties and pitfalls of embracing technology, by illustrating a world in which the substance and warmth of humanity has been replaced by cold efficiency and shallow satiation of the senses.

Forster paints a world in which sterile and faceless technology has infiltrated all aspects of life. People literally live in their own worlds, as they do everything in subterranean hexagonal cells with various machines that provide for all of their needs. The Machine, as it is rather blandly named, provides everything that humans need. No one lives above the ground anymore, and air outside in fact kills. Public gatherings are “clumsy” and have since been abolished. Travel is often unnecessary since telecommunications is so advanced.

The protagonist, Vashti, is a mother who lives apart from her son Kuno, and communicates with him only through imaging plates and knobs that adjusts broadcasted sound. Their relationship has the air of formality one would normally reserve for strangers and professional acquiantances, and Vashti was reluctant to physically visit her own son who wanted her counsel and help. Mother and child are literally and metaphorically distanced. Upon realising from him that he visited the surface, she was shocked, and disappointed with him, and saw him as a disgrace to the Machine, a formless entity to whom she owes a larger allegiance and more affection to.

The dystopian world Forster presents to us is clearly a product of fiction, but I can see parallels that world has with ours.

A key feature of life in the Machine is isolation. Life is solitary, and much of the “needless” social interaction has been either abolished or reduced to electronic means. Just as people in the story interact through electronic intermediaries, we too are doing the same. Instead of meeting physically, we meet online and talk through phones and email. Subcultures that excessively trumpets the call for technology to engulf every area of our lives like the “Otaku” culture in Japan are emerging. Electronic gaming has become to many an adequate substitute for physical sports and a hour or two in the sun.

While people of the Machine was physically and spiritually segregated, we are yet to reach that point. I guess physical seggregation is impossible in this increasingly congested planet, but spiritual and emotional seggregation is already creeping into our lifes. We plug into our iPods and tune out the world, people marry later and many do not marry at all. Traditional religions are losing their hold to individualistic materialism and secularism. Many of our children grow up playing single player electronic games, not board games or marbles with their kindergarden and primary school friends.

Marshall McLuhan famously opined that the medium is the message. The form of communication often has an impact on the message itself, and has the insidious and subtle power to transform the very relationships between people. There some truth to this, in relation to the impact of electronic communications has on human relationships.

Compare traditional post with email. Sending a mail by traditional post requires more effort; one has to buy sufficient stamps, find out the applicable postal rates, obtain the appropriate stationery, plan the letter, vet and edit drafts, set pen to paper, seal the letter, affix the stamp, get the address right and finally make the trip down to the post box to send the letter. Email in contrast is free and just require you to tap a few keys and click a few buttons.

When one sends a traditional letter, one has to be careful. Words must be carefully selected because there are constraints, like the amount of space on a post card and the need to maintain the aesthetics of the letter by avoiding cross-outs and minimising corrections. These concerns are less pronounced in the context of email.

Care requires effort. And effort is an expression of the amount of value one places on particular relationships. Effort has the peculiar ability to strengthen relationships through a cycle of positive feedback. The more effort a person puts into a relationship, the more likely the person will cherish his counterpart. In economic parlance, effort put into relationships can be termed as “sunk costs” which motivates a person to stick with preexisting relationships instead of seeking greener pastures.

I read from somewhere before that a handwritten letter is equivalent to a personal visit from a friend. Having received a few in the past month, I must say there is a large amount of truth to that statement. Nothing beats the sense of warmth and pleasant surprise that one gets upon receiving a letter from a cherished friend in the mail and reading about her feelings and reengaging with the happenings of her life.

In contrast emails are utilitarian and to some extent encourages careless thoughts and words. It is little wonder that email often find its greatest use in the calculative and coldly rational world of business, where time is everything, speed and efficacy is paramount and effective communication of facts and orders and not conveyance of emotion is required. However email as a mode of communication is sorely inadequate between friends.

Sadly the culture of letterwriting has been on the wane, with the prevalence of email and the ease of writing electronic letters. Email clearly has its place and usefulness, but my concern is that the ascension of email will come at the cost of another avenue through which human emotions and warmth can be cultivated.

However I am also confident that letterwriting will not be abolished. As the persistence of print in the information age suggests, people do recognise the inherent value of old technology. I hope the value of letter writing is not lost on future generations.

Just as I find room for hope, Forster is not a pessimist in his story. There is redemption at the end of the story. Mother and son kiss for the first time,the first and unfortunately last act of intimacy and love between them and an admission that life in the Machine is in fact not really life at all. Hopefully, just like how Vashti reaches a moment of epiphany, those of us that place blind faith in technology at the expense of our very humanity will too realise the truth before it is too late.

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