The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

The best thing I read today was a short story by E.M. Forster titled “The Machine Stops.” I found out about it while reading Atul Gawande’s tribute to Oliver Sacks.

“The Machine Stops” is a story about over-reliance on technology,in which people live alone in small podlike rooms in a honeycomb of vast underground cities spread across the globe. The physical comforts of food, clothing, and shelter are all taken care of by the global Machine. We meet a female protagonist named Vashti, who has to simply press a button to receive food or listen to music or summon a hot-bath :

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. She opened with a humorous account of music in the pre Mongolian epoch, and went on to describe the great outburst of song that followed the Chinese conquest. Remote and primæval as were the methods of I-San-So and the Brisbane school, she yet felt (she said) that study of them might repay the musicians of today: they had freshness; they had, above all, ideas. Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately. Then she fed, talked to many friends, had a bath, talked again, and summoned her bed.

And how Vashti’s son named Kuno wanted to meet his mother face-to-face:

The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.

Who knew that a story published more than 100 years ago would be so prescient of the world that is today–with social media pulling us at every angle, allowing Sacks to lament how it can absorb people, “to the exclusion of everything else, throughout their waking hours.”

The story reminds me of 1984, Blade Runner, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” It’s definitely worth reading. You can follow the link or purchase a Kindle edition of the short story for $0.99 here.

Norbert Wiener’s The Machine Age, Published 64 Years Later

In 1949, The New York Times invited MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener to summarize his views about “what the ultimate machine age is likely to be,” in the words of its longtime Sunday editor, Lester Markel.

Wiener accepted the invitation and wrote a draft of the article; but Markel was dissatisfied and asked him to rewrite it. Wiener did. But things fell through the cracks and his articles were never published.

Until now.

Per the Times, “almost 64 years after Wiener wrote it, his essay is still remarkably topical, raising questions about the impact of smart machines on society and of automation on human labor. In the spirit of rectifying an old omission,” here are excerpts from The Machine Age.

My favorite one is titled “The Genie and the Bottle”:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

We must be willing to deal in facts rather than in fashionable ideologies if we wish to get through this period unharmed. Not even the brightest picture of an age in which man is the master, and in which we all have an excess of mechanical services will make up for the pains of transition, if we are not both humane and intelligent.

Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists.

There is general agreement among the sages of the peoples of the past ages, that if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it wrongly than to use it rightly, more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently. [W. W. Jacobs’s] terrible story of the “Monkey’s Paw” is a modern example of this — the father wishes for money and gets it as a compensation for the death of his son in a factory accident, then wishes for the return of his son. The son comes back as a ghost, and the father wishes him gone. This is the outcome of his three wishes.

Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

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Interestingly, I didn’t make the connection to who this Weiner fellow was until I looked him up on Wikipedia. I studied the famous Wiener process (also known as standard Brownian motion) in my graduate course in stochastics.

Science Fiction Writers Predict 2012 in 1987

In 1987, a slew of science fiction writers were asked to predict the world 25 years away. These time capsule predictions of the year 2012 have been unveiled. A lot of the writers were way off, and here are the highlights. Who do you think was the most accurate?

ISAAC ASIMOV:

Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet—and widespread hunger. These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much.

ALGIS BUDRYS:

Because we will be in a trough between 20th-century resources and 21st-century needs, in 2012 all storable forms of energy will be expensive. Machines will be designed to use only minimal amounts of it. At the same time, there will be a general expectation that a practical cheap-energy delivery system is just around the corner. Individuals basing their career plans on any aspect of technology will concentrate on that future, leaving contemporary machine applications to the less ambitious or to those who foresee a different future. The most socially approved-of individuals will constitute a narrowly focused aristocracy, and will be at the mercy of dull functionaries and secretive rebels who actually perform the day-to-day maintenance of society. It should be noted that most minimal-energy devices process information and microscopic materials, not consumer goods. The function of “our” society may depend on processing information and biotechnology to subjugate goods-producing societies. These societies may be geographically external, or may be yet another social stratum within central North America. In either case, crowd-management technologies will have to turn away from forms that might in any way impair capital goods production. Social regimentation will then have become so deft that most people will regard any other social milieu as pitiable.  

TIM POWERS:

Probate and copyright law will be entirely restructured by 2012 because people will be frozen at death, and there will be electronic means of consulting them. Many attorneys will specialize in advocacy for the dead.

ORSON SCOTT CARD:

We must count ourselves lucky if anyone has leisure enough in 2012 to open this time capsule and care what is inside. In 2012 Americans will see the collapse of Imperial America, the Pax Americana, as having ended with our loss of national will and national selflessness in the 1970s. Worldwide economic collapse will have cost America its dominant world role; but it will not result in Russian hegemony; their economy is too dependent on the world economy to maintain an irresistible military force. A new world order will emerge from famine, disease, and social dislocation: the re-tribalization of Africa, the destruction of the illusion of Islamic unity, the struggle between aristocracy and proletariat in Latin America—without the financial support of the industrialized nations, the old order will be gone. The changes will be as great as those emerging from the fall of Rome, with new power centers emerging wherever stability and security are established. The homogeneity of Israel will probably allow it to survive; Mexico and Japan may change rulers, but they will still be strong. If America is to recover, we must stop pretending to be what we were in 1950, and reorder our values away from pursuit of privilege.

And perhaps the most accurate predictions come courtesy of DAVE WOLVERTON, who wrote that in 2012 we would see:

1) That economic cycles caused by rises in technological levels will begin to level out—countries that have a falsely inflated economy will be forced to export their technologies to third-world countries where people are willing to work for less money. This will lead to a situation where knowledge, the key to our technologic success, will be spread across the world. We’ll see rapid decreases in starvation levels, but will still be plagued with political turmoil.

2) Men’s Rights—We will see a reaction to the women’s movement. Men will demand to be portrayed by the media as the sensitive, caring creatures that they are. They will also demand equal rights in custody battles where children are seldom awarded to a father because our society chooses to believe a mother is a better care-taker by nature.

3) Introduction of x-ray microscopes in the early 2000’s will lead to rapid progress in gene splicing. Look for rapid growth in medicine and mining, and food production. We may also see bacteria being engineered to simulate parts of the immune system (which could cure immune disorders such as AIDS and allergies).

More here.

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Hat tip: Jodi Ettenberg.

Related: Also see predictions of the year 2000 in 1900.

A Fire Balloon for Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, the master of science fiction, died yesterday at age 91. The New York Times has a memorable obituary.

What I wanted to highlight is Bradbury’s last piece for The New Yorker, where the author writes about his relationship with his grandfather and the inspiration for his short story, “The Fire Balloons”:

While I remained earthbound, I would time-travel, listening to the grownups, who on warm nights gathered outside on the lawns and porches to talk and reminisce. At the end of the Fourth of July, after the uncles had their cigars and philosophical discussions, and the aunts, nephews, and cousins had their ice-cream cones or lemonade, and we’d exhausted all the fireworks, it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty. It was the time of the fire balloons.

Even at that age, I was beginning to perceive the endings of things, like this lovely paper light. I had already lost my grandfather, who went away for good when I was five. I remember him so well: the two of us on the lawn in front of the porch, with twenty relatives for an audience, and the paper balloon held between us for a final moment, filled with warm exhalations, ready to go.

Very touching. RIP, Ray Bradbury.