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Thoughts on The Machine Stops

Though the ending was wincingly melodramatic, the bulk of E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops was eerily prescient — even more so given the 1909 publication date. (I thought his prediction of "imitation marble" — like the formica surrounding my kitchen sink — was particularly apt.)

Still, I might have dismissed it as too hyperbolic a warning were it not for a recent brush with the possibility of losing my place in the cloud. I let a typo through while entering my Google account credentials, which brought up a screen declaring that my account had been deleted (for some reason, I was served this doomsday message instead of the usual "incorrect password" elbowing). Though I don't yet depend on them for air, food, or "medical apparatus" — I'm struck by how anxiety-inducing it was to see the words "this account no longer exists" on my phone. To rebuild from zero seems wearisome at best, and impossible at worst. This threat of silence brought real, physical anxiety. Without my GMail archives, saved articles on Google Reader, my contact lists, etc., rebuilding — much less remembering — my "thousands" of acquaintances would be impossible. My social, professional, and personal existence seem perilously leveraged by a single entity. Who even knows where the actual bits that represent this existence reside — Google's estimated to have about half a million servers, spread across a dozen countries. This can't be good. (But the very nature of cloud computing makes it so damn easy to ignore.)

Forster's take on the inversion of the idea of the frontier also held my interest. Before the latter stages of the industrial revolution, nature provided the frontiers to be pioneered / conquered / etc. — the west, agriculture, sanitation, space, etc. But in the information age, it's became fashionable to cast technology as a kind of frontier (Or so it was in the '90s... now it seems we're in transition.). Yet, Forster turns this notion around, imagining technology conquered and the physical world turned back into frontier — this is particularly clear from the descriptions of the Earth's surface: Kuno assures his mother that "I shall take all precautions" in the face of the surface's perils. (The parallels to current ecological concerns are impossible to miss.)

September 28 2009 at 3 AM