I was reading one of Atul Gawande’s articles and came across his reference (in an article about the late Oliver Sacks) about a novel by E.M. Forster’s titled “The Machine Stops”. It’s about a world in which individuals live isolated in cells, fearful of self-reliance and direct experience, dependent on plate screens, instant messages, and the ministrations of an all-competent Machine. All their bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Most humans welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own.
Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as ‘unmechanical’ and are threatened with “Homelessness”. Eventually, the Machine apocalyptically collapses, and the civilization of the Machine comes to an end.
Yet as Gawande points out . . there is also a boy who saw what was missing. The boy tells his mother, “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.”
There’s something in Forester’s prophetic description that resonates in a really uncomfortable way. In all this new and omnipresent technology. we’re connecting more than ever but we’re isolated. In 2018 the UK appointed the first ever minister for loneliness, .
There’s some great things about technology which have been life changing and life affirming, but there’s also a really damaging side to our relationship with the screen. As a person prone to fretting . .
I wonder about people’s social stream online and the disconnect it often has with their real world life. Yet so much time and energy is invested in cultivating the appearance of success or happiness, or amplifying it. It can be great to share memories and keep in touch but how much do we actually share in the experiences together in the moment and experience it fully if we’re so intent on capturing it? And why are we so intent on capturing it? Why is it so important to tell the world we were there?
I worry about the way we objectify each other online because I see school kids rating each other’s attractiveness publicly, I see dick pics and instagram posts where the traditional gender politics play out in startling form. So much damage done. How do we teach our kids to be kind and use the medium to connect and amplify the goodness in the world?
I’m conscious of the footprint our kids are leaving when they’re too young to know that this history will follow them around forever. How do we teach them about the trail they leave? We can’t ignore the technology so we have to show them how to use it wisely. How do we do that?
I’m concerned about what we attend to. As Annie Dillard says, “how we spend our days is of course, how we spend our lives”. And right now, there’s a whole lot people spending every waking minute on Facebook and Instagram. This sense of keeping up with the most recent news or posts, as if somehow ‘newness’ has a measure on what’s important. This ‘recency’ effect and the sheer volume of content means we can spend hours online without having consumed anything that’s of real interest or importance. Who gets to decide what’s important in this medium and for whom?
I try to search outside the narrow lens through which tech might sometimes encourage us to view the world. Whilst the Internet is a commercially driven medium, the algorithms that drive the surfacing of content are programmed to deliver us what we’d like. Not necessarily what’s good for us. And the algorithms are programmed to deliver me content based on what I’ve searched previously. So how will I ever see something counter intuitive to that which I might initially be drawn to? How do I explore and sympathise with the Other if I never see it? Worse still . , what if I’m not even consciously aware of the process? Holy shit batman.
I’m excited to head to Brave Conversations in Melbourne next week to talk about some of these things because . . in the conversations we’re having about technology. . .
I think there’s something missing.