There’s no shortage of techno-cautionary sci-fi literature out there, but the piece that recently caught my attention is remarkable in that it was written 100 years ago and yet is eerily relevant today. A few weeks back, Nick Vitalari referred me to the short story, The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster. Written in 1909, it depicts a dystopian society in which all of humanity lives in underground compartments and all activities are mediated through the Machine (veritably predicting the basement-dwelling Internet nerds of today). People do not ever physically touch – it is deemed uncivilized and barbaric. Instead, the characters have access to many technologies that would have been hard to fathom at the time the story was written, such as e-mail (“pneumatic post”), video chat, and virtual classrooms, as well as social networking. Of the main character, Forster notes, “She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.” The concept of knowledge work is also introduced; characters crave “ideas” and exchange academic theories as a way to further society, “the Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition.”
However, the Machine in the story also has limitations, “the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes.” The Machine is also standardized and all it domains are identical across the globe, “What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.” As expected, the story eventually ends with the stopping of the Machine, and by extension the fall of mankind. The decay of the Machine is brought on by hyper-specialization of those responsible for its maintenance, and a complacent and decedent lifestyle:
“Year by year [the Machine] was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbour, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished. They had left full directions, it is true, and their successors had each of them mastered a portion of those directions. But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.”
In Forster’s future, the Machine is a physical construct that acts as a replacement for reality and inhibits the movement of people and thoughts. However, the virtual layer of machinery that we are creating now has striking similarities.
In the digital world, man is no longer the measure by which progress is measured and the growth of the Web is not limited by our individual ability to create or even mental capacity to comprehend. This allows us to do tremendous things such as create simulations and models that would be impossible in the real world. However, in doing so, do we also lose a little bit of what it means to be human? For example, in the digital realm, there is no physical limit to how many “friends” we can maintain, no practical boundaries defining the amount of information we can acquire or transmit, no emotional context to our transactions and interactions, no appreciation for resources being consumed, and often a limited and sanitized semblance of our real world identities. Social networks are a perfect example. In a recent project of ours on the topic of Pervasive Personal Identity, the original draft included the following passage:
“Humans, augmented with a rich digital self and related social graphs, experience a richer social reality and a hence a distinct advantage over humans without a rich digital self. As a consequence, organizations that embrace the rich digital self accrue significant advantages over organizations that do not.”
The language has since changed in recent versions, but it brings up many interesting questions: Would we benefit universally if all activity was mediated through social media? Do we have a choice anymore? Moreover, are we at risk of losing sight of the limitations of the machine? How are we measuring “advantage”; is it the progress of the individual, or the progress of the system? In an enterprise context, we no longer need to know everything related to our jobs, but rather simply have access to those who do know. At the same time, the big picture – strategy – is becoming increasingly complex and difficult for any one single individual to comprehend. As we suggest in a recent study on Continuous Business Strategy, technology platforms and machine-driven analytics are now an essential component of strategic decision-making.
We accept the use of technology-mediated interactions as gospel and depend on them for many routine tasks. When we interviewed members of the Net Generation and asked them to describe how they would feel if the Internet stopped. Responses ranged from annoyed to completely lost; without technology, the new generation would feel depressed, disconnected, and in all likelihood incapable of performing many day-to-day functions. Forster’s story provides an extreme example of technology-dependence to the point where the body becomes a detriment and infants born with the promise of undue strength were destroyed: “Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body.”
In story, a character is reminded that man is the measure; after having to walk, he rediscovered notions of what it means to be near and far. I was reminded of this myself recently as I’ve been tackling home renovations. All things are originally measured in the context of the individual – the transportability of building materials are limited by my ability to carry them, the amount of work done on my house is measured in the time it takes for me to do it, or (usually) the amount of time for which I have to pay someone to do it. These limitations have of course been reduced thanks to the augmentation of machines and tools, and on a global scale, these limitations are harder to perceive because we have industrialized the production of most everything. But at a local level – i.e. home renovations – they are still very much real.
For me, the overall lesson is this: Technology must be used as a way to augment real world interactions, not replace them. As the antagonist in the story states, “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.”