Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Machine Stops

I have posted in other places about the E.M. Forster story, The Machine Stops. I read it as a teenager in the 1970s and felt that it was as far-fetched in 1975 as it had been in 1909.

It's a funny thing... my children greeted Ray Kurzweil's reported predictions of blood cell sized computers with general derision. "Yeah, yeah, yeah... and in 1975 they believed we'd have personal robots by the year 2000, or be flying to work by jetpack!"

I had no trouble believing that we might have a personal R2D2 to do the hoovering or collect the dirty laundry. I had no difficulty accepting that we might have surveillance outposts on the dark side of the moon by 1999. But the idea that we might all be linked by a machine, and have friends around the world we hadn't met, that didn't ring true at all in 1975. It didn't seem likely.

To see how prescient E.M. Forster was, I recommend reading the story. I wonder how dependent we will become on our machines over the next 100 years. I wonder whether books will withstand the march of progress or gradually get filed under obsolete objects and be relegated to museums.

Currently I resist the march of progress coccooned in a library of thousands of volumes, and I love the touch, look and reading of books. I cherish the ones with history, I see them as friends and companions in many cases. But even I would hesitate, with the availability of reference material online, to buy a new encyclopedia or dictionary.

I think writers have a big part to play in considering the shape of the future... and maybe we should heed their warnings.

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