Friday, September 11, 2015

Wishing for the Day “The Machine Stops”

Forrest Gump got it wrong.  It is not life that is like a box of chocolates where you never know what you gonna get.  A box of chocolates always makes it clear what kind of chocolates have been packed inside.  There is no surprise whatsoever.  It is, instead, in reading that we never know what we gonna get, which is a big reason why reading becomes so rewarding.  Of course, reading while eating chocolates is heavenly ;)

So, there I was reading Atul Gawande's homage to Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker, of course.  Gawande is a medical specialist like Sacks was, and a writer like Sacks was.  Gawande writing about Sacks is, thus, to be expected like knowing you are going to taste milk chocolate if the box said it contained milk chocolates.

But, I did not know what Gawande's comments might include. And therein lies the beauty of reading.  In his essay, Gawande writes "Sacks had asked me whether I’d read Forster’s “The Machine Stops.”  I remembered a reference to this, but in a different context.  It was more than four years ago in an interview with Jaron Lanier, which I watched after reading a lengthy profile of him in the New Yorker.
Lanier is often described as “visionary,” a word that manages to convey both a capacity for mercurial insight and a lack of practical job skills. In the nineteen-eighties, he helped pioneer the field of virtual reality, and he is often credited with having coined the term. He has also dabbled in film. In 2001, he advised the writers of “Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg’s film about a dystopian future. Since 2006, he has worked as a consultant at Microsoft Research.
More recently, he has become the go-to pundit for people lamenting the social changes wrought by modern technology.
Lanier is a technology guru who worries about the dehumanizing effects of a rapidly evolving technology, and the profile essay highlighted our collective struggle on this issue:
[Part] of what Lanier finds most regrettable about Facebook—the way it mediates social contact—is precisely what makes it so appealing to most people. “We use technology this way all the time,” Andy van Dam, a professor of computer science at Brown University, notes. “To create a layer of insulation. We send an e-mail so we don’t have to call someone on the phone. Or we call someone so we don’t have to go over to their house.” Many of us also use technology, he might have added, when we’re too isolated: when someone wants to find a new friend just because he’s feeling alone—or because he’s living with his father in a freezing tent in the desert.
It was after reading that profile essay that I decided to watch an interview with Jaron Lanier, where he referred to Forster--the same reference that Sacks had made when talking with Gawande.  You se how reading makes life so fascinating?

Gawande ends his essay with a reference to Forster's "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. Yet there is also a boy who, like Sacks, 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.”
We live in a world that Forster wrote about back in 1909.  Screen time of all kinds.  Instant messages.  Tweets and Facebook status reports and blog posts like this all passing of as knowledge, just as Forster had feared.  We have replaced real human interactions with virtual ones.  So "satisfied" with the virtual interactions, and thinking that the virtual even eliminates the need for real interactions, we seem to believe that visiting with parents, children, friends, is not needed anymore.  We live in our own cells.

Through his writing and his own life Oliver Sacks reminded us all about us humans in the flesh, writes Gawande:
He was drawn to the homes of the sick, the institutions of the most frail and disabled, the company of the unusual and the “abnormal.” He wanted to see humanity in its many variants and to do so in his own, almost anachronistic way—face to face, over time, away from our burgeoning apparatus of computers and algorithms. And, through his writing, he showed us what he saw.
Like I said, you never know what you gonna get when you read.


Ramesh said...

Yeah I never know what I am going to get when I come to this blog. Well, mostly !! That's what makes it interesting to follow and comment all the time.

Even when you stray into the predictable musing on your favourite subject or start to read authors of a certain nationality who seem to fascinate you, I can at least yell and rail at you in my comments :)

Sriram Khé said...

Ahem, need I remind you that I haven't blogged for a while about my "favorite subject" for a long while, nor have I quoted people of "a certain nationality" in the last six posts? ;)

Anonymous said...

Agreed with Ramesh. I read your blog because it is interesting AND unpredictable. Keep it up!

Sriram Khé said...

People, let us know who you are when you comment ... especially when it is a comment in appreciation ;)

Thanks for the compliment.

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