I started this editorial because of the confluence of a number of streams of thought. I had been thinking about E.M. Forster, who wrote one of my favorite early SF stories. In The Machine Stops humans have chosen to spend their lives physically isolated within yet constantly communicating with each other via the Machine; the famous epigraph from Howards End (yes, same Forster) "Only connect…" also illustrates that yearning for human connection that is so woven into the fabric of his work.
At the recent SFM sponsored event Scavenging the Future, at a panel on zines and blogging, I heard some birth-stories of the form, linking these cousins to each other. The first paper zines were little packets of information flying between early SF fans, reaching out to each other across continental (if regretedly less-than-stellar) distances. Self-published anecdotal verbiage on the Internet (to toss the term blogging on the rack of strained abstraction) appears to be the same impulse embodied in a different medium — thus in some cases a vastly different manifestation.
In the final stream, memory shows me sitting at an old H19 terminal, checking my mailing-list email. Someone was complaining about the annual newbie influx to electronic space, the encroachment of non-programmers. Not a coder myself, I was a trifle miffed, though something about the argument itself was off. There were plenty of non-programmers on the net; we were a minority, but on the main we contributed a valuable share. The internet wasn't about computers, it was about communication: about connection.
So I was typing furiously away when the hard drive on my laptop ground to a screeching halt. Quite literally – it sounded like someone was torturing small mammals inside the housing. These are not noises a happy laptop makes, and their continued issuance while I attempted to use the diagnostic and repair utilities was not reassuring. Several tries and one very long afternoon later, the disk repair application claimed to have successfully repaired the disk. With delight, I pressed the power switch to reboot, as instructed.
Alas, the operant school of problem solving subscribed to by the disk utility was now revealed as "ignore it and maybe it will go away." No sign of the hard disk was to be found. I gave the operating system several chances, working through the different options for startup disk, with no luck. Apparently the hard drive unmounted itself and wandered away while I was off getting a cup of coffee.
The machine had indeed stopped, to my utter dismay.
After introducing Forster's tale of mechanically degraded life above, it might be expected to next find here a paen to sunshine, sniffing flowers, and how the death of my computer caused me to step back and reconnect with the 'real world'. I am afraid I must disappoint. The paen instead rises up to my sysadmin roommate, who within fifteen minutes had me up and running on another of the many house machines.
No, I still don't have access to my hard drive, and there are a number of things that fact makes somewhat difficult. But my point is that we have reached a time where even without access to my most vital local storage device I can still function. Without my even trying, my wired life has become distributed enough to survive a catastrophic failure of one of its major components. In at least one manner of speaking, I am connected.
Nor are we as a species, in spite of doleful pronouncements of obesity epidemics, the emotionally stunted, uniformly atrophied and pale unhealthy creatures of the story. We are still connected with our biological selves: climbing mountains, racing bicycles up and down ridiculous hills, running marathons; on a more common level perhaps walking the dog, playing soccer, or teaching the kids how to swim. More hopeful still, we've incorporated little Machines into our physical pursuits. Skiers saved by avalanche beacons, lost hikers contacted by cell phone, lost shoppers finding each other in Costco — laugh, but making our lives easier with wires and machines hasn't made us degenerate, cold, isolated beings.
I don't believe it will; I don't believe it can. We burn with that need to connect so strongly that we will bend more than mere machines to our will in order to accomplish it. It's a human trait, along with the epiglottis and laughter. When we didn't have wires, we used paper. When we didn't have paper, we drew on the walls. We yearn so much to connect and communicate we sent Voyager out into the universe, a pictographic message in/on a bottle we don't know will ever be received.
So the machine stops. It isn't (thankfully) the end of the world.