The Stories We Tell About Technology

Michael Solana wants to put an end to dystopian science-fiction. Enough already. No more bleak, post-apocalyptic stories; certainly no more of these stories in which technology is somehow to blame for the disaster. Why? Because, as the title of his Wired opinion piece puts it, “It’s Making Us All Fear Technology.”

This is as good a time as any to drop the word flabbergasted–I’m genuinely flabbergasted. Granted, there’s a good chance Solana didn’t pick his title, but, in this case, it pretty much sums up the substance of his view. Solana really seems to believe that our cultural imagination is driven by Luddite fears. He really seems to believe that stories which present technology as a positive force in human affairs can be … ready for this … “subversive” and “daring.”

Like Alan Jacobs, I find myself wondering what world Solana inhabits:

“I have to say, it’s pretty cool to get a report from such a peculiar land. Where you and I live, of course, technology companies are among the largest and most powerful in the world, our media are utterly saturated with the prophetic utterances of their high priests, and people continually seek high-tech solutions to every imaginable problem, from obesity to road rage to poor reading scores in our schools. So, you know, comparative anthropology FTW.”

Indeed.

Interestingly, I found myself wondering much the same thing when I read Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s post, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral” (more thoughts on which are eventually forthcoming). Gobry and Thiel, in the talk that inspired Gobry’s post, both lament what they seem to regard as an oppressive pessimism regarding technology and innovation that supposedly dominates our cultural imagination. To listen to Thiel, you would think that Silicon Valley was an island of hope and pragmatism in an ocean of fear and doubt. Gobry is particularly concerned with the prevalent pessimism about technology that he observes among Christians. Maybe French Catholics have a proclivity toward Luddism, I don’t know; but on this side of the Atlantic I see no great difference between Christians and non-Christians with regards to their attitudes toward technology. On the whole, they are generally enthusiastically positive.

In fact, I think media scholar Henry Jenkins is much closer to the mark, regarding communication technology at least, when he writes,

“Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

I don’t want to be to snarky about this, but, honestly, I’m not entirely sure where you have to stand to get this kind of perspective on society. True, there have always been skeptics–Thoreaus, Postmans, Elluls, Toflers–but, historically, they have been the counterpoint, not the main theme. They have always been marginal figures, and they have never managed to stem the dominant tide of techno-enthusiasm. (Granted, the case may be different in Europe, where, for example, nuclear energy has been in retreat since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.) Perhaps we simply prefer to see ourselves, regardless of the actual state of affairs, as an embattled minority. And perhaps, I’m guilty of this, too.

In any case, the only evidence that Solana submits in defense of his claim that “people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been” is a decidedly non-scientific survey of attitudes toward artificial intelligence. You can follow the link to read the details, but basically the survey offered three choices:

1. Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening
2. No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening
3. I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology

Here are the results:

1. 16.7%
2. 27.1%
3. 56.3%

Set aside any methodological issues; the results as reported simply don’t support Solana’s assertion that “the average American is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence.” Given the phrasing of the third choice, selecting it hardly suggests irrational fear. In fact, it may just reflect a modicum of common sense. By contrast, consider this recent Pew Research survey which found that “When asked for their general views on technology’s long-term impact on life in the future, technological optimists outnumber pessimists by two-to-one.”

Now, all of this said, Solana’s underlying assumption is worth considering. Human-beings are the sorts of creatures that do make sense of their world by telling stories about it. Stories have the power to shape how we imagine the place of technology in society. Our attitudes toward technology often flow from a larger story we buy into about technology and society.

It’s worth asking ourselves what story frames our thinking about technology. Broadly speaking, there are utopian stories and dystopian stories about technology. Utopian stories tell of a future that gets better and better as a result of techno-scientific progress. Dystopian stories present technology as a source of disaster or societal disintegration. I’d suggest that there are also tragic stories, and that these are not the same as dystopian tales. The paradigmatic techno-tragedy is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is a classically tragic tale that recognizes the allure and power of the techno-scientific project, while also grappling with its inherent dangers, dangers which are ultimately a function of the human condition.

Of course, these stories need not be fictional. They might also be stories we tell about our national history or about individuals, such as inventors or entrepreneurs. Moreover, what we want to ultimately consider is not any one story, or even a set of stories, it’s the net effect or the cumulative “story” that becomes part of our tacit understanding of the world.

While it is easy to think of popular stories that frame technology as a source of trouble, it seems to me that the still-dominant narrative frames technology as a source of hope. When Solana writes, in the pages of Wired mind you, that “Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it,” it seems to me that he is preaching to one massive choir.

With more time, I’d argue that our story about technology is not just a story. “Technology” is another name for the dominant myth of our time. This myth gives shape to our imagination. It sets the boundaries of the possible. It conditions our moral judgment. It is the arbiter of truth and the source of our hope. Is there a little anxiety wrapped up in all of this, even among the true believers? Sure. But as scholars of religion have long observed, what we hold sacred tends to invoke both wonder and fear.

So, what’s the view from where you stand? What do you perceive as the dominant cultural attitude toward technology? Have the Luddites really won the day, have I somehow missed this startling development?

“The Machine Stops,” Life Begins

In 1903, E. M. Forster imagined the future.  Teleconferencing, instant global communication, and televisions all make an appearance.  Forster envisioned a networked world in which every person lived physically isolated from, yet at the same time, mechanically connected to every other person. Humanity had driven itself under ground and each person lived in a habitation like the one Forster describes at the start of his story, The Machine Stops:

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

The action begins when the woman is contacted by her son who lives on the other side of the globe.  His call is taken as a great inconvenience because it requires the mother to silence the music, dim the lights, and disconnect from the flow of networked communication.  The constant wall of sound and sight is the norm, and the woman must press the “isolation knob” in order to speak exclusively with one person.  We discover that this person to person communication takes place with the help of a device which projects a holographic image of the other person.  The son, we learn, wants to see the mother face to face, and in the following exchange we begin to recognize the nature of the third main character in the story, The Machine:

“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”

“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn”t say anything against the Machine.”

“Why not?”

“One mustn”t.”

“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other.  “I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. 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.”

In the world Forster has created ideas rule; physicality is taken as a great encumbrance.  Explaining why she would rather not travel to see her son, the mother whose name we learn is Vashti, explains, “I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark. I get no ideas in an air- ship.”  And it is the ideas that everyone is after.

Each day they awake, they are bathed automatically, they are fed artificial food, and they tap into the network in search of ideas.  They gather virtually for “lectures” to hear about ideas; Vashti herself delivers lectures on the history of music.  When the artificial day is done, a bed emerges so that they may sleep and do it all over again tomorrow.  People rarely emerge from their cocoons where everything is brought to them and from which they may communicate with everyone else.  The “clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned” and while an earlier age made machines to take people to things, this age had learned the real purpose of machines was to bring things to people.  They were “funny old days, when men went for change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!”

Finally unable to convince Vashti to make the journey, the son disconnects, Vashti re-enters the flow of networked communication, and “all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her.”  Time goes on and Vashti carries on, delivering lectures and searching for ideas, all from her armchair. Meanwhile the “Machine hummed eternally,” yet no one noticed the noise for they had heard it from birth.  Vashti, finally moved by a tempered maternal compassion, decides that she must go to see her son.  It would not be hard since a system of airships still ran across the globe.  Few ever used it, however, “for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over … What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury?”

Travel in the airships exposed people to more physical stimulation than they were used to and it was taken as a great annoyance.  The glimmer of light from the sun or the stars, the sight of others, god forbid the touch of others, and the smell – it was all nearly unbearable.   Vashti regretted her decision, but pressed on.  As she glides over the earth the narrator informs us that “all the old literature, with its praise of Nature, and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child.”

As the story unfolds we come to understand that the Machine and the book that explains how to use the Machine to satisfy every need are treated with nearly religious veneration even though religion had long since been exposed as a superstition.  Occasionally, the characters in the story break into liturgical exchanges:

How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!”

“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” said Vashti.

“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” echoed the passenger …

Passing over one place and then another, Vashti sighs, “No ideas here.”  Later she looks again, “They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, ‘No ideas here,’ and hid Greece behind a metal blind.”

When Vashti finally arrives at her son’s room, he informs her that he had been to the surface.  Strictly speaking this was not forbidden and one could request a respirator with which to travel momentarily to the outside world whose air was taken to be unbreathable.  The son, however, had found his own way out through an old ventilation shaft, and because of his impudence he was now being threatened with homelessness.  Homelessness, we later learn, was akin to a death sentence imposed by exposure and abandonment on the earth’s surface.

The story goes on to its stirring climax, which the title already suggests, but I will not give away anymore of the plot here.  Take an hour or so and read the whole thing for yourself.  It is thought provoking and entertaining in equal measure.  Like most dystopian visions of the future, it is exaggerated.  And like Orwell’s 1984, the evil lies in a centralized, authoritarian power represented by the Machine and its Committee.  But in a Huxleyean mode, it is a power that humanity has acquiesced to in its pursuit of comfort and its flight from material reality.

The body is the victim in Forster’s tale.  The body has been starved while the mind has been indulged.  The senses have atrophied in a world of ideas, or we might say, of Information.  Even sex is uninteresting, having been reduced to merely a proscribed and mechanical act for the sake of propagating the race.  At one point the narrator informs us that, “by these days it was a demerit to be muscular.”  In one of the more striking exchanges in the story, the son tells of his first experience with genuine physical activity:

You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of “Near” and “Far”. “Near” is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. “Far” is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet; the vomitory is “far”, though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man”s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.

This is a remarkable passage for the way that it insists that our embodied experience is an essential component of our apprehension of reality.  It anticipates the later philosophical work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the even later cognitive science that has revealed the degree to which our thinking and experience of reality depends on our embodied interactions with the world and with others.  Forster’s imagined world, however, was a Cartesian paradise.  Ideas and abstractions reigned.  The further removed from experience and the more abstract an idea could become, the better:

Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote. And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them.

Contemporary readers, as you may have already guessed, tend to read the Machine as a prescient allegory of the Internet.  It is not a perfect allegory for, among other reasons, Forster’s network is not quite wireless, but it is remarkably suggestive nonetheless.  Most striking perhaps is the degree of dependence upon the network of telecommunications exhibited by all of the characters except the son, as well as the ubiquity of the Machine’s stimulation represented by the constant, unnoticed hum.  As he approaches the surface, the son explains,

The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power.

Many will also be jolted into startled recognition by the degree of agency that was handed over to the Machine.  In a passage that reminds us of The Matrix, we read:

We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It was robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.

Later on we also catch a warning about the alienation from humanity and the exploitation of nature, all in the name of efficiency:

Year by year it 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 … 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.

Still tempted to go on telling more of the story, I’ll content myself by leaving you with this last line:

“Quicker,” he gasped, “I am dying – but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.”  He kissed her. “We have come back to our own. We die, but we have recaptured life …”

Now go read the rest, and then take a walk outside and hug someone — not necessarily in that order.

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Trailer for a film based on the story: