Sunday, May 4, 2008

"The Machine Stops"

I feel as if I am living in the world of E. M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops," at least as far as mail servers are concerned. I have been corresponding with a neighbor over some work she has been doing to promote the music of nineteenth-century composer Amy Beach (who happens to have lived some of her years here in San Francisco). My neighbor reads her mail through AOL, and I read mine through Yahoo! Recently I have been getting failure-to-deliver notices from the Yahoo! mail server, claiming the mail was "rejected by the recipient domain," that being the AOL mail server. After running some experiments, which included sending one of my blog posts through Blogger (which uses Gmail) and sending mail from the account I have at a research laboratory in Palo Alto, I have come to the conclusion that the problem is on the AOL side, because all of these attempts were getting bounced, regardless of which mail server was delivering them.

This reminded me that we probably take electronic mail for granted even more than we do our telephone service. Unfortunately, neither of these services is centralized. This means that, when things go wrong, it is difficult to home in on where the problem is likely to reside and even harder to bring that problem to the attention of responsible parties. Furthermore, those who have been following my study of service pathology know that, once the problem has been directed to the "responsible parties," there is no guarantee that they will respond effectively (or, for that matter, respond at all). In Forster's world "the machine" saw to everyone's needs; but, when it failed to behave as it had been designed to do, one discovered that it was no longer being maintained by human beings, because self-maintenance was part of its specified behavior. The result was that people started living with minor defects; and those minor defects gradually evolved into major ones, until the major ones became so major that the whole system ground to a halt.

You do not hear much talk of Forster from the Internet evangelists (small wonder). They are more interested in creating dependencies (addictions?) than in maintaining them. As I have put it previously, they take for granted that there will always be an army of Morlocks to make sure that our dependencies will always be satisfied (and that we shall continue to pay for that "service"). However, while H. G. Wells seemed to postulate that the Morlocks were a product of some bizarre synthesis of biological and social Darwinism, it is unclear how (or even if) the "future Morlocks of cyberspace" will evolve (not to mention whether they will be as alienated and hostile as the creatures that Wells imagined). Forster's story is probably best read as a cautionary tale of unintended consequences; but, as I continue to try to argue, the language of consequences is not the language of Internet evangelism. Ultimately, then, Forster reminds us of the words of one of his contemporaries, the poet Wilfred Owen, who had declared that "all a poet can do today is warn." Both Owen and Forster knew full well that warnings of the deepest consequences are the ones least likely to be heeded.

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