The Machine Stops

by Todd Walton, October 15, 2013

“In this world there are only two ways of getting on—either by one’s own industry or by the stupidity of others.” — Jean De La Bruyère

E.M. Forster, best known for his novels Room With A View, Passage To India and Howard’s End, published a great short story in 1909 entitled The Machine Stops, an extremely prescient imagining of a future we may soon inhabit. Forty years before the advent of television, Forster foresaw computers and the worldwide internet, the demolition of the global environment, and the total collapse of technological society.

I thought of Forster’s story this week for three reasons. First, we are in the midst of The Government Stops, second the climate news is more dire than ever with rising global temperatures on pace to make human life on earth untenable within a decade or so, and third, my trusty Imac, a senile seven-year-old, has finally become so obstreperous and the screen so degenerate that I have ordered a new Imac and trust the universe will employ the precessional repercussions of my action to her advantage. Buckminster Fuller described precessional repercussions as those right-angled unintentional effects of an intended action; for instance, the honeybee goes to the flower with the intention of getting nectar, and one of the marvelous unintended repercussions of the bee’s action is pollination. Mazel tov!

Little did I realize how much time I spend using (and being used by) my computer until going mostly without the blessed device for these last two weeks. Yikes. Not only do I several times a day type my longhand output into on-screen documents, but I carry on most of my correspondence by email now, read several articles a day online, watch sports highlights and movie previews, and pursue several lines of research, all as a matter of barely conscious course.

I am happy to report that I don’t feel I have missed much these last two weeks and know I have gained valuable time to do important work to prepare this old (new) house for winter, work I never seemed to have quite enough time for because, well, you know, there were links to click and leads to follow and Truthdig and Bill Moyers and Rhett & Link and and and…

As of this writing, our government has been “shut down” for eleven days, with polls showing a slight majority of people blaming Republicans for the impasse and a frighteningly large minority blaming Obama. That anyone could blame Obama for this blatant sabotage of our system is silly, but that tens of millions of registered voters blame him for the actions of a bunch of cruel racist lunatics is, in the words of Grouch Marx, “A travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham of a mockery.”

The central bank of China owns a large chunk of our national debt and is highly displeased with America’s governmental constipation, as are the various global financial markets. “Please get your money business in order pronto,” they chorus with growing vitriol. “We don’t care if you want to starve your own citizens and deprive them of healthcare and decent education, just don’t jeopardize our investments in your big bubble economy or we’ll stop buying and holding your stinking debt!”

The Japanese are pissed off, too, but they don’t have a leg to stand on with their (our) Fukushima nuclear disaster so close to global endgame catastrophe I wonder how anyone can sleep at night, let alone eat fish.

“There are two worlds: the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.”— Leigh Hunt

Today Marcia and I walk to town to buy groceries, run a few errands, and split a salad at Goodlife Café and Bakery, the day cool and windy, a large coalition of vagabonds and their dogs conferencing in front of Harvest Market, their mood upbeat, many cups of coffee in evidence.

While Marcia copies things at Zo and returns a DVD to our miniature library, I go to the post office where marvelous Robin sells me four sheets of the fabuloso new Ray Charles stamps and I send one of my books and two of my piano CDs to a lucky customer in New Zealand, the postage twice what my creations cost her. What a woild!

Marcia catches up to me in the cozy confines of Corners of the Mouth where I note that the sunflower seeds are from North Dakota, the pumpkin seeds are from Oregon, the peanuts are from Georgia, the coconut oil is pressed and jarred in Oregon, and the bananas are definitely not from the Anderson Valley. If the vast petroleum-powered food transportation machine were to suddenly stop, much of what we eat these days would not be here to eat. We grow vegetables and potatoes, and we buy more of the same from local growers, ditto berries and apples and eggs, but rice and beans and avocados and and and…

We trudge up the hill with our laden packs and arrive home to a Fedex note stuck to our door saying the delivery person came two hours in the future with my new computer but needs a signature before he or she can leave the package. The note says, “Go to Fedex.com and enter the Door Tag tracking number to learn what your options are.”

So I dutifully go to Fedex.com on my barely functional computer, enter the tracking number, and there in large print is confirmation that my package was delivered on September 6, five weeks ago and four weeks before I ordered my new computer. Zounds! Talk about efficient.

Feeling miffed and disoriented, I call the Fedex 800 number and get a sexy woman’s voice that turns out to be a voice-recognition system that sounds confident she/it can understand why I’m calling if I will clearly explain my situation using telltale words and expressions such as delivery and wherefore art thou, Romeo.

“Did you say package?” says the sexy voice, her tone endowing the word package with suggestive connotations. “Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number and she responds enthusiastically with, “Okay. Your package was delivered on September 6.”

“No!” I scream. “No! No! No!”

“Okay,” says the robot lady who never needs to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom or see a doctor or complain about low wages and lousy working conditions. “I’ll connect you to a service representative. Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number again and she rewards me with a hideous synthesized instrumental version of Hey Jude. After thirty seconds of this sonic blasphemy, a different sexy sounding female voice announces that my call may be monitored for quality assurance and to determine if I am naughty or nice.

When I make a silent vow to listen to the original version of Hey Jude so I might like the song again, the universe rewards me with a real live person who says his name is Mark, pronouncing his name Mar-ek. “How can I help you today?” he asks, sounding as if he is in a large room with hundreds of other people all talking at the same time.

I recite my name and address and explain my situation and Mark says, “The driver made an error and used an expired tracking number. He attempted to deliver your package at 3:48 today, but no one was there.”

“Mark,” I say, “it is not yet 3:48 here. Is this perhaps another driver error?”

“Yes,” says Mark, giggling. “Yes, it is.”

“Will the driver come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark. “He will.”

“Why did he not just say that on his door tag, Mark?”

“He did say that,” says Mark, “but he used an expired door tag tracking number so the correct information was not available to you online.”

“But he will come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark, sounding a wee bit impatient with me and possibly in need of a coffee break. “I am almost a hundred per cent sure he will bring your package tomorrow.”

“I’ll be waiting with baited breath.”

“Oh, just sign the door tag,” says Mark. “And then you don’t have to be there when it comes.”

“Thank you, Mark. You have been very kind to me.”

“No problem. Have a nice day.”

Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

 

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