#PulpNonFiction Opinion South Africa

#PulpNonFiction: What happens when The Machine Stops?

"There were buttons and switches everywhere - buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world." ~ The Machine Stops

Over the holiday break I read a lot of short stories (lugging heavy hard cover books around on a road trip is less fun than it sounds). One of the more interesting ones I got through has to be EM Forster’s The Machine Stops.

Hindsight / foresight

Edward Morgan Forster is probably best known for his well-loved novel Howards End, which showcased his keen eye for social injustice, moral hypocrisy and human nature. The Machine Stops, however, is science fiction. In fact, since it was written in 1909 it preceded the existence of even the term “science fiction”, making it a very foresighted piece of writing indeed.

The story is set in a far future Earth, where humans have their every need met by “The Machine”. The Machine feeds, protects, and entertains them. The inhabitants are so well taken care of they have little desire to leave their high-tech pod-like rooms or interact in person with any other flesh and blood humans - after all, while go on a trip when you can talk to each other through a screen?

(For anyone who has lived through the Zoom and Teams dominated 2020/2021 lockdowns, this scenario should feel all too familiar.)

Unfortunately, since their every need has been so thoroughly met for so long, when The Machine breaks down, the humans are unable to look after themselves and perish along with the god-like device they have become fully dependent on when it finally stops working.

What platforms give, platforms can take away

This lesson on the risks of codependency with technology got me thinking about how as businesses (and as individuals) we too have become perhaps dangerously dependent on the platforms and cloud service providers we used to conduct our business and personal lives thorough.

As I like to say, what platforms give, platforms can take away - when we use platform services as a rout to market or as a place to store our data and our digital lives, we become effectively renters or tenants, at the mercy of the (all to changeable) terms and conditions of our digital landlords.

What we gain in ease, efficiency and cost-effectiveness, we pay for in business risk. Take, for example, how Google announced last year that if you want to continue to access your own personal photographs and other documents stored in Google Drive (formerly a free service), you would have to pay them, or lose your files. Or, for a business example, consider how Apple recently changed its terms and conditions around data sharing with developers; denying app developers access to iOS client personal information they previously had access to - therefore placing a swift and significant barrier between direct end-user client and company relationships and communication strategies.

In short, when we rely on “the machine” - whatever that machine may be - to make our lives easier, we need to be aware of the trade-offs we are signing up to between efficiency and resilience. Our very survival as a business may depend on it.

About Bronwyn Williams

Futurist, economist and trend analyst. Partner at Flux Trends.
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