When Pink Floyd released their Wish You Were Here album, one of the most significant songs was Welcome to the Machine. In their vernacular, it was symbolic of the way musicians and bands get ground up by the machinery of the recording industry. As a symbol of their independence, they criticized the very process that made them popular. While so many other musicians were selling their creative souls in order to get their records made, Pink Floyd decided to remind their audience that the process could result in cookie-cutter acts that functioned with no more spirit than the cold machinery of a factory. It was such a visual song that I quickly conceived a movie in which the main character experiences a nightmare life in which his every move is controlled by a robotic presence that accompanies him everywhere. By the end of the day (and the song), our man falls into exhausted sleep, and awakens to find that his nightmare is in fact his life.
Let me just state from the outset that, as a rule, I love technology. I was the first teacher at PCHS to have a computer in my classroom and make computer-printed tests for the students. I have always added the latest processor, largest amount of RAM, and biggest-capacity hard drive to every computer I have purchased. My cell phone is always top-of-the-line when I buy it, though as with all my technology, I never replace anything until I have absolutely sucked all the life out of it. So, I am no Luddite, but this modern slavishness to technical equipment genuinely has me concerned.
I recently pondered all this while attempting to navigate my way around Columbus, Ohio where I went to attend a Deep Purple concert. (Sorry for mixing musical metaphors.) Arriving in town the day before, I had planned several activities to get me through the day, but had no particular idea just which roads to drive on in order to do what I wanted. As we are currently wont to do, I entered a number of locations into my cell phone, and let the dulcet tones of that mechanical young lady guide me to me destinations. I must say that I was genuinely amazed that she seems to know everything. She got every little turn and road name correct, which I found amazing considering the number of potential roads and turns there are.
I should also mention that Columbus is one of those towns in which the roads were constructed by the same sort of UnCivil Engineers that mapped out the Hagerstown area. On-ramps consistently overlap with exit ramps, causing accelerating cars to intersect with decelerating ones in a hazardous fashion. Sometimes, two or more exit ramps follow in rapid succession, making it difficult to determine exactly which one a person really wants. In one 10-mile stretch, I found myself on 4 different numbered highways. For an out-of-towner to keep all this straight while looking for a destination seems genuinely impossible. Fortunately, I had my pocket guide-dog with me, so nothing bad could happen.
As I navigated to my hotel, then from there to Schmidt’s Sausage House, and back to the hotel, from there to Easton for breakfast, back to the hotel, to the History Library, and finally out of town, I let that sweet young woman tell me what to do at every turn. It didn’t take long before I felt like a mindless drone, obediently following directions regardless of the sense they made. My mistress commanded, and I obeyed without question. Well, almost.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am not all that good at being obedient, so the experience regularly chafed. I soon found myself yelling at that sweet girl, telling her I would turn at the next street, since she didn’t give me enough warning before saying, “Turn right on… (insert the name of several streets she waited too long to tell me to turn onto).” I could see the advantages of having an interactive map for nearly any location I could imagine, but I was also painfully aware of the shortcomings.
Most frightening of all, was the ease with which I allowed myself to be guided by this ubiquitous technology. To some degree, I have a working knowledge of the general distribution of the locations I was seeking, or I would never have been able to find them on the map. But it was fairly quickly that I blindly accepted her instructions without questioning the logic. I thought of all the ways we do so every day, and it only made me more uneasy. We Google information, accepting the first result as the most important, without registering its qualifications. Our technology requests updates, add-ons, and new apps, and we comply without questioning whether there is any benefit to doing so. Our phones and computers register incredible amounts of our personal information, disseminating it to various locations without our permission, or indeed, our knowledge. Hackers and phishing scams collect incredible volumes of data, using it to steal our identities or simply rob us of the privacy that so many of us take for granted. We have been welcomed to the machine, and made subservient to it.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessity”. More than a century has passed since he said that, but it is more true now than it was when he said it. Our devices are very helpful, but they are not essential. They provide us with tremendous convenience, while making us dependent upon that convenience. We have become so accustomed to our inventions making our lives easier we may have forgotten how to live.
Access to knowledge has always been important. The primary difference between the ancients and us is that they had to know the information while we just need technological access to it. Science fiction writers have long imagined a world in which robots control our every move. Those stories have generally been designed to terrify us, and many have accomplished that quite well. The most terrifying aspect of the idea may be that when the revolution comes, we may have no choice but to comply, since we may not be able to know or accomplish anything without our technology to guide us. Welcome to the machine.