A Modem Utopia, Or, Why Allison's Boring Daddy Hopes the Machine Doesn't Stop
Not—you'll be thankful to hear—that there is much to say. As my fourteen-year-old daughter Allison perceptively notes, "Daddy, you have no life." During the daytime, twelve months a year, I teach credit and non-credit classes for two universities. At night, after a hard day, I simply veg out in front of the television watching baseball games or documentaries, refusing even to engage in conversation; after a not-so-hard day, I talk with my wife and children or do some reading and writing. On weekends, when I am usually relieved of other responsibilities, I work on future publications such as Interzone columns, this one being drafted on Saturday, August 7.
Visibly absent in my ongoing routine is anything resembling a social life, other than rare trips to the movies or the beach: I do not spend time with friends, I do not know my neighbors, I do not exercise, I do not go to restaurants or bars or sporting events, I appear to be completely alienated from my environment. As such, I exemplify what many regard as a growing societal problem.
For increasing numbers of Americans, like me, are avoiding the traditional social activities that long seemed essential to a functional community. As one indicator of this alarming trend, a Harvard professor studied the sharp decline in bowling leagues throughout the United States, concluding that this was evidence of a grave situation urgently demanding attention. Americans are devoting insufficient amounts of their free time to communal bowling! Can the Republic survive?
As my tone suggests, I was not inspired by this professor to rush out and join a bowling league to help repair America's tattered social fabric. Once, while working at a credit union, I actually joined its bowling team; and to me, the iterative experience of rolling a large ball down an alley again and again, and watching it roll back to you every time, is entertaining only momentarily as a technologically streamlined realization of the mythological torments of Sisyphus.
Bowling leagues? Sorry, I have better things to do with my time—which leads to my defense of an apparently sociopathic lifestyle.
Despite all appearances, you see, I don't feel as if I have a sociopathic lifestyle, entirely cut off from the world. On the job, I interact normally with colleagues and students; at home, I interact with family members and their friends. More to the point, there are many people that I socialize with from a distance— sometimes by letters or phone, but mostly by e-mail. A few of them are well known to Interzone readers. While my cybernetic correspondence with David Pringle typically focuses on business matters (such as, "Dear David, What is the last possible moment that I can send you my next column and have it published on time?"), we sometimes have more substantive conversations. John Clute checks in every few months or so with a question or news, and Paul Barnett (John Grant) has been talkative of late. But I don't wish to imply that I am particularly close to these luminaries, or that my correspondence exclusively involves luminaries; it is mostly people who are unknown to you but well worth knowing — professors and students and others devoted to science fiction—that I stay in touch with.
From my perspective, then, I am not anti-social at all; rather, I have found people to be sociable with who are more stimulating than those in my immediate vicinity.
Yet concerned professors, viewing my hours at the computer as a disturbing rejection of society, want to tear me away from the Internet and bring me into personal contact with people in my neighborhood, to recreate an idealized American past of community barn-raisings, square dances, and quilting bees by means of contemporary equivalents like bowling leagues.
Well. Let's consider one of my neighbors, a man I can castigate without concern because there is not the slightest chance that he will ever learn of the existence of Interzone, let alone read an issue. As far as I can tell, the primary obsession of his life is washing his car. Every weekend, he stands in his driveway, spending hours devotedly scrubbing and polishing his car to a state of pristine beauty. When his teenage sons were part of the household, they were in the driveway too, washing their own cars, as the father schooled his sons in the proud family tradition of automotive cleanliness. And sometimes, no doubt, they would scornfully look across the street at my conspicuously filthy car, a sure sign of wrongheadedness and rampant moral decay.
So, what I am supposed to do? To bond with this man, should I spend my weekends washing my car too? As we both washed our cars, would he wander over to engage in engrossing discussions about the best products and techniques to make one's car most immaculate? Would the conversation then drift into other exciting areas, like current weather conditions or the changing fortunes of the local baseball teams? To further expand our hours for social contact, would we resolve to launch a bowling league?
Let's face it; neighborhoods are random collections of people whom we may—or more likely, may not—particularly care for. Our ancestors built barns and danced and quilted with their neighbors not because they loved each other, but because they had no choice: they needed each other's labor, and had no one else to socialize with. Today, we can earn money to have somebody else build our houses and sew our quilts; we no longer require volunteers from across the glen to assemble basic necessities. Today, we can use communication networks to search the world to find the best possible people to socialize with; we no longer have to settle for the people who happen to live nearby.
Thus, it's not that I am alienated from my car-washing neighbor, my neighbor who belongs to the National Rifle Association, or my neighbor who cannot speak English; I am liberated from them. Instead of enduring the neighborhood I happened into, I am allowed by modern technology to construct my own virtual neighborhood, filled with far more interesting people than I can find by walking down the street. If you say that I am "cocooning"—prognosticator Faith Popcorn's term for people who spend all their time at home, surrounded by electronic devices—let's remember that there's a reason why caterpillars go into cocoons: to turn into butterflies. Had I remained solely in the company of the people that life threw in my path, I might have devolved into a beer-drinking cretin fuming about the lousy pitching of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and why can't Shaquille O'Neal learn to make a free throw? Instead, in part because of the people I have chosen to read and have chosen to communicate with, I developed into the erudite and fascinating irritant that I am today.
Of course, while science fiction friends constitute my most important virtual community, they are not the only one. Recently, I have been playing bridge online, anonymously interacting with players all over the world who enter and withdraw from games at any time as the mood strikes them. Less frequently, I consult with colleagues about teaching remedial math and English. No matter what you care about today, you can find a listserv devoted to it or can assemble your own circle of scattered companions.
And in this way, we have realized in an unexpected but spectacular fashion one of the dreams of science fiction.
When space habitats first became prominent, they were presented as a perfect solution to all social problems. To avoid conflicts with others, like-minded individuals could settle in their very own habitat, to be happily isolated from potentially irritating outsiders. There could be separate habitats for dedicated nudists, fanatical bridge-players, or hard-core Marxists. William Forstchen's Into the Sea of Stars envisioned 700 of these harmonious, homogenous enclaves, which leave the solar system to enjoy a peaceful existence far from Earth.
However, there was one problem with this plan, which is that people rarely fit comfortably into one group, and one group alone. Under the Forstchen system, what happens if you are a bridge-playing Marxist? You choose the bridge habitat, but the first time a partner trumps your ace, you start longing for some intellectual arguments with your Marxist friends; unfortunately, they are now heading for the Galactic Center while you are drifting towards the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Even if you can make the switch, discovering that Marxists don't know how to finesse gives you second thoughts once again.
Now, with the Internet, you can join a community of bridge players and a community of Marxists, and you can alternately interact with each of them anytime you wish, which provides much more flexibility than an array of space habitats. And what about those potentially irritating outsiders you'd like to avoid? Well, you can't put millions of miles of vacuum between you and them, but passing by their offices or occasionally seeing them in the supermarket isn't that troubling, and soon, with the growth of online employment and shopping, you may even eliminate that incidental contact.
In sum, free from the necessity of interacting only with those around us, free to seek out desirable people all over the world and craft our own cybernetic communities, contemporary people enjoy unprecedented opportunities to bond together in innumerable ways for mutual enrichment and enjoyment—a veritable virtual utopia. One prescient writer predicted all of this ninety years ago; strangely enough, he despised it.
In 1909, as a jaundiced response to H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia, E. M. Forster published The Machine Stops, which envisioned a future Earth governed by a vast Machine that delivers all of life's necessities to citizens living in private underground chambers and thus eliminates the need for travel or personal contacts between people:
For a moment, Vashti felt lonely.Sounds good to me. But to Forster, this paradisal existence represented despicable decadence, as humanity had lost contact with the real world and real people, and he gleefully describes the gradual cessation of the Machine's activities, which drives Vashti and her compatriots to the harsh environment on the surface where they can no longer survive — leaving Earth to be inherited by the hearty "Homeless" people who had previously escaped the Machine and adapted to the rugged outdoor life.
Forster's prophecy was flawed because he anticipated a Machine that would force people to remain indoors and become dependent upon its contrivances for life support and communication, so that rebels like Vashti's son must surreptitiously struggle to regain access to athleticism and adventure. In fact, we now have a Machine which simply allows people to do these things. So, if the personal lifestyle I've described strikes you, like my daughter, as sterile and stifling, if you believe that networks of virtual comrades are shabby, ersatz substitutes for the energizing warmth of genuine personal contact, you remain perfectly free to spend your days hiking through the mountains with friends or bowling with your neighbors. All the activities and experiences ever known to humanity remain available to us today; what is different now is that we have the option of refusing to engage in them and the ability to succeed, and even prosper, while refusing to engage in them. And this is driving some people crazy.
Today, the Internet and other technological advances can empower talented individuals who happen to lack social or physical skills while disempowering individuals whose exclusive talents in social or physical skills make them less and less important in an online world. Since it is disheartening to be disempowered, the affected individuals may indulge in fantasies of worldwide destruction and degeneration that will confound all the pampered sissies now lording it over their betters and return control to the resourceful he-men who can take care of business in an unforgiving wilderness. Since the long-awaited nuclear holocaust of survivalist fiction now appears unlikely, these persons are focusing their hopes on the Y2K problem, dreaming that on January 1, 2000, our technological civilization will grind to a complete halt and force people like me under the thumb of people like my gun-toting neighbor, who will emerge as the natural masters of their reprimitivized environment.
Fortunately, I very much doubt this will occur. In the course of human history, progress has sometimes come to a standstill, but it rarely goes in reverse. If the Machine does stop, we will have the knowledge and equipment to quickly rebuild it, and few will endorse Forster's call for its permanent destruction.
In the meantime, while the Machine is still running smoothly, it is time for me to push a button and instantly send these thoughts to a distant friend, thousands of miles away, and carry on with my blissfully boring life.
Original publication in Interzone, No. 149 (November 1999), 53–54.
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