The Machine Stops

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Like many, I reread E.M. Forester’s The Machine Stops this week while in isolation. This short story was published in 1909 and written as a reaction to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. (See the full text here (PDF).) In Forester it is the machine that keeps working the utopia of isolated pods; in Wells it is a caste of workers, the Morlochs, who also turn out to eat the leisure class.  Forester felt that technology was likely to be the problem, or part of the problem, not class.

In this pandemic we see a bit of both. Following Wells we see a class of gig-economy deliverers who facilitate the isolated life of those of us who do intellectual work. Intellectual work has gone virtual, but we still need a physical layer maintained. (Even the language of a stack of layers comes metaphorically from computing.) But we also see in our virtualized work a dependence on an information machine that lets our bodies sit on the couch in isolation while we listen to throbbing melodies. My body certainly feels like it is settling into a swaddled lump of fungus.

An intriguing aspect of “The Machine Stops” is how Vashti, the mother who loves the life of the machine, measures everything in terms of ideas. She complains that flying to see her son and seeing the earth below gives her no ideas. Ideas don’t come from original experiences but from layers of interpretation. Ideas are the currency of an intellectual life of leisure which loses touch with the “real world.”

At the end, as the machine stops and Kuno, Vashti’s son, comes to his mother in the disaster, they reflect on how a few homeless refugees living on the surface might survive and learn not to trust the machine.

“I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops. To-day they are the Homeless — to-morrow—”

“Oh, to-morrow — some fool will start the Machine again, to-morrow.”

“Never,” said Kuno, “never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.”

 

Covid-19 Notice on YouTube

COVID-19 Popup Notice on YouTube

When you go to YouTube now in Canada, a notice from the Public Health Agency of Canada pops up inviting you to Learn More from a reliable source. This strikes me a great way to encourage people to get their information from a reliable source rather than wallow in fake news online. This is particularly true of YouTube that is one of the facilitators of fake news.

More generally it shows an alternative way that social media platforms can fight fake news on key issues. They can work with governments to put appropriate information before people.

Further, the Learn More links to a government site with a wealth of information and links. Had it just been a short feel good message with a bit of advice, the site probably wouldn’t work to distract people towards reliable information. Instead the site has enough depth that one could spend a lot of time and get a satisfying picture. This is what one needs to fight fake news in a time of obsession – plenty of true news for the obsessed.

Bird Scooter Charging Is ‘One Level Up From Collecting Cans’–But These Entrepreneurs Are Making a Lucrative Business of It

Scooters have come to Edmonton. Both Bird and Lime dumped hundreds of scooters in my neighbourhood just before the Fringe festival. Users are supposed to use bike lanes and shared-use paths, but of course they tend to use sidewalks. Fortunately most people using them seem to tying them for a lark rather than seriously trying to get somewhere.

I can’t help thinking this business is a bit like the Segway (a company apparently making money now selling the scooters) – a great concept that appeals to venture capital, but not something that will work economically. For example, what will happen in the winter? Will the companies leave them around in the snow or pack them up for the season?

The economic model of these companies is also interesting. They seem to have minimal staff in each city. They pay chargers a to find the scooters and charge them each night. More gig-economy work that may not provide a living! See  Bird Scooter Charging Is ‘One Level Up From Collecting Cans’–But These Entrepreneurs Are Making a Lucrative Business of It.

At the end of the day, does anyone make enough to make this viable? One wonders if the scooter companies are selling the data they gather?

The Body in Question(s)


Isabelle Van Grimde gave the opening talk at Dyscorpia on her work, including projects like The Body in Question(s). In another project Les Gestes, she collaborated with the McGill IDMIL lab who developed digital musical instruments for the dancers to wear and dance/play.

Van Grimde’s company Corps Secrets has the challenge of creating dances that can travel which means that the technologies/instruments have to . They use intergenerational casts (the elderly or children.) They are now working with sensors more than instruments so the dancers are free of equipment.

Every time Ford and Kavanaugh dodged a question, in one chart

There was a striking difference in style — and substance.

Vox has a nice interactive visualization of Every time Ford and Kavanaugh dodged a question, in one chart. The two visualizations, one for Ford and one for Kavanaugh, show at a glance how the latter dodged a lot more questions. You can click on the sections which are marked as dodgy and see the full text. Nice clear use of visualization to tell a larger story and let the user explore.

Self-driving pods are slow, boring, and weird-looking — and that’s a good thing

Driverless pods, retirement communities, and grocery delivery

Autonomous vehicles are here! That’s the message from a panel on AI and Transportation I listened to at the International Symposium on Applications of Artificial Intelligence held here at the University of Alberta.

Waymo, the Google spin-off, is bringing autonomous taxis to Phoenix this fall. Other companies are developing shuttles and other types of pods that work,  Self-driving pods are slow, boring, and weird-looking — and that’s a good thingIt seems to me that there hasn’t really been a discussion about what would benefit society. Companies will invest in where they see economic opportunity; but what should we as a society do with such technology? At the moment the technology seems to be used either in luxury cars to provide assistance to the driver or imagined to replace taxi and Uber drivers. What will happen to these drivers?

What It’s Like to Use an Original Macintosh in 2017 – The Atlantic

The Internet Archive’s new software emulator will take you back to 1984.

From Twitter again (channelled from Justin Trudeau) is a story in the Atlantic about the Internet Archive’s early Macintosh emulatorWhat It’s Like to Use an Original Macintosh in 2017. The emulator comes with a curated set of apps and games, including Dark Castle, which I remember my mother liking. (I was more fond of Déjà Vu.) Here is what MacPaint 2.0 looked like back then.

I’m amazed they can emulate the Mac OS in JavaScript. I’m also amazed at the community of people coming together to share old Mac software, manuals, and books with the IA.

Robert Taylor, Dies at 85

Robert Taylor

The New York Times has a nice article about how, Robert Taylor, Innovator Who Shaped Modern Computing, Dies at 85. As director of the Information Processing Techniques Office, part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Taylor commissioned the development of what became the ARPANET and then Internet. He later led the group at Xerox PARC that developed the Alto computer, a early imagining of what personal computing could be. He also supported J.C.R. Licklider and wrote a paper on The Computer as a Communication Device with him. That paper starts with,

In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.

Digital exhibit: I dreamed a dream the other night

Entry Page to Site

The British Council has developed a bilingual (English/Turkish) digital exhibit of British Art. The exhibit remediates the gallery/museum as interface, which is not new, but the designers have included other visitors moving around, looking at art and so on. It gives it a more human feel. That said, I found it harder to actually get to the art. I couldn’t move from painting on the wall to the next one without stepping back and then in.

CWRC/CSEC: The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory

The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC) today launched its Collaboratory. The Collaboratory is a distributed editing environment that allows projects to edit scholarly electronic texts (using CWRC Writer), manage editorial workflows, and publish collections. There are also links to other tools like CWRC Catalogue and Voyant (that I am involved in.) There is an impressive set of projects already featured in CWRC, but it is open to new projects and designed to help them.

Susan Brown deserves a lot of credit for imagining this, writing the CFI (and other) proposals, leading the development and now managing the release. I hope it gets used as it is a fabulous layer of infrastructure designed by scholars for scholars.

One important component in CWRC is CWRC-Writer, an in-browser XML editor that can be hooked into content management systems like the CWRC back-end. It allows for stand-off markup and connects to entity databases for tagging entities in standardized ways.