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The Machine Stops (wikipedia.org)
93 points by edward on May 14, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 26 comments

This is such a worthwhile read. Insane, considering that the first computer was decades away from being invented, and the personal computer was half a century away.

Here is the full text: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

It's not too long--I'd recommend reading it entirely.

EDIT: For anyone looking for more dystopian socio-tech stories I'd also recommend "'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and pretty much all the episodes of Black Mirror.



I've been enjoying Black Mirror but pretty much everything I've seen so far is sufficiently dark and dystopian that I really need to be in the right mood to watch an episode.

Black Mirror is outstanding, but all episodes I've seen have been so _intense_ that it takes a while for me to shake off the feelings of unease.

It takes time to develop a taste for the dystopian short story. I imagine the way I feel about dystopian shorts is akin to how trained palettes appreciate a complex wine.

I read through Animal Farm in seventh grade and it was the first time I experienced the feeling of having read an excellent book that was simultaneously emotionally disturbing. It was confusing, though I knew that my distress was the author's intent. I spent the following summer reading novels like 1984 and Fahrenheit 459. Dystopian sci-fi quickly became my favorite genre.

The short story form also creates unease, as the form is known for it's lack of resolution (or happy endings). They typically cut off right after the climax without any resolving action. I didn't really GET this about short stories until college. Now it's my favorite form of writing.

Combine the dystopian fiction and the short story form (as in Black Mirror), and it's a pretty potent punch in the gut.

> more dystopian socio-tech stories

Jack Williamson's 1947 With Folded Hands, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/With_Folded_Hands

(I trot this one out semi-regularly, it deserves more recognition than it currently has.)

The movie "In time" from 2011 was inspired by the ticktockman btw.

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. 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

I read this story at upper school(x) as part of English literature and being a total nerd my immediate reaction, which I gleefully told the class, was that Forster had it all wrong: you wouldn't have had individual buttons for all the functions, there would have been some sort of menu system or at least phone keypad with n-digit numbers assigned to each function.

(x) US readers: I was 16.

It is within the realm of reasonable possibility that future AI will come to embody the very traits that mankind attributed to gods in our mythical tales. They could tap into the worldwide networks to become omnipresent and omnipotent. They could have capacity of intelligence far exceeds human thought, broaching what many would perceive as divine thought. The worlds and stars above us would be their dwellings. And they would have the capacity to engineer new lifeforms.

Some would likely imagine these machines may actually pick up the mantle of a deity, with humans serving them. I find that unlikely, and rather subscribe to the theory that humans as we know them will simply fade away as relics of their lineage. Declining birth rates in first would counties is a sign of that; it will only continue as mankind continues to spend more time building smarter machines, and less time building babies. This is, of course, not a bad thing. The machines are not a replacement for mankind, but rather a continuation. They will be mankind, just as our primitive ancestors were. The machines will be humans in a different, perhaps more godlike, form.

In the long run, if we can avoid global cataclysm, we will have to adapt, and re-engineer humanity or hyper-intelligent machines will out compete us.

Unlike our descendants, present day humans have the great and rare privilege of enjoying apex predator status. The machine still works for us. And in 2015 the machines are getting really good: inexpensive, intelligent, rapidly evolving and networked.

And so now the primary ambition in my life is to become a god of the intelligent networked machine. To master the machine, subjugate it and make it work for me to improve my material situation.

Arduino, RepRap, CNC, sensors, laser cutters, LEDs, solar photovoltaic, the web. These are the lego blocks with which we can build a new, smarter, more humane world, one where humans are freed and machines toil for us.

Right now I have a RepRap producing parts for a new contraption I built, I have a VPS serving requests 24 hours a day, and in enough iterations my contraption and my VPS will be in communication. The real world, and the virtual, working in concert to improve my comfort, security and material prosperity, and that of others.

"When looms weave themselves human's slavery will end" - Aristotle

We are getting closer. There is so much more to learn, so much more to be done.

see Fred Brown's "Answer" at http://www.roma1.infn.it/~anzel/answer.html

There's a good parallel between the "inscrutability" born of simple complacency and laziness, and the inscrutability born of secrecy and security.

The lesson I take away is that we should be wary of using (or funding) any system that actively resists being understood. Moreover, we should never stop trying to understand the world to the extent that we are able. (There is also a strong lesson about the value of cultural rebellion.)

There's also an excellent old BBC dramatisation of this - and a few other good dystopian sci-fi's as part of the same strand called "Out of the Unknown". "Level Seven" and "Tunnel Under the World" are especially memorable.


> endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas'.

Sounds like 'memes'

"Memes" are supposed to be units of cultural replication, just like genes are units of biological replication.

We've had memes ever since we've had society.

There are two meanings for this word. One is what you described. The other is cat pictures with text labels.

I would argue that the latter is just a very specialized instance of the former. What is the cat picture with formulaic text if not a unit of cultural matter being shared and evolving?

We have random mutations: Socially awkward penguin[0] -> Socially awesome penguin[1]

Then there's sexual reproduction: Socially awkward penguin + socially awesome penguin -> socially awksome penguin[2]

The process of natural selection is popular appeal. There is certainly room for debate as to the cultural merit of popular internet memes, but I don't think there's a strong argument that they are not an instance of the concept as coined by Dawkins.

An excerpt from the intro Wikipedia entry on memes:

>an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture".[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.[3]





The machine clearly requires Hacker News.

I studied it back in highschool for an English literature class. Ever since Tumblr came about I have not been able to put the story away from my mind. To quite directly from the text:

"Beware of first- hand ideas!" exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. "First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element - direct observation."

Did anyone else think of Wikipedia's ban on original research upon reading this?

The machine is the the combination of all dependencies - internet, electricity, automobile, telecom, food processing and supply

Interesting, this is the exact premise of "Wool"


After reading this, it made me wonder... what was the first use of a real button?

Do the keys on a keyboard instrument count?

"The Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria is credited with inventing the organ in the 3rd century BC." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pipe_organ#History_and_developm...

At least the telegraph, sometime in the first half of the 1800s.

(it looks like there were a lot of experiments and ideas flying around, so I think it would take a historian specializing in the thing to point out which one used a button first. And then there could easily be some earlier use.)

This presentation says a flashlight in 1898 http://www.slideshare.net/billder/history-of-the-button-at-s... but I don't really believe that. Storage batteries are almost exactly 100 years older. It seems reasonable to expect that an electrical button of some sort (depending upon how pedantic you want to be about button vs. switch etc.) would have been a pretty logical and straightforward development as soon as circuits needed to be broken and re-connected.

This was my favorite read in college. It's amazingly futurist for it's time.

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