The Machine Stops


When I first bought a car it was commonplace for people to carry out some simple repairs and maintenance to their car. it was also the norm that one had some basic understanding of how the various elements of the car fitted together and what they did – clutch and gearbox for example.

Today one often hears phrases like “you don’t need to know how a car/dvd/computer works to be able to use it” Maybe or maybe not. Having just switched from over 20 years of Windows PCs to a Linux machine I am painfully aware that all of my accumulated experience of “how to …” has largely been made pretty useless and in many regards I am lost and feel a bit uncomfortable. No doubt in a few months I will be happily tinkering with my Linux laptop at least I have the option and experience to be able to wipe it and install Windows if I really want to.

Talking recently with a friend who has been in computing since the late 60s, he was nostalgically recounting the time when he and his colleagues could take a fat manual off the shelf and delve into circuit diagrams to try and identify a problem (he is a boffin) and then with soldering iron smoking proceed to repair it.

The question for today is “does it matter that most if not all of us do not understand how our PC’s work?” What happens when they stop working? Are we overly dependent upon systems which possibly no one fully understands?

EM Forster wrote a very prescient short story entitled The Machine Stops in 1909 (thanks to Paul Rajlich for hosting this version and Dave May for introducing me to it). Read it and say “no it could never happen” in our world of convergence, 3D, virtual reality, Second Life and couch potatoes.