Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Machine in the Garden, 2011

Over vacation I read Leo Marx’s 1964 The Machine in the Garden.  It’s not exactly light reading but I needed it for a project I’m working on, and I accidentally missed the reading assignment for this specific book (something about a party after a Brown football game) in 1978 so knew I would one day have to pay penance.

Marx is a professor emeritus at MIT and this is a wonderfully researched, profound book.  His narrative is, at least my version: Beginning in the 1840s, our best American storytellers began describing the same scene over and over again.  Hawthorne experienced it on a July morning in 1844 when he sat in the woods to write and suddenly heard the “long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness” of a steam engine rumbling through nearby Concord, Massachusetts.  It happened to Melville, or more specifically, Ishmael, in Moby-Dick when he was exploring a beached whale and the skeleton suddenly morphed into a New England textile mill.  It happened to Huck and Jim in a dire moment as they floated along peacefully in Huckleberry Finn, only to have their raft smashed by the sudden appearance of a steamboat.

The ominous sounds of machines, of the Industrial Revolution, bore down on life again and again in American literature—in The Great Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, William Faulkner and Henry Adams, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.  More often than not it was the steam locomotive crashing the party, the symbol of a sudden, shocking intrusion into a pastoral way of life.  “It is difficult,” Marx says, “to think of a major American writer upon whom the image of the machine’s sudden appearance in the landscape has not exercised its fascination.”

The single phrase that came to be used most often about the steam locomotive and its kin--the steamboat, clock, turnpike, telegraph, canal, and textile mill—was that Americans were undertaking the “annihilation of space and time.” 

The annihilation of space and time.

In other words, people believed that the entire relationship between man and nature was changing, unlike anything in human history.  Among the hoi polloi, railroads became the favorite symbol of progress and a national obsession by the 1840s.  Technology was coined as a term in 1829, and belief that its progress  was important to mankind soon followed.  “Inventors were the intellectual heroes of the age,” Marx says.

But, as the author makes so very clear, the very earliest signs of the machine disrupting life in the garden were coming from America’s favorite storytellers. Hawthorne.  Melville.  Thoreau.  These were the folks, I suppose, who were able to sit and think about change while the rest of us were trying not to get run over by it.

Today, our favorite storytellers don’t sit in the woods contemplating nature, they sit on a backlot in Hollywood directing multimillion dollar budgets, or manipulating code in an animation studio.  Our favorite machine and symbol of progress has become the Internet. 

Are we still annihilating space and time?  Not hardly.  Been there, done that.

I believe, if we listen to our storytellers, what they are telling us is that we are now annihilating reality.  It sounds funny to write that, but not so funny, I suppose, as it must have been for a farmer (and most of us were) in 1850 hearing that something called technology was annihilating space and time.  (Mark Andreesen told us just last weekend that Software is Eating the World.   It’s as striking a notion as the machine in the garden, for sure.)

1999.  The Matrix (with a tip of the hat to Neuromancer).  Morpheus: “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

The Captain in WALL-E: “Well, good morning, everybody, and welcome to day 255,642 aboard the Axiom. As always, the weather is a balmy 72 degrees and sunny, and, uh... Oh, I see the ship's log is showing that today is the 700th anniversary of our five year cruise. Well, I'm sure our forefathers would be proud to know that 700 years later we'd be... doing the exact same thing they were doing. So, be sure next mealtime to ask for your free sep-tua-centennial cupcake in a cup.”

Avatar.  (“A recon gyrene in an Avatar body... that's a potent mix! Gives me the goosebumps!”) Inception.  (“Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”)  In Harry Potter, there’s another powerful reality going on all around our muggle existence, just as there is in Men in Black (including that last really weird scene in the movie).

Professor Marx’s conclusion about the machine in the garden, I believe, is that the storytellers got it right.  They were the first to really hear the machine, and they were the first to recognize it as an overwhelming, unstoppable force that would change humanity’s relationship with the land, with nature, and with each other forever.  There would be no more uninterrupted walks in the woods, no more floating lazily down the Mississippi.

If our best storytellers have it right in 2011, then they are telling us that reality as we know it is on a slippery slope, and that it’s going to change.  We already have on-line avatars, identities and communities that only exist on server farms.  We know that there are implants and technologies that are rapidly marrying human and machine functions.  We believe that machines will be building machines, if they are not already.  Technology is beginning to hint at the concept of resleeving, a notion that superb storyteller Richard K. Morgan suggested in Altered Carbon.  Heck, software really might be eating the world.

I already sleep with my iPad on the bedside table.  That’s a new and strange reality for me, not to mention my AM/FM clock radio.

As Morpheus told Neo “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

I believe I could speak with an American from 1811 and, with a little time and a cold compress or two, explain our world to them.  I might even have them grow comfortable in it.  The machine in the garden was earth-shattering but, at least from the shattered end, something of flesh and blood and not entirely inexplicable.

I am wondering if someone from 2211 will feel the same about us.  I’m betting William Gibson and the Wachowskis, some of our most entertaining storytellers, would guess probably not.