clifgarboden

It’s like talking to a machine

In Unpublished genius on November 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm

by Clif Garboden

Years before Charlie Chaplin fell into the gears of the giant factory in his 1936 film Modern Times; even before the “M-Machine” went kaput in German Expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic Metropolis, dystopian images of a world overrun by industrialization were established motifs in literature and pop culture.

Jules Verne foresaw the consequences of a world electrified at the expense of art in his “lost” futuristic novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, ironically first published 131 years late. Writing in 1901, E.M. Forster warned us what would happen when “The Machine Stops.” Half a century after that, Ray Bradbury echoed Verne’s sentiments in his classic Fahrenheit 451.

Twenty-first-century man grew up shadowed by visions of techno-totalitarianism — of life in a depersonalized society governed by machines and adjudicated with appeal-proof decisions based on soulless data devoid of context.

0n TV, in 1967, The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan, rejected being named Number 6 with the plainspoken manifesto, “I am not a number. I am a person.” As early as 1968, Stanley Kubrick and futurist Arthur C. Clarke made the possibilities of dehumanization by computer all too real by pitting 2001 astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman against the know-it-all cyber-menace HAL. In 1971, the Kinks christened the 20th century the “age of insanity” and “a mechanical nightmare.” By 1981, even Bob Segar was complaining that even he felt “like a number.”

19th-century Luddites and Saboteurs feared for their jobs; in the 20th, we dreaded the loss of our very souls.

It was with such wake-up-hyperventilating thoughts running in the background that I approached the self-check-out station at Stop & Shop.

Artificial intelligence? My very approach prompted the machine to talk, advising me what to do first if I was a “Check It” customer. I didn’t know what that was, so I panicked and headed to the 12-items-or-fewer queues in search of human reason. But the lines were long and the clerks were working at a pace worthy of recruits from the Island and the Terminally Bewildered, so I gave the self-serve another shot.

My purchases — microwavable frozen lunch entrees — were on sale. I knew this because the cooler where I found them was plastered with signs to that effect. But as I scanned each by-now condensation-slick box, the computer’s deceptively sweet voice itemized the full, pre-sale, prices. So my total came up wrong.

I pressed the “ask for help” button, prompting help to appear quickly and demonstrably impatient. “Hi, these are on sale four for $10, but the prices here . . .” My helper was way ahead of me. Telepathic perhaps. Or just an ornery mute robot-bitch. She slapped some sweet spot on the touch screen, revealing a grid of colorful options, one of which she poked, and voila my order totaled $10. “How did you . . . ?” But she was already gone.

It went on like that. The machine’s sweet voice from hell instructed me to push “finish and pay.” I did; nothing happened. Help swooped in unbeckoned, tapped on the screen, and evaporated again. Mrs. HAL next suggested I sign my name. Huh? Where? “Not there,” my suddenly vocal succor yelled from afar. No, not on the screen attached to the pen. “On the other screen.” Oh yeah, this little chewed up one labeled, inexplicably, “Jean.”

I was living the bad dream. I was Number 6, David Bowen MD, the Little Tramp lost in the cogs fighting an intractable machine. My vital contact an exasperated woman who would yell at but not talk to me.

Could it be that the worst has already happened; that the mechanical nightmare has been reality for some time and that our dehumanization is all but complete? That even grocery shoppers have been robbed of their humanity and set adrift in a sea of impersonal nastiness and confusion?

So be it. I give up. What’s the use of protesting “I am a person” when there’s no other person listening?

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