The Machine Stops (again) #googmayharm

I’ve written about this in the past, but this morning’s short-lived global Google meltdown seems an appropriate time to repeat the thought.

For years now, I’ve been bringing up E.M. Forster’s extraordinary short story “The Machine Stops” in the context of discussions about Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson or any conversation touching on our society’s increasing dependence on, and faith in, technology.

It seems hardly anyone has ever heard of this story. People know Forster, of course, for the obvious novels (Passage to India, Howards End, etc.) and the Merchant-Ivory movies of his work. But he was also an exceptionally gifted short story writer, on a par with O. Henry in his mastery of the concise art.

I first read The Machine Stops as part of a collection of stories that were issued as required reading in my fourth year of secondary school in England. Many years later, I found an online copy to download and re-read on my old Palm Vx. This morning’s events make me want to go back and read it once again.

In the story, Forster paints a bleak picture of a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which humanity has become so utterly dependent on technology as to be rendered completely helpless when, as the title suggests, the “Machine” that runs the world and all forms of life support, simply stops working.

Forster’s Machine has grown over time to become so big and complex that no one living person or group is able to fully grok the complex workings of the thing to start fixing it.

It would be wrong to over-dramatise this morning’s very brief Google outage as anything remotely as catastrophic, of course. But for about 20 entertaining minutes there, it seemed like people worldwide had a tiny glimpse into the fearful abyss of a world without Google (and yes, my tongue’s more than a little way into my cheek).

Being deprived of our groupmind, even for such a short time, caused an extraordinary flood of messages on Twitter. The search for Twitter hashtag #googmayharm reached 100 pages of posts (about 1500 individual tweets) in under an hour and fast overtook the Super Bowl as the hottest rising story.

As technology advances, our relative understanding decreases, and our helplessness and confusion increases,” as that Weinberger bloke once said.

Indeed. The curious thing for me is that I’m left more reassured than worried about all this.

It is precisely the inherent, defining brokenness of the Web that makes it so valuable and so useful.

When one key part (in this case Google) completely fails – however briefly – we may have a moment of panic, but we quickly learn to route around the damage. There are lots of other search engines out there still; many alternative ways to complete the synaptic connections we’ve grown accustomed to outsourcing to the great gods of Google.

We should worry less, perhaps, about what happens when a dominant provider such as Google fails, and more about what might happen if the Net ever reaches the point of working too well.

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