Friday, April 17, 2020

The Machine Stops II

If society breaks down, will people be able to survive?

I wrote a long time ago about a great and very old science fiction story, entitled "The Machine Stops".  In that story, in the far future (from then, anyway) people live in underground apartments in big laz-y-boy type recliners, and pontificate over an electronic medium to other people, rarely if ever, coming into personal contact with other people.   Sounds familiar.

The people are entirely dependent on "the machine" to provide for them - food, water, even air.  The operations manual for the machine becomes a type of bible - viewed with reverence.  Anyway, a woman the story is surprised to get a call from her son, who wants to visit in person.  Surprised, because few people in that distant future acknowledge their children, and rarely visit them in person (sounds like where I live!).

Anyway, the son arrives and tells his Mum that "The Machine Stops" - cataloging a list of minor defects which have appeared in the machine.  And indeed, over time, the machine breaks down, and no one in this cargo-cult culture knows how to repair it.  At the very end, the machine completely stops, and the multitude of people are completely helpless and slowly die of starvation and dehydration in their underground lairs.

A very old story, but one prescient today.

Recently, however, some things have happened which send a chill up my spine.   The phone rings today (no one calls anymore except for telemarketers) and a booming voice says my AT&T account has been suspended.  Thinking I will have fun with Sanjay in Bangalore, I press "2" to speak to a rep.  He tells me my account has been flagged and asks if my hotspot has been on a long time.   He didn't ask for any personal information -  not even my name.   He says he cleared the problem and I hang up and try to log into my account with AT&T.

AT&T is down.  I try all day, but no joy.  I finally am able to log on, and just to be safe, change my password.   But what is going on?  Why is the site having "technical difficulties"?

Yesterday, I am trying to send an e-mail and Google says I am not connected to the internet.  I try my calendar, gmail, blogger, even the google search bar - none work.  Other sites are loading.  I go online and Google is down.   It comes back up, after about a half-hour.  But Google, down.   Weird.

It is possible that these sites are overwhelmed by all the stay-at-home people who are surfing the web, watching Youtube, and whatever.

But it got me to thinking.   Maybe we aren't much different than the people in that story.  We buy our food from a supermarket, and our water comes through pipes.  If the food supply were interrupted, or the water shut off, how many of us would be able to get by?    I suppose I could kill a deer and then gut it - we have plenty here on the island.  Planting a vegetable garden isn't out of the question, but it takes time for vegetables to grow - and hard to live on just lettuce.  Cannibalism is always an option, I suppose.

It is food for thought, if you'll pardon the pun.

I predicted, weeks ago, that eventually this "lockdown" would have to be lifted, not because the virus would be gone, but because people would eventually revolt.   At some point, folks will accept the level of hazard in return for getting their economic lifeblood back.   Just as we take our lives in our hands every day we get behind the wheel of car - for the trivial benefit of being able to live a distance away from work and shopping - we will make the tradeoff of the risk of this virus (which is far from certain death) versus the benefits of an operating society.

The alternative is, if we "lockdown" our country for another month as one reader suggests, is to start running out of food and supplies - which we are already running short of.   We can't stock the shelves, ship the products, and produce the products we need without people getting back to work and commerce.

The machine stops - but only if we let it.