The Machine Zone is a not-for-profit company which started in 2016. It is a Community Interest Company, a legal status for organisations deemed by UK Companies House to be for community good. We’re somewhat ambitious in seeing our community as global!
Our main interest is in digital technology – devices, networks, data, and we see all of it as a Machine in a special sense. Actually, as long ago as 1909, the writer E.M. Forster wrote a great short story, The Machine Stops. Set in the future, it described individuals living underground in identical hexagonal rooms, never engaging with other people, but with thousands of friends via their screens. It’s often been cited as a very accurate forecast of where we are today.
We are looking at the digital environment in several ways.
Firstly, in 2017 we examined a particular digital device. Our project, Beat the Fix, looks at digital gambling devices and in particular those called fixed odds betting machines. In doing this, we have seen how technology is inseparable from politics, business, mental health and addiction, sociology and more. In fact, as you’ll see on the Beat the Fix project site we spent much of our time just on this one subject. And we’ll spend more time here as now most people have a casino in their pocket.
Then, secondly, we’ve been looking at the worries parents and teachers in particular have over social media, screen ‘addiction’, and staying safe on the internet.
Thirdly, we have looked at particular aspect such as ‘the internet of things’. You can already, while on the bus or train coming home, use your smart phone to turn up the heating, turn the kettle on or maybe the electric blanket. You can also use your phone to see the kids are safe with the babysitter. You’re connected to your bank, your friends, the news, games, shopping, information…. The world is becoming increasingly connected. Back in the early 1960s a guy called Marshall McLuhan saw that electronic machines were already becoming extensions of our nervous systems.
Clearly, access to any benefits of digital technology is unequal. There are divides between the rich and poor worlds, and big divides between the poor and the better off in the ‘rich world’. Equally clearly, many lack a good level of ‘digital literacy’: this term can cover everything from gaining access to benefits to avoiding the many perils of digital usage. While to some extent, this is something taken on by schools and higher education, the fundamental problems lay with economics, so the issue is political.
A fifth, most important if hard to pin down, issue is to do with the effects that technology has on society, on culture, on individuals, on wellbeing. All technologies have some effect. The printing press, for instance, was truly revolutionary in every part of our lives. So too was the advent of film, then radio then television and computers. Remember too that ships and cars, aeroplanes and wheels were major influences in so many areas, reducing the world – some would say – to a global village.
Regarding us as individuals, if electronic media had become ‘extensions of the human nervous system’ These days, more and more tiny devices are being implanted in human bodies. While Half Man, Half Biscuit is a benign pop group, one questions the existence of half man, half machine that the future promises. The Cyborg is not science-fiction. That leads us to the question of artificial intelligence and thinking robots. Already, we are followed by digital spying machinery wherever we go online, wherever we use our phones. Human health care with its reassuring human voice, touch and gentle compassion are replaced by flat screens with ‘apps’ designed not for a unique individual but for a common mass unit of consumption. True, many apps like these do help many people but we need to keep in mind an overall tendency to reduce real human contact by substituting it with machines.
AI is often promoted as an unquestionably good thing. Robots, for instance, could take over some of the work of doctors or teachers. Currently ‘apps’ to help people with mental health problems are available. There are cars that drive themselves, and planes have been more or less flying themselves for years. Not everybody is happy with the tremendous rate of change these developments may bring. Some argue that the rising incidence of depression, anxiety and generalised misery is a response to the rapid changes, as well as a response to very particular issues: the latter includes bullying, body shaming, reduction in human contact. Simply put, are we losing something essential by replacing human contact and community wth screen time?
Then there is what seems to be an equally balanced vision of future utopia on the one hand, and dystopia on the other. There are enthusiasts who quite openly and happily envisage the fading from the gene pool of the worthless, unproductive, wicked. There is talk of a post-human’ future after the ‘Singularity’ (the soon-to-come date when AI surpasses ‘human intelligence.’
Basic criticisms are that those who may benefit from any digital advances will be the rich or, at least, well-off. As ever the poor of the world will be excluded. There is also the criticism that unbound visions of technological paradise are completely without foundation and bear resemblance to nothing so much as religion substitutes, superstition and cultishness.
Of course, Aldous Huxley’s ironically titled Brave New World remains one of the most vital critiques of imagined utopia. While ‘cultural pessimism’ is not new – plenty of ancient Greeks saw the world going to hell in a handcart – there is a serious and new galaxy in which millions deplore the celebration of the brave and shiny new world. We’ll be continuing to look at this.
To end on a bright note. We’re very happy, even if we’re deluded (!), with most of the digital stuff we have to play with and learn from. One thing in particular, the e-Book and print on demand. With very low costs we have, for our second project, begun our own publishing imprint, MacZon Press. We’ve published a novel, having decided that this was a good way to get people into thinking around the digital gambling and addiction issues raised by Beat the Fix. It’s a good read too! We’re also exploring the possibility of working with local communities to train and encourage ‘ordinary’ people to publish. So there we are. Back to the unique pleasure of holding a real book made of words and paper, not bytes (apart from the eBooks!)