Way back in the Orwellian year of 1984, James Cameron’s movie “The Terminator” gave us a glimpse of a future swarming with cyborgs — machines that have taken on a life of their own and turned against human beings.
Fifteen years later, we can be forgiven for thinking that we are already living in that future, except that the machines ruling our lives don’t look as good as Arnold Schwarzenegger. They are still mostly rectangular or cuboid, and, despite the occasional rebellious flash of color (Sony Vaio blue, iMac tutti-frutti, Coke-machine red), their fashion sense remains relatively stunted: Metal or plastic in black, gray or chrome are still more or less “de rigueur” for the thoroughly modern machine.
Nevertheless, it does increasingly appear as if this vast, mechanized army has succeeded in conquering humanity, at least in the “developed” parts of the planet. Six main forces spearheaded the attack — the telephone, the automobile, the television, the computer, the vending machine and the automatic-teller machine — and the conquest has been so complete, and so insidious, that people are hardly aware that their lives have been effectively taken over.
Many even exhibit the classic symptom of hostage syndrome: a pathetic attachment and loyalty to their captors. Others resist feebly, smacking their computers when they crash just as they have always shoved the soda machine when it kept their change or kicked the car when it died. Many people shout and curse at the mechanical fiends that hold them in thrall. But their silent, impassive adversaries cannot lose. The odd idealist may swear off driving or watching TV, but for every one who does, a hundred more sign up — and nobody, once hooked, ever seems to junk the computer or throw away the ATM card.
No wonder social alarmists are putting a paranoid spin on stories of supermachines that fold some or many of these functions into one: “smart” cars and buildings or cell-phone-size PCs or — gasp! — vending machines so clever they will automatically raise the price of a Coke on a hot day. When it was reported last month that Coca-Cola had developed such a monster, you might have mistaken the hubbub for the real-world coming of the Terminator. Here, at last, it was said, was the point to which everything had long been tending: the ultimate antipeople machine.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. There is even a grain of truth in the McLuhanesque perception that the machines themselves are somehow setting the agenda of modern life. But there is a simpler angle, too. As the Evil Vending Machine story illustrated, the machines are really just so many Wizards of Oz: What we should be paying attention to is the men behind the curtain. In the case of Coke, the curtain was flicked back for a single fascinating moment when Chairman Doug Ivester revealed to a Brazilian reporter that the company was testing a flexible-price machine. “Coca-Cola,” he said, “is a product whose utility varies from moment to moment.” The financially battered soft-drink giant, Mr. Ivester indicated, was not about to rule out any technology that might automatically exploit this “utility” for profit.
It didn’t take long for the company to recognize its public-relations gaffe and swiftly restore the curtain. Within days, it had released a statement denying the introduction of such a machine, “contrary to some erroneous press reports.” Interestingly, it did not deny that the machine existed or had been tested. Nor has it reversed its current recovery strategy of hiking the store price of Coke. Nobody seems to mind that; what they mind is the idea of a machine that not only reveals the inner, cynical workings of the corporate brain but has been given a Scrooge-like persona of its very own.
The war between people and machines has been flaring on another front lately, too: ATM fees. Once again, the minds behind the machines forgot to maintain the fiction that their automated troops are supposed to serve the public, not rip it off. After angry Californians voted for ordinances banning ATM surcharges, the mask slipped again: Banks retaliated by shutting off noncustomers’ access to their machines. A federal trial is pending, but the dispute may be reignited in New York. Whatever the outcome in the United States, bank customers around the world are surely cheering the protesters on.
E.M. Forster suggested some 90 years ago that the key to human survival was to “only connect.” For an age now totally dominated by machines, with all the opportunities they offer for manipulation and exploitation, perhaps a line from “The Terminator” is more apt: “Pain can be controlled; you just disconnect it.”
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