Quarantine Diaries: Chapter 13 — The Machine Stops

When I was seven or eight, in 1951 or 1952, my father took me to an estate sale.  I’m not sure what he was looking for, probably tools, since he was starting his own refrigeration repair business. I, having never been to an auction before, didn’t know how it worked, but browsed around during the pre-auction inspection phase.  I found a book among the piled library boxes, apparently intended to be sold as a lot.  My father spoke to the auctioneer, and he agreed to sell me the book outside the lot, for a nominal sum of, I think, a nickel, no other bidders.

The first Sci-Fi anthology that carried the E.M.Forster 1909 classic “The Machine Stops.” I had a copy of this, but not sure I still do. It was my first “adult” book, bought at auction when I was 8, and the start of a life-long SciFi habit.

The book was The Science Fiction Galaxy, edited by Groff Conklin, paperback size, but with a hard cover, published in 1950 by PermaBooks, $0.35 cover price.  It was an anthology of science fiction short stories, and the first of many more I would collect through my teenage years and beyond.  I don’t know what fascinated me about the genre at the time, but it was an exciting concept.  Speculative fiction.  The first story in the book was a 1909 story by E.M. Forster, more famous for his novel A Passage to India. The story, The Machine Stops, was of a distant future, where people lived in isolation, each in their own room, maintained by The Machine, a universal automation system that provided all the needs, where the people communicated electronically.  Much like the current state of affairs during the Plague Years of the 21st century.  The quest for speed and excess had ruined much of the earth for human habitation with pollution.  Does this sound familiar?  We are living in Forster’s 1909 vision of The Machine in 2020.  I have never forgotten this dystopian paradise (that–spoiler alert–ends very badly), such an impact on my 7-year-old vision of what could be and might, if we gave ourselves over to technology instead of using it wisely, and how it could rob us of our humanity.  I kept getting reminders over the years of this classic story, which was the inspiration for George Lucas’ (Star Wars) debut 1971 film THX1138, and the original story concept for the 1967 novel Logan’s Run (later adapted to cinema)

The precocious reader, taking a lunch break on the original Parkins Refrigeration truck. The phone number (not visible) was 237. That’s it, 3 digits, no area code, no exchange prefix, no dials. Thinking about the future and The Machine, not dreaming it would come in his lifetime.

So, now it is 2020, and we are sustained by The Machine.  We hunker down in our houses, dependent (in many places, thankfully not ours) on air conditioning to keep the dwelling habitable in summer temperature highs that hover between 40 and 50 Celsius, sorely taxing the Machine that powers our civilization.  Because of the pandemic, food and supplies are delivered to our doorstep, lest we encounter crowds in stores or expose ourselves to contagion in public eateries.  We converse with colleagues, friends, and family in tiled windows on our computer screens, and even consult with our physicians via email and phone.

…Until The Machine Stops.

For several weeks now, we’ve encountered slowdowns and outages in our Internet service.  Sometimes the WiFi bogs down when our neighbors compete for radio frequency bandwidth, but this was different.  We had to reboot the router, and still had slow service.  A power surge one morning tripped one of the battery backup devices on our network, and it didn’t come back up. So, using The Machine (at least the Internet part of it), we ordered a new router and a new battery backup device, close to $400, more than double the last time we replaced these, eight or nine years ago.  Our income, of course, has not gone up in that time.  This is the last hurrah we can afford, to keep The Machine running for us.

The router arrived first.  It was, as our early 20th-century forebearers used to say, “Newfangled.”  We discovered that, in order to use any “modern” piece of technology, you can’t just turn it on and configure it with switches and keys on the panel, you have to use your phone, first downloading an application to talk to the new device, all of which requires you to have some sort of connection to the Internet through the telephone, which is now a complex computer in its own right.  People our age who continue to insist on using a plain old landline telephone or a simple hand-held mobile instrument that is just a device to talk to other people remotely, are unable to incorporate any other new technology into their lives, including replacing any vital pieces of tech that have broken down.  Our phones are getting old, too.  The Machine is a hungry master.

So, armed with the phone app, the new device was duly installed and fired up.  Since the simplified interface on the phone didn’t allow fine-tuning of the system, some of our other devices needed to be turned off so as not to interfere with the new device, which duplicated some of those functions in an as-yet to be determined manner, including turning them off to use our existing network tools.  Progress was slow.  Finally, it came time to hook up the non-wireless elements of the network.  But, when I did that, everything stopped.  The network was no longer connected to the Internet.  I tried putting the old router back in service, but it wouldn’t connect, either.  Slightly different symptoms, but no connection to the modem, which is a fancy name for the bridge circuit between the router and the cable company.  So, I used the Internet chat link on the cable company web page, with my phone, now switched to get Internet access through the phone company rather than the cable company.  Do we find it strange that you have to use the Internet to get help troubleshooting your Internet connection?  Yes.  One needs at least two different ways to talk to The Machine.

The chat, like most things these days, started with talking to a robot.  I’ve programmed artificial intelligence since the 1980s, when it was rather limited and “brittle,” as we call things that quickly reach the limits of their ability and can’t improvise.  It’s still brittle, the interface has just gotten a bit more conversational beyond the ELIZA chatterbot that’s been around since the 1960s, and the voice interfaces (about which, more later) have gotten a bit more natural inflection in speech output and the voice recognition and comprehension is comparable to an actual human assistant.  After the usual “Is the cord plugged in,” and “try rebooting the system” played out several times unsuccessfully, I got an actual human technician on the other end of the text chat.  We worked through a few things that robots aren’t allowed to do, to check to make sure the modem was operating.  It was, but the technician declared it was “too old” and needed to be replaced, anyway.

So, using the phone, I ordered a new modem online, finding out which store nearby had one in stock and would hold it for me.  We hopped in the car and drove 75 km to the store, masked up, collected the device at the front desk, and raced home.  Another $200 into this episode (the last one was $85).

The modem is the one part that needs to be blessed by the cable company, so back on-line we go with the Internet browser on the phone.  This time, it’s a web application that cheerfully fails to connect with the new modem after getting our account information.  It says, call the toll-free number–an anachronism from the days of long-distance calling, when phones were anchored to your house by wires to a mechanical relay bank downtown: the world is a local call now, with no extra tolls, just an exorbitant monthly fee.

The friendly-voiced robot on the other end gets all the information it needs, asks me to reset the modem (i.e., power it down, count to 10, plug it back in, etc.).  I do that, and call back, getting the same script (remember, limited options, brittle intelligence).  I know this won’t work, because what I need is to register a new modem, which requires talking to an actual human, something the robot hints at, but insists I try resetting the modem yet again.  I refuse, and then again refuse three times before the robot reluctantly, after chiding me for possibly wasting a human employee’s time, agrees to connect me with an actual human.  It then announces that there will be 30 minute wait, would I like a call back.  Yes, that’s much better than being on hold with distorted too-loud bad elevator music blaring in my ear for 40 minutes.

30 minutes later, the phone rings.  Another robot cheerfully asks if anyone is there?  I say yes, but this robot isn’t listening.  It’s waiting for a keypad tone, any key–I can’t find a key marked “Any,” so press ‘*’.  the robot didn’t hear it, decides I’m not responsive, says it will try later, and hangs up.  Fuming, I wait another 10 minutes.  This time, I immediately press ‘1′ which is magic: the robot accepts that as the correct “Any” key, verifies my identity, and connects me with a real person.  After a struggle, the modem gets programmed, but still won’t connect with the new router, or with the old router, either, though the light flickers dimly when I plug in the old one.  The nice person on the other end keeps on about “low voltage,” which I, as one schooled in these things, assume she means “low signal strength.”  Now I know that when you have a low WiFi signal, the WiFi adapter will connect but not actually let you login, so the obvious conclusion here is that the problem is on the cable side of the modem, which I don’t have the ability to check, other than stringing new cable to the other end of the house where the cable box is located.  But, she did ask me if the cables were tight, and I answered, “yes,” without actually checking other than with eyeballs.  Big mistake, as we shall see.  Meanwhile, we’re fixated on the “signal strength” theory.

So, the next step is an in-home visit from a technician, for which we set up an appointment.  So far, we’ve been “off the air” for nearly 12 hours, and it will be another 24 before the technician arrives.  The Machine has Stopped.  I’ve spent the day frantically beating a dead horse.  There’s no dinner, I’ve been on the phone, driven 150 km to the store and back, on the phone, and swapping hardware instead of cooking: Judy orders takeout, puts on her mask, and braves the virus to fetch it from across town.

It’s rather pleasant without Internet.  Oh, it hasn’t gone away entirely: we turned on cellular data for everything and kept using our phones, and I’m able to do some more setup internally in the network while we wait, though I’m using the old router (offline) so the machines can still talk to each other with their old addresses even if we’re not connected to the Internet.  I’ve converted some, but with dual networks so I can talk to them from either one.  But, we’ve downsized our cellular data plan since we don’t travel during the Plague, so we’re frugal with our data and skip some Zoom teleconferences to which we’d been invited, and I informed my client that I was offline but would be available for voice and text support over the phone.

To make a short story long, the technician arrived, not much later than promised, and a quick check revealed that the new router cable had become dislodged, but still attached, when I had plugged in the other network cables: the failure to connect the old router was because the old router had actually finally failed completely during this exercise.  Major embarrassment for the old codger who had been pulling other people’s fat out of the fire, fixing their computers and plugging in loose cables, for the past 55 years.  Oh, the ignominy of it all.  At least the new generation of techs is sharp enough to carry on.

The Machine is Up.  While this was going on, the new battery power supply arrived.  Everything got plugged in, and the network went wonky after the technician left.  This time, I figured it out.  I had disabled the address assignment service on my internal server, but forgotten to actually turn off the running instance, so it was handing out the wrong network addresses to our devices.  Sigh.  I’m not entirely happy with the way the routers handle this, since it doesn’t do its own internal name service to match machine names with addresses, so I will need to reconfigure the little network device to use the new addresses and old names and put it back on line, and disable the address service on the router, which I seem to be able to do from one of the browser menus, though it is obscure.

Meanwhile, the news creeps back in, of heat waves, unstoppable fires, horrific storms in tandem, unrest in the cities, government breaking with tradition and breaking down, propaganda building toward a contentious election, jobs still disappearing, the death rates and infection rates continue unabated, another polar ice shelf disappeared.  The Machine is grinding to a halt.  Look around, come out of your cell, take action.  Let us pull ourselves together, together, before it is too late.