By Douglas L. Howard
I started watching Terminator last spring in part because I had always had been intrigued by the film series and that whole time-travel, cause and effect, past-present-future thing. But, oddly, as I sit through the episodes now, amidst commercials that tell me how I need a new cell-phone, a new computer, a car with voice-activated programming, and a high-definition television that will better simulate the experience of reality, I begin to wonder if the show is more prophetic, a sign both of the anxiety toward and the appeal of the post-human world. (Fox, in fact, has already paired the show with Dollhouse, another tribute to the reduction of the human where people’s minds are wiped and reprogrammed like so many hard drives.) I do not think that machines will rise up to knowingly, consciously conspire against mankind and to orchestrate our destruction through nuclear war. I do not think that the shift will be so dramatic. Rather, in giving ourselves over to the seduction of the mechanical, we will increasingly find ourselves struggling to interact face-to-face, searching for words in conversations without short-cuts or backspaces, longing for the impersonal freedom that the Internet is always ready to offer.
And while this may seem like such an extreme prophecy—prophecies, after all , usually are—the signs are already there, there in the addictive desire to flip open that shiny metal phone and tap out that text message, there in the constant need to log in to all of those e-mail accounts, there in the daily worship at the altar of Google and Wikipedia, there in the hordes of people looking like so many Borg with their Bluetooth earpieces, there in the deliberate decision to abandon the experience of life for the pretense of it in World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto IV. The machines do not need to blow us up. They only need to make us serve them. Take a look at anyone engrossed in an X-Box game or hooked on a YouTube video, and you begin to wonder who is really in charge.
The English novelist E. M. Forster wrote an uncannily prescient short story in 1909 called “The Machine Stops,” about a future civilization where people conduct all of their day-to-day business from their “cells” and communicate with one another through “speaking tubes” and videoconference screens. Though their lives become organized around the workings of the machine and though it virtually becomes the object of religious devotion, when the machine finally breaks down and stops, the people in Forster’s future cannot cope with the catastrophe. As they die “by hundreds out in the dark,” one of the main characters can only hope that “Humanity has learnt its lesson.” In our dedication to technology, we may be working back to 1909, in more ways than one.
Of course, as I write all of this, I marvel at the benefits of Microsoft Word and stare at the words as they miraculously appear on my flat Gateway screen. And, as I scroll back through the sentences, I cannot help but notice the various film, television, and videogame references or the Forster story that I was able to find in its entirety on the net. I cannot deny my complicity, ignore my own dependence, or dismiss the anxious “disconnect” I feel if I go a few days without looking at my e-mail. I also do not plan on changing my ways any time soon. But, as those other personal interactions give way to the machine that appears to need my more immediate attention and as my day is more and more defined by screens, touchpads, and keyboards, I hear the tagline for Terminator run in the back of my mind: “The war to save mankind begins now.”