Halt, and Catch Fire: Forster’s “The Machine Stops”, and Hyperreality and Ethics in the Digital Age

“When this instruction is run the only way to see what it is doing is with an oscilloscope. From the user’s point of view the machine halts and defies most attempts to get it restarted. Those persons with indicator lamps on the address bus will see that the processor begins to read all of the memory, sequentially, very quickly. In effect, the address bus turns into a 16 bit counter. However, the processor takes no notice of what it is reading… it just reads.“– Gerry Wheeler, describing “Halt and Catch Fire”, a machine code instruction that causes early processors to crash irrevocably, only fixable by restarting the machine.

In 1977, Gary Wheeler, writing for the now-defunct BYTE Magazine, documented a very peculiar instruction hidden deep in the architecture of the Motorola 6800 microprocessor. Even in the infancy of microprocessing, processors were analogous to staggeringly complex calculators – Motorola documented 197 valid operations that the processor could perform, and with thousands of those calculations per second acting upon 64 kilobytes of information, a staggering amount of abstract calculations gave life to what we now call the personal computer, the tool with which we extract human ends and meaning from arbitrary mathematics.

What Wheeler noticed is that, since these operations were signified with different 8 bit signifiers, theoretically there should be 256 possible operations – and yet Motorola only reported 197. That meant that there must be 59 “invalid instructions” – 59 wildcards within the system, sitting untouched and unacknowledged, waiting for someone to invoke their name in assembly language to see what they could do. So, of course, that’s what Wheeler did.

Glossing over the technical specifics, Wheeler discovered a command which caused the entire processor to come to a grinding halt, from the user’s perspective. In actuality, the command caused the processor to start upon – and never stop working on – an arbitrary function that was outside of anyone’s control. Nothing could be done, the entire situation was irreparable outside of a hard reset. Citing the potentially catastrophic nature of this previously unknown command, Gary named this command after a fictional one, an inside joke among developer communities at the time – “Halt, and Catch Fire”. 

It’s likely that, up until this point, no-one at Motorola knew about the error, or if someone did, they figured that it was purely theoretical – it wasn’t a command that would ever be documented or acknowledged as existing, as it wasn’t one of the “valid operations”; by not giving it a name, they hoped to prevent it from existing. The language of the 6800 only acknowledged progress – it could only comprehend a system of logic that was internally consistent, operating under the assumption that the system’s logic reflected the material reality of its circuits. And yet, through the efforts of one man diving into what was unnamed, he gained the perspective that revealed what could only be learned from outside: that while we presumed that we spoke of the 6800 when we utilized it’s language, there were phenomena yet unnamed – phenomena that, whether we named them or not, could cause the machine to stop.

As a society, we’re absolutely grand at engineering systems – technical or otherwise – without fulling comprehending them. And yet, our chief hubris is presuming that we do – that our understanding of the systems that we build maps perfectly to those systems, and that the systems themselves correspond to a material reality that we’re certain of, to the point where that we believe that the language we use to describe it maps perfectly to that reality, and that our language charts the entire horizons of that reality, holding onto the notion that anything we cannot name does not exist. The parable of the 6800 illustrates this discursive hubris of ours in our own world, even if the stakes at play were the frustrations of the fledgling microcomputing community at the time. It is Forster’s parable of The Machine that attempts to illuminate the potential consequences of this hubris, illustrating a world where any semblance of a material reality has been traded wholly for the hyperreal, leaving society incapable of comprehending, let alone meaningfully interacting with a world that is rapidly deteriorating – unacknowledged or not.

The Machine Stops is a story that serves unabashedly as a political parable – the opening lines of the story ask us not to experience it passively, but to imagine it (Forster, 2). Between the Machine’s ascension to deity status to the way that the language and structure of academia is used liberally by its encased society, it should come as no surprise that The Machine Stops pulls no punches when it comes to constructing its titular machine as a political and social entity just as much it is a technical one. If we’re going to use Forster’s work to investigate the hyperreal in our own reality, we first need to look at what exactly this Machine is in Forster’s.

As the story opens, we’re introduced to the Machine as mankind’s home, alongside it being mankind’s social and economic/governmental apparatus. Were it not for the story’s opening destabilization of the reader’s perspective by casting Vishka’s home inside the Machine as a type of a surreal cell, the Machine’s world could read as a type of post-scarcity socialist utopia. It’s made clear to us that the Machine not only affords mankind’s every need, but it’s every luxury as well – or at least, it attempts to. It’s important to note that the way the Machine does all this is never fully explained – to the Machine’s society, it’s just not a question that is asked. While a straightforward reading of the title and a millennial cultural priming would imply that the Machine’s economic functions are the product of some type of automation, what’s hinted to us is that somewhere down the line, there are massive human costs to enable this. The opulence of Vashti’s lifestyle, with endless on-demand food and bubble baths and electric chairs that ferry her around to endless entertainment, is contrasted with the absolute desolation of the outside world; while no cataclysmic event is ever mentioned, Vashti assures her son that “the surface of the outside world is only dust and mud”, and during her ride on the airship, we see a world where “the forests have been destroyed during the literature epoch for the purpose of making newspaper pulp”, with plains marked only by “ruined cities” and “diminished rivers”. (Forster 6, 14). Furthermore, it’s implied that not everyone in this society enjoys the same lifestyle as Vashti does – while the machine is venerated as self-sustaining and all-empowering, there seems to be an unacknowledged class of service workers, dehumanized to being seen as invisible fleshy cogs in the machine and treated with derision when they step outside of that role, as evidenced when a jilted passenger cries “You forget yourself!” when she breaks her script to extend a helping hand (Forster, 13). 

This fundamental disconnect – between the society’s veneration of the Machine’s ability to generate plenty and the realities of its inefficiencies – forms the base layer of the ‘hyperreality’ of Forster’s world. I use the term ‘hyperreality’ in the Simulacra and Simulation sense, referring to “a real without origin or reality” in Baudrillard’s terms. To compress an extremely dense text into a few sentences, Baudrillard believed that society replaced reality with a simulation of reality, with us all living in a world of symbols and signs that have nothing to do with a ‘real’ – not even a mediation of a real or a distortion of it, but a world of meaning contained entirely within itself (Baudrillard, 1). Baudrillard’s work took place decades after the publication of The Machine Stops, but Forster’s work in many ways engages with the same topics, in a way that not just explores the idea of hyperreality, but also explores why we would construct such a reality, and the ways that we do.

For Vishka’s bourgeois segment of society, the entire promise of the Machine – this perfect, all encompassing system of human life – falls apart if it can be shown to either not be able to support itself in the long run, or if it can be shown to be unethical in a way that makes that fact unavoidable. Simply hiding or obscuring these facts would not be enough in order to ensure this – as Kuno’s tale shows, there’s a constant risk of someone peeking behind the curtain and trying to spread what they learned throughout that society. However, the Machine’s society has found a way to make those risks inert, without involving any sort of centralized deception or even cynicism on the part of its constituents. Rather, meaning itself is constructed in this society in such a way where Kuno’s protests are wholly meaningless – while Kuno’s mantra of having “seen the hills of Wessex as Aelfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes” makes perfect sense to him as a statement of protest against the impotence of his society’s reality, that statement has no meaning whatsoever inside of that society. Kuno and Vishka’s society is obsessed with ‘finding’ ideas, but while Kuno can climb up a service tunnel and finally glimpse at society’s seams, Vishka can gaze upon a landscape that bears the scars of mankind’s history and be incapable of extracting any sort of meaning from it. In her society, even spatial relationships are meaningless, as her society has “annihilated” space itself, it holding only vestigial importance in a world that only exists behind screens and speakers (Forster, 22, 14, 16). The very notion of directly addressing someone else – to acknowledge them as a concrete entity rather than an abstract one – is vilified, and towards the end of the story, a shift among intellectual communities and academia causes ideas to become more worthwhile the more they become removed from a physical or experiential source – the world to them “is not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine” (Forster, 27).

The function of all of this, in the story’s terms at least, is to create a world where a system of ethics predicated in personal purity, rather than in causal relationship. The value of acts and ideas is discussed in how “mechanical” they are – for instance, Vashti talks about how the development of her soul is being retarded by her “unmechanical” adventure to visit her son (Forster, 15). However, the effects of one’s actions upon others is a non-question. In the face of a razed Earth and human suffering, the fortunate few who perpetuate this system can remain innocent in their own eyes by answering not to their fellow man or to history, but to their God of their own design. When the question is not, “how am I affecting the world” but “am I a good person”, it is “acceptable to do wrong things and still be a good person, provided you do them in innocence” (Danskin). If no-one goes outside to gaze upon the desolate landscape, if no-one really digs into how the Machine actually functions, if no-one even discusses ideas that pre-dates the ideology of the Machine, than everyone can still, in good conscience continue their mechanized lives. The deification of the Machine, and the resultant willful ignorance on the part of those who maintain it, is no accident – it’s the product of a deep collective anxiety over everyone’s culpability in numbering mankind’s days.

The Machine need not be an actual religious icon in order for it to serve as it’s society’s ultimate authority – for most of the story it remains secular, even though it’s treatment is largely the same throughout. Rather, what the Machine needs to be is an answer to society’s deepest anxieties – a preferable reality to one where the Earth has been razed, the oceans have risen, and the rivers dried up, the corpses of the previous generations all but lining their banks. The Machine’s subjects preferred a world where they only had to concern themselves with what they deemed valid, in the same way that we can live quotidian lives even when confronted with the global violence that supports them. When faced with the horrors of our world, we generate realities that absolve us from acknowledging them – we create realities where forced sweatshop labor becomes job growth in developing countries, where endless war in far-away nations becomes keeping the piece, where removing women from developing social spaces becomes ‘ethics in video games journalism’. These are the realities that we live in, but we still exist in the one we’re trying to escape – and when our machine finally stops, it will stop not in our world, but the one we left behind.

Works Cited:

Wheeler, Gerry. “Byte Magazine Volume 02 Number 12 – The Star Trek Computers : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive. Byte Magazine, Dec. 1977. Web. 09 July 2016. <https://archive.org/details/byte-magazine-1977-12&gt;. I didn’t actually dig through the magazine to find the quote proper, I pulled it from Wikipedia. Apologies if you go hunting for it

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1994. Print.

Danskin, Ian. “Why Are You So Angry? Part 5: “The Good Guy”“ Innuendo Studios. N.p., 17 July 2015. Web. 14 July 2016. <http://innuendostudios.tumblr.com/post/124325938252/part-5-of-my-series-on-angry-gamers-transcript&gt;.

Forster, Edward Morgan. The Machine Stops. N.p.: n.p., 1909 (orig). Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg. Web. 13 July 2016.

Various. “Simulacra and Simulation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 July 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation&gt;. I know citing Wikipedia is a faux pas, but I’m doing so only to reutilize a concise paraphrasing of Baudrillard’s ideas, which felt more honest than changing a few words in that paraphrasing and calling it my own.

transgender living in year zero: what we can be to each other in the next four years

TDoR

The week after the election, I was asked to speak at the local TDoR event at the Danforth Chapel. It was a conflicted moment for me – it was the first time I realized that I could be the sort of person who gets asked to speak at things, though it continued the pattern of my speaking career being mainly focused on commenting on tragedy – leaving for the event with Ash, I made a crack to her that I should get “professional queer eulogist” on my business cards. I took it down to the wire to put it all together – I think this speech managed to go through nearly ten distinct drafts over the course of the four or so hours I gave myself before the event to figure out what I was going to say. I knew, for better or for worse, that the (mostly trans) people that night would be there to mourn the end of the world that we’ve all been living in together – a world that, while indifferent to us at best, was at least one that we understood. In it’s own way, this speech was much harder to write than the Little Village piece, even though it’s largely derivative from it – with that, I imagined myself speaking to about anyone left of center, but here I was looking some of the people who stand to lose the most in this moment in the eye. The one saving grace that I had was the eventual realization that what the people in that room needed that night was what I needed – not a guarantee that we would get through this, because that would be an outright lie, but a re-affirmation of our ability to adapt, a reassurance of our ability to find value in life even when we experience a disproportionate amount of its strife.

Sitting in one of the front pews that night, I was not unaware of the irony of the setting – that night marked the first time I’ve sat in a pew for some years now, back when I lived as someone else.

What follows is the transcript of my speech that night, in full:

“Thank you all for coming out here tonight – I know, given this current cultural moment, where our bodies and spaces that we hold on to are acutely threatened, there’s a lot of people out there who wish to see us hidden away, isolated, or disposed of. Much like how we’re gathering here tonight to refuse to let the people on this list be forgotten, claiming space for ourselves is a necessary and important form of resistance.

This day comes in a time and place where a lot of us are scared, wondering what our lives are going to look like as we have to burn the script we’ve written for ourselves yet again. 

The typical thing to talk about and celebrate in this moment is resilience. Talk about how we manage to build lives for ourselves even when we exist in spaces that hope that they could forget us. Talk about how we manage to find the color and wonder of life in the spaces we make for ourselves. Talk about how we manage to widen the borders of these spaces inch by inch, day by day, not just for ourselves, but for everyone that we know as well.

But, in this moment, where so many things hang in the balance and general promises of perseverance can ring empty for so many people, simply reminding you all of our resilience isn’t going to do anything for us.

Rather, what we need now is imagination. We need to teach each other how to envision what effective support for one another looks like, and how to make healthy and effective community into reality inside this almost unknowable moment. Every single one of us needs to ask ourselves what refusing to let each other fall through the cracks looks like.

To me, it looks like checking in with people you know and people you might barely know. It means showing up, in whatever way that looks like to you. It means sleeping light at 3am, with your hand on your phone, waiting for the call of a friend in trouble. It means people crashing on your couch. It means sharing or raising money for hormones and medication when someone can no longer afford it, or sharing them directly when access is restricted outright. It means sharing money for groceries, or coming over to cook for someone when they can’t get themselves out of bed. 

It means building honest and material networks of support where none exist, and fighting to keep the ones that we have open. 

It means getting as loud and as angry as we possibly can whenever violence against us occurs, and it means reaching out to groups our own oppression is bound up with, and doing the same for them.

It means building community – real, actual community that is felt, and worked for every day by everyone involved, in whatever ways we can.

I’m not going to tell you that we’ll make it through this, because the horrible thing is that “who lives and who dies” is an uncertain calculus all of us are running in our heads right now. But what I will tell you is that there is no moment I’d rather be alive in than now, not because it’s better than any other moment, but because there’s an opportunity here for all of us, an opportunity to build a community that can endure adversity in a ways that couldn’t have been done before.

An opportunity to build something beautiful.“

The Trans Narrative in Year Zero

I very much think that the narrative of what we (trans people) are to each other is different from the narrative of what trans people are to the rest of the world – and more important. Of course, one narrative informs the other – the former ultimately can only be expressed with tools given from the outside, and “trans” as a category is only coherent when it has a cisgendered world to define itself against. But there’s a definite mythology to our communities that in some respects stands on it’s own – it’s the mythology of our community itself, what we mean to each other, our own take on the chain of causality of our history that led us to this moment. The “imagination” I refer to midway through the speech is directly referent to this – given the sea change we all bore witness to, and given the general immateriality of our community and that of the broader left leading up to this moment, we have a need to examine the ways that we think about each other, and envision a future where who we are to each other forms the basis of a community of strength and solidarity.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially from an outside perspective – the inside baseball of the moment was that I was trying to speak to a community plagued by self-doubt and internalized transmisogyny and convince them that we are not so far from the revolutionary queer history that we lionize, that we can be more than just a loose community based around shared trauma and the limits thereof. I don’t make that statement as an accusation of shared personal failure, or one that I’m not party to – rather, I had the sense that I was speaking to a specific iteration of the way late-stage capitalism leaves marginalized communities, speaking to the legacy of a turn towards assimilation fostered by the individualization and alienation demanded by capital. Faced with a gendered narrative that marked us as atomic individuals with some sort of tragic quality, I countered with a form of queer nationalism, and the promise that could hold.

When I say queer nationalism, I don’t refer to the sort of capital-N reviled sort of nationalism that asks subservience to some higher ideal without consideration of the human ends that ideal is supposed to serve (or asks high school grads to go die in Afghanistan). Rather, I wanted a group that could serve the material ends that the units of family or local community are supposed to serve, and yet so many of us are excluded from. I wanted to envision something that can look upon the history of queer and trans resistance, and interpret it in a way that was actionable, a way that could inspire us to build something that could weather the next four fascist-spray-tan soaked years. A narrative of transness that framed us to each other as comrades, a narrative of transness that framed us as a community whose collective end was the survival and ability to thrive for each and every one of us.

At the end of the night, several people – people whom I’ve never seen before, but knew that we were closer than we might think – walked up to me, and told me that they were grateful for the words I spoke that night. Everyone there was tired, and scared, but even in a space that surrounded the realities of the violence that we face, I think that night was cathartic for all of us.

I hope they’re all doing OK right now. And, if not, they know who to call.