Our Media, Ourselves: Are We Headed For A Matrix? We're streaming our video, downloading our books and doing away with the hard copies that used to help communicate our personalities to one another. Bob Mondello points to a surprisingly early vision of that kind of digital future — and asks what's behind the worry it expresses.

Our Media, Ourselves: Are We Headed For A Matrix?

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When it comes to books, people are increasingly leaving the physical world behind. Sales of actual paper books dropped last year while eBook sales more than doubled. And something similar is happening with movies and music. Think about it. When was the last time you bought a polycarbonate plastic disk from your favorite band?

All of this has critic Bob Mondello thinking about what our lives will look like when the things we love aren't visible anymore.


BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When Hollywood imagines the future, from "Star Trek" to "Avatar," it tends to picture living spaces as sterile and characterless, without cultural clues to the person living there, no record library, no Hemingway on bookshelves, often, no bookshelves. And here we are catching up to that vision, less and less real world clutter as we stream everything on the Web.


MONDELLO: In "The Matrix," people interact in a reassuringly cluttered, but virtual, reality. Actual reality is barren, nothing physical to establish that one person is different from another. It is a horror story in which humanity has abandoned all of what makes us human.

This fear of losing ourselves as we lose our stuff, a product of bad experiences with technology, well, from science fiction, you'd sure think so. Broadcast TV was brand new when the novel, "Fahrenheit 451" imagined a world that outlawed books. Early space travel inspired the computer, HAL, and his sterile domain in 2001 "A Space Odyssey."

But the computer age didn't invent this. British author E.M. Forster had similar thoughts more than a century ago. In 1909, right after writing "A Room With A View," he penned a story about a cave without a view. "The Machine Stops," written pre-radio, almost pre-technology, in an age of gaslights and pianos in the parlor.

JENNIFER MENDENHALL: A small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no musical instruments and yet this room is throbbing with melodious sound. An armchair is in the center, by its side a reading desk. That is all the furniture. And in the armchair sits a woman, Vashti, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

MONDELLO: There are reasons for picturing sterile environments in stories about the future. Space travel requires eliminating things that will float around in zero gravity. Clean lines feel modern because they contrast with the accumulated mess of everyday existence.

But isn't our mess what defines us as individuals? Forster thought so and figured we'd grow isolated without it. So, a century before computer geeks, he imagined Skype and the iPad.

MENDENHALL: The round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple and, presently, she could see the image of her son who lived on the other side of the earth and he could see her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As Vashti) Kuno, what is it, dearest boy?

MENDENHALL: I want to see you not through the machine, said Kuno. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I want you to pay me a visit so that we can meet face-to-face.

MONDELLO: Have a little face time? The folks at Apple would recognize that. Imagine Forster's horror if he could see people in headphones avoiding eye contact on the street. These days, we say technology is the culprit, but Forster was writing decades before TV created couch potatoes and his character Vashti doesn't want to leave her little hexagonal cave. Why would she?

MENDENHALL: For a moment, Vashti felt lonely, then the sight of her room studded with electric buttons revived her. Buttons to call for food, for music, the button that produced literature. And there were, of course, the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned.

MONDELLO: Abandoned? For chat rooms, online dating? We're almost there. Whole relationships can be virtual until you're in the home of a new acquaintance. At which point, what do you do? Scan the bookshelves. Faulkner or Tom Clancy? And on the stereo, Sinatra or the Sex Pistols?


MONDELLO: A friend told me the other day that she no longer has CDs. All her music is on her iPod. She still has books, but she's buying fewer. Her entertainment center overflows Disney. But when her family outgrows those DVDs, so will her living room. Her kids will mature in a world without hard copies of things their mom's generation used to define living spaces and tell people who they are.

Should we fret over what's disappearing? Cool album covers, toy soldiers? Won't the next generation be isolated without them, like Vashti, staring at screens?

MENDENHALL: The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

MONDELLO: The title of E.M. Forster's story, remember, is "The Machine Stops." It's about overreliance on devices. But as in most dystopias, technology and the chill of the modern are stand-ins. The anxiety is age old, given voice by artists since people first gathered in caves. It's a fear of being alone. Once you've felt the comfort of society, you worry about losing it.

So to remind yourself and others of how you're all connected, you gather things around and you cling to them, not so you won't lose them or lose what makes you you, but so you won't lose the connections they represent. The fear is of emptiness, but of emptiness inside us, not empty rooms.


MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.


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