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3.4: The Broken Machine

Machine: Three visions of the future highway as a technological system, in Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Gold Coast," JG Ballard's "Concrete Island," and Cordwainer Smith's "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard."

Published onJun 04, 2021
3.4: The Broken Machine

The Broken Machine

In this final section we look at three science fiction narratives that offer different visions of how the future might unfold. All three share a common understanding: that humans have become intimately entwined in technological systems to the extent that they have ceased to be “human” in some way. Each asks the same question: what might our future look like if those machine networks suddenly unraveled? Their differing responses suggest that our attitudes toward technology are deeply ambivalent, reflecting both our reliance upon, and our fear of, our embeddedness in the mechanisms of modern life.

Science fiction often places human protagonists in the position of the “outsider” fighting against technological dehumanization, in a conflict, according to Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker in The Exploit, between “the intentionality and agency of individuals and groups on the one hand, and the uncanny, unhuman intentionality of the network as an ‘abstract’ whole” on the other (155). The first two narratives we discuss, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Gold Coast and J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, typify this approach, but arrive at very different conclusions. Robinson’s novel uses the figure of an automated traffic system (known as “the carbrain”) as a stand-in for the dehumanizing effects of a society built to accommodate technological systems, presenting us with the thesis that it is only when networks break down that we will be able to embrace an authentic human existence. Ballard’s Concrete Island, on the other hand, suggests that recusing oneself from technological systems (represented in the novel by a busy motorway interchange) will not lead to freedom but rather to a degraded survivalist post-nature in which humans are left to scrabble for resources in the shadow of a network that churns away without us.

While their ends differ, both The Gold Coast and Concrete Island represent human-machine relations as purely oppositional, with network breakdowns offering a “way out”—whether good or bad—of the totalizing control of technological systems. But, as Thacker and Galloway argue, it is more likely that this opposition between independent human and omnipotent machine is itself part of a larger network, a “combination of spreading out and overseeing, evasion and regulation. It is the accident and the plan” (155, original italics). The third story in this chapter, Cordwainer Smith’s “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” explores such a recuperative network in the form of “the Instrumentality,” a future society in which machinic breakdowns are allowed precisely in order to provide humans with the illusion of freedom, even while their lives are carefully monitored and controlled. Smith’s story suggests that, indeed, the imperfections inherent in networks are part of the reason they retain so much control over us.

The Carbrain

The first of our three stories expresses a very real longing for a more authentic life free of technological control. In The Gold Coast (1988), a dystopian vision of the toxic, traffic- and pollution-choked city, Kim Stanley Robinson uses the trope of the “carbrain” to express the loss of control that has accompanied a prevalent technological lock-in. Robinson describes multi-level freeways piled high, echoing Ballard’s nightmarish highways in Crash:

The northbound lanes swoop up as they cross the great sprawl of the intersection with the San Diego, Del Mar, Costa Mesa, and San Joaquin freeways. Twenty-four monster concrete ribbons pretzel together in a Gordian knot three hundred feet high and a mile in diameter—a monument to autopia . . . [T]he northbound Newport is on the highest of the stacked freeway levels, and they are a hundred feet above mother Earth. (2)

In Robinson’s “autopia,” freeway traffic is controlled by “carbrains,” mini-computers communicating through magnetic tracks built into the highway. These supposedly safe network computers coordinating car movement for maximum safety and minimum delay echo the Futurama’s proposed superhighways controlled via radio towers. However, Geddes’ perfect system has come undone in Robinson’s autopia-run-amok. The lyrics of a popular song on the radio suggest that the carbrain has taken over; the human brain, defined by its relationship to traffic patterns and flows of information, has essentially been replaced by the automated system of vehicular intelligence:

What would your carbrain say if it could talk?
Would it say Jump In? Would it say Get Out and Walk?

(You are a carbrain
You’re firmly on track
You’re given your directions
And you don’t talk back)

You are a carbrain
And your car is going to crash!
On the cellular level everything’ll go smash! (51)

These song lyrics, played on the radio as traffic rescue workers leave the scene of a gruesome freeway pileup, suggest not only that the system is not failsafe, but more generally that the culture of California is headed for a meltdown. Highway disasters in The Gold Coast refer to a more general anxiety about a world in which technology has gone horribly awry. The “carbrain” reference suggests that, on a personal level, people are increasingly losing control:

You are a carbrain
You’re firmly on track
You’re given your directions
And you don’t talk back
You’re very simply programmed
And you don’t have much to say
And you’re gonna have a breakdown
It’ll happen some day. (376)

The novel’s protagonist, Jim McPherson—young and optimistic, brimming with revolutionary fervor—is convinced that the only way humanity will become free is if the dependence on technology can be unshackled from the human psyche. Ironically, for him the “breakdown” holds hope for the future: the carbrain cleaned of the sickness of over-dependence on imperfect technological systems. His characterization of the carbrain as stupid and unclean suggests that he has a quite different attitude toward the world of tomorrow: technology is not sci-fi-perfect, but riddled with potentially disastrous software and hardware failings. If the carbrain goes off track (or even off-line), the result is a freeway pile-up. With the loss of manual control over the automobile comes the loss of autonomy as well; the only way the carbrain can escape from the system is by breaking down. Intensifying technological interventions into natural and urban landscapes, Robinson seems to be saying, will not create an autopian world.

Falling off the Edge

Against Robinson’s dream of a “crash” that will offer us a more productive and sustainable future, J.G. Ballard offers us instead a dystopian glimpse into what might happen when one involuntarily exits the smooth mechanisms of the highway. In his novel Concrete Island (1974), a tongue-in-cheek retelling of Robinson Crusoe, Ballard follows the adventures of an everyman driver who has crashed his car into the median of a West London motorway at the height of rush hour and finds himself unable to flag down help. The protagonist, Robert Maitland, is forced into a days-long nightmarish survival scenario on the “island”: a no-man’s-land of overgrown weeds, abandoned automobiles, and trash thrown out by oblivious passing motorists, bounded by the steep embankments and metal barriers that constitute the borderlands of the highway. The story offers a postmodern reworking of the old castaway narrative, following Maitland’s adventures as he must first tend to his injuries without help, then cannibalize resources in his crashed car in order to survive, and finally encounter and negotiate his escape from the permanent inhabitants of the island.

From the very start of the novel it is clear that Maitland is aware of his embeddedness in the technologies of the automobile and the highway, right down to Robinson’s “cellular level”:

As Maitland frankly recognized, he invariably drove well above the speed limit. Once inside a car some rogue gene, a strain of rashness, overran his usually cautious and clear-minded character. (9)

The dehumanizing nature of the human-car hybrid is made clear: during the accident itself, the car “jerk[s] his hands like a puppet” (7) and “hurl[s] him like a broken punch-bag on to the steering wheel” (12); and as he checks himself over, he is “reassured” to find that his legs are “in their usual position on either side of the steering column” (8). At the same time, the car takes on human characteristics, with its front “punched into itself like a collapsed face” (10); and even the road embankment itself takes on the qualities of a human body undergoing surgery, as the car’s path leaves “[a] line of deep ruts, like the incisions of a giant scalpel” (10).

Once Maitland has come to rest on the island, he is trapped, both by the perimeter fences and steep sides of the motorway and by the fact that he has inadvertently taken an off-ramp out of autopia. Screens block him from the view of the motorists, and even when in a moment of lucidity he scales an embankment and tries to flag down a car, he appears either to be treated as an obstacle to be avoided, or to be altogether invisible to drivers as they speed past intent on their destination, so that “it seemed to him that every vehicle in London had passed and re-passed him a dozen times, the drivers and passengers deliberately ignoring him in a vast spontaneous conspiracy” (19). Leaving behind the familiar safety of his metal body, he has ceased to exist as part of the human/automobile mechanism that constitutes the outside world.

Even as Maitland finds himself exiled from the smooth flowing traffic of autopia, though, he also recognizes that some unconscious urge has brought him to the island, almost as if he has engineered the crash as a way of getting back to an imaginary state of nature. He recalls that “most of the happier moments of his life had been spent alone,” and “[t]he image of a small boy playing endlessly by himself in a long suburban garden surrounded by a high fence seemed strangely comforting” (27).

Maitland’s adventures on the island, during which he veers repeatedly between a desperate need to escape and a kind of perverse desire to stay and opt out of modern life, reveal the contradictory ways we view potential ruptures in our technologically mediated world. While Concrete Island points to the physical skills of food gathering and self-care that we are increasingly insulated from, Ballard also suggests that we are unprepared psychologically for the large-scale technological breakdown so fervently hoped for by Jim in The Gold Coast: “[t]hese days one need[s] a full-scale emergency kit built into one’s brain, plus a crash course in disaster survival, real and imagined” (37). In Concrete Island’s survival scenario, thus, McLuhan’s “highways of the mind” are transformed into Ballard’s “emergency kit for the brain.”

Far Future Highways: “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”

Finally, Cordwainer Smith’s short story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (1961) expresses the most complex vision of a science fictional humanity integrated fully into the machine. Set fourteen thousand years in the future, the story presents a world populated by a diversity of intelligent people, ranging from the more or less human, to humans with animal modifications, to “homunculi . . . bred from animals into the shape of men, [who] took over the tedious chores of working with machines” (8). All these people live under the sway of a government called “the Instrumentality,” in what seems to be a wholly technologically mediated world in which lifespan is capped at a standard 400 years, food can be obtained by touching a panel, and robot servants appear at the first sign of injury.

“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” documents a moment in this far-future civilization called “the Rediscovery of Man,” in which the Instrumentality begins to experiment with a return to the “Old Perfect World,” reintroducing ancient languages and foods and old dangers that seem to the people of this future, who are unaccustomed to widespread death and disease, an exciting novelty. As protagonist Paul, celebrating this transformation, proclaims:

Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world. . . . The safety devices had been turned off. The diseases ran free. With luck, and hope, and love, I might live a thousand years. Or I might die tomorrow. I was free. (5-6)

And yet, even in Paul’s excitement for this new world, he is aware that the Instrumentality maintains firm limits over the new freedoms afforded by relaxation of its “safety devices.” Disease and accidental death are carefully controlled, building in a statistically “natural” balance for the population:

We knew that when the diseases had killed the statistically correct number of people, they would be turned off; when the accident rate rose too high, it would stop without us knowing why. We knew that over us all, the Instrumentality watched. (5)

Paul and his companion in this brave new world, Virginia, decide to take a pilgrimage to “the Abba-dingo,” an old computer that is worshipped by the homunculi people. Virginia insists that they must find the Abba-dingo to investigate a story told to her by her aunt, who claims that the machine had predicted to her the names Paul and Virginia. She argues that perhaps if they find the machine it will be able to confirm their existence as “themselves”: “If it says we’re us, we’re us. . . . If we’re not us, . . . we’re just toys, dolls, puppets that the lords have written on” (16). And so they embark on a road trip to see the Abba-dingo, traveling on an ancient elevated highway called the Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.

In their quest for self-affirmation, it is the highway rather than the machine that reveals to Paul and Virginia the extent to which they rely on technology. They touch the posts on the side of the road, but no food comes. When the road unexpectedly moves and then suddenly stops Paul is injured but no robot comes to take care of him. Instead, the two are left to fend for themselves, alternately being thrown forward by the automated systems and navigating precipices where sections of the road have fallen away. Finally, Virginia falls over the edge of the road, fulfilling the prediction of the Abba-dingo, and Paul is rescued by a homunculus “cat girl” named C’Mell, and returned to his own world.

Alpha Ralpha Boulevard lays bare a pressing question, coming as it does at the same time that urban planners were imagining a machinic future: if we become embedded in technological systems, will we still be human? And what is the “natural state” of humanity? Virginia’s fear, that they are essentially part of the machine, is cut off by her death on the Boulevard. Paul, who has long considered the animal people to be less than human, is forced to realize that in fact the homunculi might be more human than he is. As Macht, a stranger they meet on the Boulevard, says:

This is what the Lords of the Instrumentality never let us have. Fear. Reality. We were born in a stupor and we died in a dream. Even the underpeople, the animals, had more life than we did. The machines did not have fear. That’s what we were. Machines who thought we were men. (20, original italics)

Paul’s conclusion is deeply conflicted. He decides to turn away from questioning the mysterious power of the Abba-dingo to predict his fate, simultaneously rejecting Virginia’s deep need to know the role of machines in plotting out their lives:

It must have been a very powerful left-over machine—perhaps something used in ancient wars. I had no intention of finding out. . . . I do not need “fear” and I do not propose to go back to Alpha Ralpha Boulevard again. (29)

At the same time, though, his observation that he will never be able to visit the café again where he sat with Virginia suggests that he has been profoundly affected by the experience, although it’s not clear whether the café is a reminder for him of a temporary human love or of his transient doubt about the role of the machine in their lives. Either way, the memory of Virginia will likely fade, and Paul will return to the comforts and doubt-free world of the Instrumentality.

Crash Future or Machine Utopia?

Robinson’s suggestion in The Gold Coast that we can only be fully human if the machine breaks down is certainly compelling, and appeals to our longing for a more authentic, human mode of living in harmony with the natural landscape. And yet both Concrete Island and “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” show that a “breakdown” might not be the way out. Ballard’s novel depicts a return to a state of human existence in which “nature” only exists as a degraded ruin and humans revert to a savage “state of nature,” while Smith’s story suggests that the machine will be able to incorporate breakdowns into its functioning in such a way that reinforces the human desire to be protected by technology from a harsh natural world.

This incorporating technique, in which a breakdown in the network becomes part of the continuation of that network, suggests that Robinson’s dream of a post-technological future is merely that, a dream. Indeed, as Galloway and Thacker argue,

[a]ccidents, failures, and exploits, both imaginative and material, are part and parcel of any network . . . the accidents that are part of the design, the failures that indicate perfect operation. (157)

While Robinson’s Jim fondly imagines a utopian and authentic way of living, Ballard’s Maitland and Smith’s Paul both present object lessons in the power of the network to pull us back into its all-encompassing embrace. Both of the latter characters choose to return to their technologically mediated worlds: Maitland leaves the island, and Paul reaffirms his place under the sway of the Instrumentality.

All three stories show us how complex a problem it is to imagine any clear way to voluntarily leave the totalizing networks we have built and into which we have inserted ourselves. Elizabeth Grosz points out, in Architecture from the Outside, that visions of a utopian future (like Jim’s in The Gold Coast) are themselves part of the problem, since

[w]hile a picture of the future, the utopic is fundamentally that which has no future, that place whose organization is so controlled that the future ceases to be the most pressing concern” (139, original italics).

Grosz’s answer is to eschew the utopian impulse as purely a temporal narrative in favor of its application to specific places: notably, she focuses on utopian architectures and what she calls “outer spaces”—“those spaces at the limit of reason itself, those spaces occupied by the infant, the psychotic, the computer hacker, the dream, and the visionary: cultural outer spaces” (30). And yet, the “outer spaces” of Concrete Island and “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” suggest, yet again, that there is no escaping the machine: there is only life on or off the road, which are both defined by their relationship to an imaginary, perfected, highway of the mind.

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