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Reflection on “A Thing About Machines”

I think like Alan, I’ve always been a fan of The Twilight Zone. Every summer and New Year’s when the show would play for 48 hours straight on the SyFy Channel I would spend those days being somewhat amazed at every episode no matter which played more than others. I remember this episode but it was not one of the ones I had seen a number of times more than some others so I was excited to watch it through the lens of this course and all we had discussed. All I can say is, as with so many episodes in so many ways, Rod Serling created something both timeless and prophetic.

The episode opens up with a confrontation between Finchley and the relatively superior-tempered TV repair-man. This very first interaction shows us the trend of the episode which is that for all his disdain for machines and his loneliness, Finchley is a man self-isolated. He is rude, crass, pompous, and hidden. But the course of his meetings with the other flesh-and-bones of the episode will continue beyond this. Specifically, this dialogue between the two men offers this quote from the repair-man: “Why didn’t you just horsewhip it, Mr. Finchley? That’d show it who’s boss.” From the continuation of the episode we learn that the machines, whether truly or as an imagined plight, haunt Finchley. His destruction of the TV and the radio, as his electrician alludes to, is for something he is not being honest about; beyond just their ambiguous not working as intended. But even beyond this plot point I found there was something to this line. From where we sit in this class I thought about this line to mean something about the frustration we feel toward the technology we are supposedly masters of, but recognize the control we lack over them. And more than this too, Finchley’s simple-minded destruction of the machines shows a naivety toward a real solution to his problem. For us, we have been learning of the ways in which we lack control, and can act in better ways than simply destruction and isolation, as Finchley singularly knew.

We’re treated then to one of Rod Serling’s characteristic monologues. They usually refer to the content of the episode but also to what the audience may experience through the eyes of the main character/s. Here I nabbed the line, “…where muscles and the will to fight back are not limited to human beings.” In the titular Twilight Zone, the fantastical is often quite real. If things are not outwardly sci-fi, the atmosphere is at least a bit *stranger* than what we experience in real life. I mention this because although I believe the things which are fighting back are actually the machines in this episode, I certainly do not believe it’s a stretch to retroactively engage our issues with a quote like this. Mastery of technology which outpaces our usage of it has been a problem for humanity for centuries. Anxiety about where technology will lead us as opposed to where we will lead ourselves with technology has likewise been a concern. But as things are now, it does more so appear than before that the technology is truly fighting us; that it has a will of its own. I believe the reason for this is, as it was with Finchley, we do not understand it, but we rely on it. Why did Finchley have the television set; the radio; the typewriter? Could he not have read? Could he not have hired an actual scribe? I believe as something of a debutante, he felt that it was not within his power to be left behind to the technology of the day, despite hating it. For our parts, we have become reliant, if not more simply consumed in the ways the world works with social technologies, but we so often do not understand it. And people fear and mistrust what they do not understand, but I suppose only if they are privy to that lack of understanding.

As I previously mentioned, Finchley, and we as the audience even all these years later, know that there are ghosts in the machines. We have many of us spent the better part of a year’s worth of classes discussing the ways in which the data-collection markets use the technology which on the surface serves as personal and private means of being connected to guide us, and to make money. We understand this. But as with many episodes of The Twilight Zone, this one is a cautionary tale. It cautions social isolation in the face of technological isolation.

After once again finding himself out a human companion in the form of his secretary, Finchley begins to give in to fear. Up until this point, the machines with which Finchley wrestled were those of, as he put it, “inanimate” character. But then a shift happens which I find interesting. The evolution, so to speak, of Finchley’s, and our own, war with the machine, was that the character of the machine did move beyond being simple metal and in no way comparable to himself. There, on the TV, was a real woman, dancing, making music, and deriding him. She even delivered what seemed to become the mantra of the episode, “Get out of here, Finchley,” which was further replicated in the typewriter and the telephone. Again within the schema of our lives and our class I found this to be something of note. In so many ways you can position yourself arbitrarily above technology you may fear and not understand by dint of the human element; as in, it appears truly and simply as a tool, and you the human operator. But there for Finchley was a portrayal of another person, acting out the soul through art and rhythm, acting out his very nightmare. The machines became truly alive then, and deceptive. I believe something like this would further isolate one such as he, because as he broke down to admit to his secretary before still driving her away, he was afraid of being alone. He, like many of us, especially at a time like this, was desperate for interactions he understood, and did not trust and did not know how to appropriately use the technology he had to help generate those interactions. But ironically the machines themselves became the only things which would interact with him. Unfortunately, they drove him to his demise. We would also do well to learn how to disallow the machines of our lives to drive us to their own ends, the way Finchley’s machines may have quite literally driven him to his end.

In my own life then, what is “surveilling” me? Well I’m on Facebook, for one. I tend not to use it myself but use it to browse other people and their posts. But no matter what I do, that I do anything at all provides data to Facebook and whatever companies might benefit from it. I use YouTube to watch hours of videos every day. If there was one single source of data which encompasses probably the largest collection, it would be YouTube. I shop on Amazon for general goods and Discogs for music. Buying habits, as we’ve learned, are a big part of data surveillance. I use Facebook messenger to keep up with friends abroad or who have iPhones since I have an Android and I find it easier to use Messenger than to text in those ways. My conversations are stored, and in some ways probably utilized to get me to buy or do things. My phone in my pocket picks up what I say, as well as geolocates me. Like everyone on the planet who has a phone connected to some service tower, my words out of context have been translated to ads later, and my locations picked up and shoved in my face after the fact. These things I’ve listen here are just a few of the most basic tools of surveillance we are dealing with at this point.

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