The Human + Machine Culture and The Metaphor of the Ring

As I read Bernadette Longo’s “Human+Machine Culture” in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I couldn’t help thinking of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less of Each Other. It seems an obvious connection to me–both authors address the issue of whether virtual social connections are meaningful enough to satisfy our need for deep, real relationships.

In Longo’s second sentence she writes that as she works at her computer she senses that “other people lurk behind my screen–and I want a relationship with those other people, even if it is mediated by the machine that is a physical manifestation of the virtual relationship.” Near the end of her chapter, Longo writes, “Turning back to my computer, I ask myself why I simultaneously love it and distrust the community it enables. What is it that I desire in this relationship; what is it I fear?”

“Lurk”? “Love it and distrust…”? “Desire”? “Fear”? An odd choice of words I thought. Something was nagging at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I needed to have another look at Turkle’s book to see if I could figure out what dark cloud was causing this trouble. That’s where I found it.

Part of Turkle’s book talks about always being connected, always having our mobile devices with us, and always checking them. She mentioned cyborg experiments in 1996 where people walked around campus with computers and transmitters in their backpacks, keypads in their pockets, and digital displays clipped to their glasses. One of the test subjects claimed to feel quite powerful, but there were also “feelings of diffusion.”

Diffusion! That’s it! In The Fellowship of the Ring, book one of The Lord of the Rings, before he leaves the Shire for good, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf that he feels stretched out and worn thin. Diffused, perhaps? The Ring (online technology) can leave a person feeling stretched thin and diffused.

Turkle and Longo are both talking about a fear not unlike what happens in The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Dark Lord Sauron and the Nazgul can see young Frodo when he puts on the ring, Google and Yahoo! and company can see Longo when she’s working at her computer. That explains the lurking feeling.

What of the love and distrust and the desire and fear that Longo wrote of? Isn’t that very much the way Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo feel because of the Ring? None can really part with it completely. Gollum is driven mad by his desire to regain his possession of the ring, Bilbo leaves it for Frodo, but only with great prodding from Gandalf, and Frodo can only let the Ring go when Gollum bites his ring finger right off. They all loved the Ring, couldn’t completely trust anyone else because of the Ring, and took care of the Ring as the Ring made them more dependent on its seductive power. Are we too impressed by the seductive power of the internet?

Turkle explains the love and distrust and the desire and fear through the story of Julia, a 16-year-old girl who loves texting her friends, distrusts her own judgments about her emotions, desires comments from her friends, but fears not getting an appropriate response fast enough. During the interview with Turkle, Julia even mistakenly refers to her phone as her friend. Kind of the way Gollum refers to the Ring as his Precious.

Turkle writes, “Always on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net, and the Net teaches us to need it.” If we forget our real relationships and communities because of our virtual communities, then Longo and all of us have good reason to fear and distrust.

One Net to rule them all, One Net to find them, One Net to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

About Rob_Henseler

Rob has been teaching high school English and Language Arts for 20 years. When he's not at school, he enjoys making and listening to music, woodworking, canoeing, and hands-on traditional skills.

Posted on November 4, 2012, in Creative, Social Media, Society, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Great allegory! And what about the palantir that Saruman uses to talk with Sauron? Would that be like Skype? According to Wikipedia people can use the palantir to be deceptive, “According to Gandalf, it is beyond the skill of both Sauron and Saruman to create the palantíri and that Sauron cannot make the palantíri “lie”, or create false images (though he could show selective images to create a false impression in the viewer).”

    And, let’s get back to the ring itself. It makes the wearer invisible to the people that are around them, but acts like a beacon to the evil in the world. It is sort of like how virtual worlds like Second Life or WoW make people disappear from their actual friends and family, while possibly making them a target for virtual weirdos. And, the more a person uses the ring, them more paranoid and detached they become. In fact, just carrying the thing weighs on a person kind of like how just carrying a phone for work can be draining.

    And, remember when Bilbo tries to give the ring to Gandalf. He refuses because he know how powerful it is and that no matter how sincerely he would like to do good, it would lead to evil. It’s that age-old maxim about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    As you point out, both Turkle and Longo acknowledge the power of these new tools, but they question the corresponding costs of all this power and our ability as human beings to resist the evil aspects.

    Of course, Tolkien wasn’t thinking about social media when he wrote these books, but it is uncanny how they seem to relate. If I remember correctly, the Lord of the Rings was written by Tolkien with WWI and WWII England as a backdrop. So, perhaps he was thinking about the link between technology and its ability to tempt and corrupt people. I could be wrong, but I think this would be a fascinating paper.

  2. This post is amazing on so many levels! Not only do you bring the assigned readings, but you connect it to a beloved text and long-awaited film! I can’t say much more than Bob, so instead I will share this because it too is a form of technical writing [set of instructions] that relies on familiarity with a certain ring:

    • That was great. I think that may be the first pre-flight briefing I’ve actually paid attention to. I hope The Hobbit is as good as the other movies.

    • What a wonderful pre-flight safety message. It’s nice to know that even a serious issue like that can be dealt with using humor, and “voice.”

      As a side note, the Jostens rep came to our school today to talk to sophomores about class rings and customized designs. One student asked if he could order the One Ring. I thought that was the best question of the day.

  3. Bob,
    I had totally forgotten the palantir–I’m disappointed I missed that one. I do remember hearing connections made between England’s war experience and The Lord of the Rings. That would be an interesting topic to explore more. What I put in my post is a shortened version of some of the technology-to-Tolkien connections I had in mind. I don’t know if expanding on that would count as scholarly writing for the final paper, but I’d love an excuse to pursue the topic further.

  4. I’m all for a longer paper on this topic!

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