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I cannot leave Bell Labs without mentioning one more device which I saw
there, and which haunts me as it haunts everyone else who has ever seen it in
action. It is the Ultimate Machine–the End of the Line. Beyond it there is
Nothing. It sits on Claude Shannon’s desk driving’ people mad. (Or sat, as
Shannon is now at MIT.)
Nothing could look simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket the size and
shape of a cigar-box, with a single switch on one face.
When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid
slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns
the switch off, and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin,
the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases, and peace reigns once more.
The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating.
There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing–absolutely
nothing–except switch itself off.
–Arthur C. Clarke, The Ultimate Machine, Harper’s, Aug. 1958.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Average number of days an oiled seabird survives in the wild after cleaning and release:
Epilepsy drugs can extend the life of worms by 50 percent.
A deaf dog belonging to a deaf owner was shot and killed in Alabama, and an Indiana dog’s skin troubles were found to be caused by an allergy to humans. “It’s just not his fault,” said the owner of Lucky Dog Retreat.
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”