C.S. Lewis, in his important apologetic work The Problem of Pain, tried to envision an alternative pain-free universe [Chapter 2]:
The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbour on the head. . . . We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound-waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; . . . . All matter in the neighbourhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations.
Sometimes in cyberspace and in the general electronic world, it seems like we are approaching the situation that Lewis here imagined! When I pull out a credit card, my mere possession of such a card establishes nothing; for some computer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, decides at that moment whether I am worthy to use that card at that time for that purpose, and usually deigns to allow me to buy what I am trying to buy, but occasionally refuses me. [The law forbids it to tell me why, on the spot, it is refusing me.] When I carry one of my Internet devices from place to place, the nature of what it can and cannot do changes literally every few feet. My cell phone can literally be an entirely different instrument in one room of my house than in the next room.
And my devices seem to throw up password checks on a random and arbitrary basis. Because I have three e-mail accounts, I have to have six passwords for e-mail alone; three for mail incoming, and another three for mail outgoing, which is apparently a different process altogether. Not to mention the ID I have to have for Google, the one for Apple, the one for AT&T, and the one for iTunes! I thought the Mark of the Beast was supposed to be on our foreheads; it looks more and more like it’s under my forehead.
I don’t do video games, but I confess to a bit of an addiction to comment threads; and I notice that sometimes my comment is sent to purgatory, usually it’s not, and I can’t tell. Maybe it’s some kind of key word thing. [I fantasize gathering the people on a comment thread in one room, supplied with plenty of beer, and asking them to say to each other’s faces the exact words they use on the threads. It would be very entertaining. I think comment threads have become an escape, for a lot of people, from the enforced niceness of our lives nowadays.]
I can imagine a spread in the old Mad magazine [it still exists, but has not been its old self since about 1980] entitled “If Hand and Machine Tools Worked Like Electronic Devices.” A hammer would go suddenly limp if the controlling computer in South Dakota decided it should not hammer in the nail you are about to hit; that might be because you don’t have your building permit, or because you have failed to pay a bill somewhere or it thinks you have; or it could be just because the computer in South Dakota thinks you unworthy. I hear talk of automobiles that won’t start if they deem the driver not sober enough; or even that will stop if some computer somewhere suddenly decides you are unworthy to drive. In any case, I’ll have to say I find this new world discomfiting, at best!