Episode 22 – “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”

To the extent that there is a moral fabric among humanity, it is indeed fragile, and in this episode it is intentionally torn asunder by conquerors from outside humanity.

The fabric, the moral structure that makes it possible for Maple Streets to exist, requires a form of conformity, an agreement to share standards of behavior, to act and not act in certain ways. That conformity and uniformity has to coexist with the natural diversity within the species, the diversity of how we look, act, think, and behave.  When technology fails on Maple Street, following a flash of light in the sky, the residents look for an explanation. Tommy, a child, provides it. Invaders from space have turned off the power, and have inserted a family, people who look “just like us” into Maple Street. As ludicrous as the suggestion seems, it is powerful, and the community starts looking for differences in each other, differences that would account for the loss of power. When the neighbors, acting like a mob, focus on Les Goodman, whose car started by itself, Charlie says, “Maybe under normal circumstances we could let it go by, but these aren’t normal circumstances.” What Charlies doesn’t get, is that it is precisely in abnormal circumstances where we need to be guided by principles of respect and autonomy, where we have to safeguard the freedom of expression, even when we find such expression odd or different.  Les Goodman is no less a good man because he takes late night walks under the stars while his neighbors are asleep in bed, or that his car works when others don’t. It really doesn’t matter what is true of Les Goodman. Anything can and will be used against him in the court of public opinion on Maple Street.

As some of the residents of Maple Street appreciate on more than one occasion, they are themselves the monsters. The threat is inside. No bomb or invading army is required to destroy and conquer. This fact would be obvious to any intelligent alien, and it is one easily leveraged. It’s cold comfort that we’re unlikely to be discovered by such intelligent aliens. The conditions of our undoing are already in place, and we don’t need the manipulation of our technology from outside to stimulate our monstrous behavior.

One might object that this dark story does not reflect the dimension of human goodness, of our humanity and the powerful dispositions we have to pull together in times of crisis and help each other.  Certainly those dispositions could kick in, and in part they do, even on Maple Street. There is some level of cool-headed cooperation at the start, but it devolves into mob action in short order. The question isn’t whether on balance our tendencies are toward good or ill. The real question is how easily that balance is shifted.

Another objection is that the circumstances that befall the residents of Maple Street are extreme, even though they are viewed as trivial by the invaders. As Steve points out almost immediately, what happens isn’t just a power failure. There is a widespread but still selective failures of a variety of technologies, which seem timed to feed on the developing fear and suspicion of the residents. The moral fabric of Maple Street is stressed, but given the close to omnipotent interference from above, we don’t learn much about that fabric as it functions in the wide range of likely circumstances.

The invaders may have had a bit of a heavy hand in manipulating the technology on Maple Street to achieve the desired effects, but they had a much less rich technological playing field in which to engineer changes then they would have if the setting were 2018, less than 60 years since this episode aired. The advances in digital technology make the rapid spread of opinion possible in a way that could not be imagined in 1960. The invaders 8n 2020 would be more likely to post on Facebook and Twitter than to stop and start automobile engines. The worry is that digital media and social networking have make heavy-handed manipulation by outsiders, and even any intervention by outsiders, unnecessary.

Further Reading

Hubert L. Dreyfus, 2004, “Nihilism on the Information Highway: Anonymity versus Commitment in the Present Age,” in Community in the Digital AgePhilosophy and Practice, A. Feenberg and D. Barney (eds.), Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 69–81.

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