The Forster room

The Soviet control room (Picture credit)

After I was turned away at the hypermarket in a manner that is quite rude and distasteful in my opinion, I turned to Shopee, a Singaporean e-commerce portal which sells all sorts of things — from electrical appliances to everyday things and groceries — and gets these things delivered to your house. They have the filter option to show the individual sellers within your state within the country, so I have been buying groceries from these sellers. I practically live on the Internet, but the truth is I was never a big fan of online shopping, especially, groceries? I like the idea of a physical customer journey, browsing from shelf to shelf, contemplating whether I should get the penne or the fusilli or the macaroni for my next pasta project, should I try this new brand of chocolate milk, is there any beverage that might be excellent to wash down this green curry I am about to make with? A lot of my friends who live alone and have no time to cook depend a lot on food delivery services, such as Grabfood and Food Panda. This is something I definitely can see myself doing, but unfortunately these services don’t serve the area I live in. Somehow this is a blessing in disguise, as the limitation forces me to be creative within the means I am afforded to at the moment.

The way we turn to apps right back again from the comfort of our own room — remember when people used to keep asking, is there an app for that? — reminds me of a short story by E.M Forster called The Machine Stops, where it is set sometime in the future when the Earth is no longer habitable, and everyone just lives in their individual room underground. Whenever they need something, they would push the buttons inside the room.

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorised liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

Somehow within the past few years before the corona pirates took hold of our lives, we stopped asking the question is there an app for that? and began to address the elephant in the room, which is the societal and structural issues that made us ask eventually, “Is there really the need for an app for that?” This was a moment of reawakening and I was glad the social scientists and the technologists were addressing this together (for example: The call for society-centred design). But I am also glad that there was one point of time where people thought apps could solve a lot of things (however until today I have no idea what this app actually wants to achieve, other than they were lucky somebody funded them) — something tangible on-screen, something as a means to an end itself — because otherwise, there will be no Forster room today, just a regular room and that’s probably going to be even more dreadful during these times.

Reading in my tabs:

  • L.M. Sacases reflects on our digitally mediated lives with E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story.
  • The late neurologist Oliver Sacks reflects on Forster’s story and contemporary digital culture.
  • Is anyone else just barely functioning right now? Yes, yes we all are.
  • Zoom is a malware and is coming under mounting pressure over allegedly lax security and privacy policies. Why is it so hard to find ethical businesses these days?! Oh of course, capitalism…
  • “When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labour market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. […] When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, of durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by ‘durable’ I don’t mean just material things), I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.”
  • And this brilliant response piece from Scott Ferguson with so many questions we should consider, “What if we stopped believing that capitalists and automation are responsible for determining how and when we labour together? […] What if we created a public works system, which set a just and truly livable wage floor for the entire economy? What if we made it impossible for reprehensible employers like Walmart to exploit the underprivileged, while multiplying everyone’s bargaining powers? […] What if we radically affirmed our dependence on the public institutions that support us? What if we forced government to take responsibility for the system it already conditions?”
  • “We must advocate for civic value, equity, the common good, public health, and the planet. We need a new framework for design and data that is purpose-built for the 21st century. We want to move beyond human-centered design to society-centered design. We must design for the collective. We must design for society.” The call for society-centered design.
  • 57 things to do with friends while social distancing.
  • The Backstreet Boys reunited to sing one of their hits, social distance style.
  • Free theater screenings.
  • The UX writing starter kit.
  • “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.”


  • Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
  • Listening: Mediterranean Sounds from Australian-Taiwanese pianist Belle Chen, which is a collection of solo piano pieces by Ravel, Liszt, and others with short field recordings from places such as Istanbul and Nice.
  • Viewing: Kim’s Convenience Season 4 is now on Netflix! And this family’s adaptation of Les Miserables’ anthem One Day More, lockdown stylez.
  • Food & Drink: More fried rice, and vanilla and rose tea.

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