"As opposed to illiteracy, where you can't read, aliteracy means that you can but you just can't be bothered. They say aliteracy is on the rise these days."
Vashti lives in an age in which people live alone in a single room - the Machine serves all their needs. Direct experience is a thing of the past - when she faces it, she panics.
This is a very early use of the idea of using some sort of machine to allow physicians to examine patients at a distance. The earliest efforts in telemedicine date from around 1905; telecardiology via telephone was demostrated by Willem Einthoven. Telestethoscopy using the telephone was tried in the 1920's.
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