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The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops
E.M. Forster

Around 1909, the time Forster wrote “The Machine Stops,” the Second Industrial Revolution was occurring and thoughts on the state of technology have been of deep wonder and concern. The story is of a grim, barren future thousands of years away; people are living in isolation and the only company a person will have comes from what seems like an all-knowing machine.

Pixar’s Wall-E immediately came to mind when reading about Forster’s machine dependent people. The main character, Vashti, is described as “swaddled lumps of flesh” due to being confined in such small spaces and no outside activity. Modern conveniences have made it easy for people to foresee such a bleak future. Applying Forster’s view of the future today it’s possible to see some parallels (in various degrees).

– living away from nature and forgetting what it once was. [It’s probably why people start living temporarily or permanently off-grid.]
– living with technology during an entire lifetime (Vashti remarks about her son’s inability to live obediently with technology. Her son, Kuno, believes that the dependence on the machine is what’s making humanity fall.)
– lack of personal contact, virtual relationships increase and are more prevalent.
– when technology becomes null our futures become uncertain.

It’s possible to know everything that goes on in the world without having to go outside. It’s also quite possible to complete daily tasks without having to step outside. Everything is so much more convenient; tasks can be completed with a push of a button. Technology’s original intent was a tool made by humans to assist humans; I believe many people often gloss this fact over. It’s surpassing (and maybe has surpassed) it’s intent and Forster describes it as something that is taking our humanity away from us through Kuno’s actions, words, and defiance; free will and thought is feared in a civilization that relied upon this omnipotent machine. What we see, hear, and possibly believe may stem from a machine.

The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts.

I wonder how much of this is true? How much have humans compromised so far and will compromise in the future? Will technology reach this extreme… has it already?

I want to recommend a television adaptation of this story. There’s a visual contrast between Vashti and her son. Vashti, a person who is submissive to the machine is almost inhuman in appearance while her son, who is against this machine, is seen more human (a woman he encounters on the earth’s surface is also shown to be more human in contrast to his mother).

E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops : Youtube

This is quite off topic but I was surprised to find that “The Machine Stops” was written by the same author who wrote “Howard’s End.”


18 comments to The Machine Stops

  • Andrew "Sigler"

    This seems like a very interesting read, especially for the time it was written in. However, your description doesn’t leave me also wondering “was he right?…” but instead I wonder how/why he was wrong. When reading works discussing technology and it’s effect on the individual and society, it would seem to me very important to keep in mind the time period in which it was written. This work is from the early 20th century, and while it could have been well ahead of it’s time, it seems to suffer from the same problem many “early” technological predictions hold.
    That is, it starts with the premise of technology being this alien entity; a glowing screen; a humming box. For decades, and even still, this picture has lived on. We still know many people who are glued to their computers, so much so it has become a serious problem in some circumstances, where people are walking and staring at their smartphone screens, falling into fountains.
    However, it is important to note that they are walking. Trends in mobile computing and augmented reality hint at a near-future where we no longer rely on screens and keyboards, and while I don’t want to make my own predictions that might soon prove to be wrong, it seems rather obvious to me that we are soon to leave the computer lab for the street.
    Besides one’s individual relationship with the machine, the social implications you credit the author for pushing also seem a bit dated. Many aspects of social and institutional life are gravitating away from the hierarchical pyramid or funnel, and towards the network. If Forster did write about one’s daily interaction being with the all knowing machine, then that machine would seem to embody the funneled structure Forster saw his entire life.

  • Andres

    I agree with Andrew about the change in technology, and how the shift to mobile changed the way we interact.

    Also, I think nowadays there is more awareness about being in a good shape and having a healthy lifestyle. I mean all this move towards organic food, meditation, etc.

    Technology also made travelling easier, which obviously made more accessible the possibility to move and open our minds.

    Well, I like being an optimistic and think of the advantages we can get, and I try to believe that we are getting better.

  • Sam Slover

    A discussion on a technology-created dystopia, eh? I’ll join!

    Like many other popular Sci Fi pieces, it seems that The Machine Stops is warning of the ultimate possibility of technology draining us of our humanity. And you know what, while I always feel awkward talking about this topic with fellow technologists, I do worry about this side of technological progress (it’s also why I often speak of my love-hate relationship with modernity, but I digress).

    I personally find our over-reliance on technology to be pretty freaking scary in many ways (GJ pointed out some great examples, especially life-long dependence on tech). I’d argue that a key part of humanity is the ability to take care of yourself: to grow food and feed yourself, to equip yourself with shelter, to find safe drinking water, to navigate, etc. Now, I don’t think everyone in a society HAS to do this on a daily basis (modern society is pretty productive with people specializing), but I feel strongly that everyone should have the ABILITY to do so if they had to.

    And that’s what scares me. I worry that technology is creating a modern society where the VAST majority of people have no idea how to satisfy their basic needs. We rely on technology and complex systems to take care of us — we go to the store and get food shipped in from across the world; we use our phones and GPS systems to navigate; we walk to our sinks and flip a lever to drink water. I’m no Luddite, and I would never advocate a return to simpler times, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think technology can divorce us from certain fundamental human capacities we should never, ever lose.

    But all that said, I believe people will tend to resist technology completely taking over fundamental parts of their lives (which is why I don’t necessarily foresee humans disconnecting from each other the way The Machine Stops and Wall-E portray).

    So while I don’t completely buy the ultimate dystopia The Machine Stops presents, I do think these types of works make us question what we ultimately want technology to do and what we’re best left alone to do the old-fashioned human way. And that’s useful.

    – Sam

  • Sarah Rothberg

    Can I just say that this story has been totally haunting me for months? Like, HAUNTING. I seriously think it should be required ITP reading. It almost seems like, if you didn’t know when it was written, you’d maybe think it was some okay-ish sci-fi for a college writing workshop where everything from modern times was just renamed to make it spookier. “Hmmmm. The Internet.. let’s call it… The Machine!” And then you’re like, holy shit this is from 1909! And in many ways, it’s so, so dead on.

    I think it’s a lot more prescient than many other speculations on technology because, yeah, a lot of people have predicted, for instance, video chat (Tesla among them, writing in 1915: “Very soon it will be possible for us to see each other at distances of thousands of miles; we shall be enabled to hear an opera, sermon or scientific lecture, and be visually present in all kinds of meeting and transactions without regard to where we ourselves happen to be at that time.”), but the ramifications of these technologies in this story are so NUANCED. From the sort of religious reverence we have for our devices to the same-ing of cities across the world, these may not actually be our realities, but they are dangers to be acutely aware of.

    Andy, Andres: while it’s true in the story there is a theme of sedentary lifestyles as a result of future technological developments, to me it’s not the main thrust of the story. It’s about the importance of questioning our so-called advances, generally, and the more specific danger of having a singular, virtual location where all activities occur. Which is to say, the machine isn’t so much any of our devices in particular, but is much more analogous to the cloud itself. (haha… sorry, maybe my literature background nerdiness is shining through a little hard right now)

    In the story, one of the more minor plot points revolves around the mother, Vashti, and her search for “ideas” to “lecture” about. Do we normally think of having a conversation where we’re all kind of wikipedia-purging at each other as bad? Is it bad?

    Esentially, I’m siding with Sam here when he says that the ultimate purpose of these types of work is to present a dystopia in order to make us aware of our tech’s potential (/semi-already-real) dangers. And GJ put it quite well, also: What we see, hear, and possibly believe may stem from a machine.

    I’m going to go ahead and cut myself off because I think I could honestly talk forever about this story. But… uh you know, rage against the machine and all that. Or at least remember that a GIANT MAGNET HURDLING TOWARD EARTH FOR SOME INCONCEIVABLE REASON COULD RUIN EVERYTHING AT ANY MOMENT SO WE BETTER KNOW THAT PLANTS DONT NEED GATORADE TO GROW and all that.

  • Andres

    A curiosity: before having a cellphone, I remembered EVERY of my friends’ home phone numbers. Now, I don’t know any of their cellphone numbers.

    My intuition says that every time in history there was this fear of technology making humans more ‘useless’, but I really don’t know. Maybe it’s only a modern factor based on the advance of automation, maybe people were afraid of the same when Gutenberg’s machine or the steam engine were invented.

    About being more useless, I’m sure that an ancient king who relied on lots of slaves was a complete zero in survival also.

  • Sarah Rothberg

    Andres:

    Socrates, according to Plato, once said: “The fact is that this invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written … And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hand not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it. ”

    Ironically, we’d never have known this had Plato not written it down (a wonderful virtue of writing), yet both philosophers were vehemently apposed to this “new technology,” fearing it would ruin our memories and disrupt the social order. I think every communication technology surely alters the mechanics of our thought processes, both individually and as a society, but is it a thing to fear? At least not moreso than all the things humanity has always feared.

  • Nancy

    Good call out on the Plato dialogue. One of my faves when people get very anti-tech….

    This from Sarah is a/the crux of what you must consider as you become the creators and inventors of new techs .”It’s about the importance of questioning our so-called advances, generally, and the more specific danger of having a singular, virtual location where all activities occur.”

  • Andres

    Amazing that Plato dialogue, I didn’t know about that. Thank you! I’m a bit mindblown. Wow, I mean, wow, that was precisely what I was thinking about, but writing, that sounds like waaay too much.

    Now I am thinking about how we might be seen in the future. I remember in history class we’ve been told that in the middle ages it was forbidden to experiment with dead bodies because of religion. That wasn’t of much help for medicine and science. When I think about it, I find that way of thinking quite silly. But then I imagine people from the future saying ‘because people were afraid of experimenting with human stem cells and human cloning, we had to deal with diabetes and cancer for much longer time than needed. Humans from the XXth and XXIst century, so backwards’.
    On a less philosophical aspect, I also remember in chemistry when the professor told us how before Lavoisier some people believed there was some kind of matter that had negative weight. He seemed amused by that thought. Some time later, I learnt about antimatter in physics, and could not avoid the comparison.

  • sjg447

    It’s funny that while we haven’t reached the total dystopian future found in this and other stories, the one we have reached is almost sadder, if somewhat more subtle. Our dependence is definitely there and our increasing difficultly with real person-to-person contact is heartbreaking. After what has basically been a lifetime in front of a screen (where I am now, of course) I’ve found myself more and more often starting to revolt in various ways. Even at ITP I have, without even necessarily meaning to, chosen classes that are much more focused on hand-based crafts and building instead of hacking away at a keyboard all day. In fact, if I have any ambitions regarding the further development of technology in our lives, it’s to find ways to make it as minimally intrusive as possible. Which is kind of interesting, really, since the normal view of the future has always been white rooms with blinking lights and buttons. I don’t think people really want that and I doubt they ever will.

  • Xuedi "Chen"

    Andres, you are right! I used to remember every friends’ phone numbers and now I only keep my parents’ numbers in memory. Although, now I’m pretty good at memorizing emails, I don’t know why.

    And I agree with Sam that like many Sci-fi works, this serves as a warning to the possibilities and dangers of technology. Even though we haven’t reached a total dystopian future yet and it may not come in this generation or the next, it may still be over the horizon if we are not careful. I’m sure many people have seen the videos of a baby or toddler trying to use a book/magazine after handling an iPad. The child tries to swipe and use multi-touch gestures on a magazine and become frustrated when images do not move. A child learns by experimenting and playing. The good news is, there are still printed materials around so when this child grows up, he/she will know what a book is. What will happen when everything is digitally archived?

    As Sarah said, the machine is more analogous to “the cloud”… all servers, digital storage, security, automation is moving to cloud/network based services. Even new smartphones are using services only accessible while connected to a network. For New Yorkers, it’s more apparent, we can’t access a bunch of stuff while we’re in the subway. Good thing the network architects have built in mirrors and redundancies to ensure a server can still fully function if there’s an outage in one spot. BUT IF some crazy situation happened where all network connections and/or electricity fails… what will happen??

  • Andres

    I think one needs to separate the content from the medium. What I want to say: now that I have a kindle, I’m reading more books than before. It’s easier to obtain them, and being more convenient to carry it I just take it out more than if having physical books. The death of the printed book is not the death of literature. Even, I think the digitalization (and ‘internetization’) of stuff can help to democratize the arts. Authors depending less on publishers seems a good thing to me, be it literature, music, etc.. Now I’m afraid of sounding too pro-machine or whatever.

  • mpa292

    Andres: Pro-machine is ok!

    The Machine Stops seems to be an early step in a long line of post-industrial techo-dystopian futuristic freak outs, but when you look more closely at reality, our technological advances are providing human-kind with a better chance for survival when the real problems occur on this planet: overpopulation, famine, loss of natural resources, etc. The easiest response you can have to a cultural shift is to take the nostalgic stance: things used to be better when things were like ____. That attitude creates a fear of change. Letting go of the past and welcoming the shift is much more difficult, especially being visionary in the process. I believe you can’t walk forward if you are too longingly looking backwards. Sarah, I love that Telsa quote you mentioned above, Tesla was that kind of visionary dude. Texts like The Machine Stops can easily be misread as the anti-tech-push-back, but its like all of you have been saying, its necessary critical commentary. However, dependence on technology is not something to be feared, I say its a power to be harnessed. What we have going for us now that we never had before is the possibility of technology becoming smaller and more seamlessly integrated into our lives. The less we see of it, the better it will work for us even though that may mean greater levels of dependence. The more meaningful the interactions with our virtual lives become, the less scary they will be to our nostalgic minds. The biggest danger in the system is the misuse of the system and who misuses the system, eh?

    I’m probably a tech utopian-ist, but its not The Machine that is dangerous, its the Man.

    or the Person to be more PC 🙂

    –Inform the people, quell the danger–

    Love,
    Mike Allison

  • William Lindmeier

    It’s telling that this post has gotten such a strong reaction. We’re clearly all dealing with where we stand on this issue. A lot of the fear seems to be focused on projected uses of technology, and less about how we’ve actually adopted technology into our lives. In a way it feels like we’re not giving ourselves enough credit to do the right thing when we do get Internet 4.0. I’d say we’ve got a pretty good track record going back to the invention of writing. And even in cases where tech has enabled some terrible thing (e.g. machines of war), it wasn’t technology that created those impulses–it just allowed us to act on them more effectively.

  • It’s really interesting reading this comment thread after spending a week without power, internet or cell phone service during Hurricane Sandy. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a heavy user of technology & I actively worked to ensure I wouldn’t be entirely powerless.

    Like @Xuedi, I can’t remember phone numbers or other easily retrievable information & I agree with @Mike that the problem isn’t the enhancements technology as much as the way we use it (at least until Skynet become self aware). There are too many ways technology can improve our world, our community and our individual lives.

    In the case of Sandy, we’ve seen how students here at ITP and other concerned citizens have used technology to find ways to help their neighbors get supplies and stay safe. And the uproar about the NY Marathon might not have had the same strength if it was for social media. These systems aren’t prefect, but there is too much potential to do good to prematurely fear the bad.

  • ehm281

    This is Erika – not really sure how to make that appear in the header.

    Anyway.

    I’d like to talk about what Sam mentioned – the idea that a characteristic of being human is the ability to take care of oneself. I’d argue that that is a requirement for any animal or any living organism in general. In the wild, an animal that is for any reason unable to find or hunt food will die. Humans are animals; we require nutritional input just like any other organism. And Sam’s right – we have a modern society in which the majority of people have absolutely no idea how to supply themselves with food outside visiting a market.

    HOWEVER. Paleoanthropologists know that human societies developed social orders very early in our evolution. We, as organisms, have brains built to rely on a social network for survival. We live in groups and organize those groups into subgroups that are expected to perform certain roles. Anthropologists generally believe (because of archaeological evidence, studies of biological and sociological function in modern humans, and studies of today’s remaining traditional societies that don’t live completely immersed in our globalized economy and culture) that in very early human society, these societies were grouped according to sex, age, and skill, among other characteristics. Certain sub-groups were held responsible for different aspects of a group’s survival: crop cultivation, food gathering, hunting, materials fabrication, child care, religious life, etc.

    Nowadays we have developed a much more complex, much more interdependent and global network of roles and performers, but irrespective of that complexity, the basic idea is the same.

    My point is that it has not necessarily been the case that at any point in human history each individual human being has been able to know and perform all the tasks necessary to survive without symbiosis with other humans.

    Now to move back to the discussion of technology and the modern globalized socio-economy in general… There is a growing group of researchers that spans several fields of academia, policy makers, technologists, and scientists who study “global catastrophic risk” (climate change, pandemic, nuclear war, etc.). Technology and its effect on the potential for indefinite human survival is just one of their many branches of research. They study not only how technology could influence the risk of a catastrophic event happening in the first place, but also how it could affect recovery scenarios. Would technology help us recover more quickly, or would it actually leave us more helpless?

    This question points back to Sam’s comment that one of the basic aspects of being human is the ability to do all the things we need to be able to do to survive. Although I disagree that EACH human needs to be able to do all these things, any human group as a whole must be able to. If a severe catastrophe occurred that destroyed our global trade network, how would people survive in many places of the world where almost no one knows how to farm, for example? Furthermore, what if we eventually reach a point where we have depleted our water and soil so severely that we are completely dependent on genetically modified crops and computer tech-driven growing mechanisms to grow those crops? In fact, agricultural scientists have already begun to think about this – there is a seed bank in Svalbard, Norway to store seeds for strains of rare, extinct-in-nature, and heirloom crop plants that might be useful in a future with a significantly different environment than the one we now inhabit.

    My point is that technology, just like anything else, can be positive and negative; it can be a tool to improve human health, education, and experience, but it can also detract from our ability to survive independently of its use. (And that’s not even getting into its potential for creating weapons powerful enough to annihilate unprecedentedly large numbers of people at once.)

    I think we have an obligation as creators of new technologies to keep in mind that tech applications should inhabit an appropriate middle ground between complete independence and complete dependence on the part of any user. We also have an obligation to consider the future ramifications and iterations (when possible) of our ideas, and to maintain open dialogues both with our contemporaries and also the next generation of technologists about the importance of this balance.

  • Nancy

    GJ.. you started a wonderful discussion. And I’m glad that Tom brought in Hurricane Sandy, too. That was a moment to think about dependence on technology, a face-to-face encounter with your possible futures, how easy it is to break us down…and to pay attention to what Erika says at the end of her post:
    ” think we have an obligation as creators of new technologies to keep in mind that tech applications should inhabit an appropriate middle ground between complete independence and complete dependence on the part of any user. We also have an obligation to consider the future ramifications and iterations (when possible) of our ideas, and to maintain open dialogues both with our contemporaries and also the next generation of technologists about the importance of this balance.”

  • Fang-Yu

    In the begining, thank you for sharing this book.Because of your sharing, I start to read this book.

    I would like to share some of my interesting observation about the technical effect on the society

    At first,I notice that iPhone and iPad become a new baby sitter. When parents go out with friends, they always give their children iPhone or iPad to keep their children be quiet. Because children focus on playing game, they can easily stay on their seats until their parents finish this date.If you have child, you will know it’s so hard to let child be quiet.Besides,some of parents forbids their children playing iPhone when children can’t reach their expectation.

    The other thing is that when a bunch of young people gathering ,they might use their phone rather than chat with their friend.Which one is the important thing between the friend sitting in front of you or the friend on the Facebook?

    Nowadays , a lot of people want to blend technology seamlessly into the live.Maybe in the future the human need a festival named “stop technology” to let everyone touching the real world on purpose.

  • hm1109

    I think you did a good summary and pointed out good issue about ‘machine’.
    This issue about ‘machine’ has a counter part ‘humman’ that is a role model of it. Many of early machine help people to do their task with the industrial revolution. That time it was a physical assist which gave them a chance to develope large scale of the industry. But, now a days with the developement of technology, machie becames to follw and replicate the thinking process of humane. People has thinking flow to make desicion to do actions, and they are perception in their minds. Machine starts to define their proccess by picking their datas to use as an information. Like the topic of the book people may have less personal contact with others and be dependent to technology with loosing their experience.
    The different ability that we have to emphasize to be exist as a humman is translate the information into knowledge by sorting and experiecnce it. These kind of activies should be positive for everyone to develop the machine for the future.