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The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops is short story by EM Foster published in 1909 which describes a distopic future in which (you guessed it) we’re all dependent upon, and subservient to, machines. Humans lose their ability to cope with the natural world and The Machine is basically responsible for keeping us alive.

Knowing that it was written in 1909, the initial pages read a little like old books smell; more of an artifact of another era than a poignant statement about our own. When the technology is described it’s always in terms of pressing buttons and mechanical devices, which is really a projection of the technology that was being born at the time. However, once the initial spacial descriptions are out of the way, I found the overall theme of the book to be just as relevant today as it must have been then.

It takes place in a time that humans spend the majority of their life in an online space consuming “lectures”, exchanging new ideas and listening to music. They rarely interact in the physical world and touching each other is considered taboo. The surface of the earth has become uninhabitable and they live underground with the assistance of The Machine.  Needless to say, things do not go well for us puny humans.

This isn’t a hard future to imagine if you turned up the volume knob on our own lives. The paradox that it left me with is that there seems to be a certain inevitability to this described world, and yet we’ve been fretting about it for over a 100 years! If it comes it pass, it will be the product if countless small decisions that we make every day, and indeed maybe we (at ITP) are responsible for hastening. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. I don’t think we could seriously prevent a future where we’re hopelessly dependent upon The Machine anymore than we could roll back our current use of technology.

I guess the question then becomes, must it be distopic? Can there be a better human existence where we relinquish most of our self-reliance? Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe we’re just here to usher in the next wave of big brains.

7 comments to The Machine Stops

  • yj569

    I have been thinking about youth, technology and nostalgia throughout the readings of the Machine Stops. As a young girl I was raised in a quite low-tech environment. My childhood memories were filled with some very simple games such as jumping-rope, yo-yoing, top-spinning. Like many of my generation, it was not until the middle school that we had the access to the Internet, and then, all of a sudden, our perceptions of the world were inevitably changed. HTML, social networks, mobile devices start to play indispensable roles in our daily life, and opened up a new era of our digital existence.

    However, it seems when a new generation embraces a new technology it has some possibilities while loosing others. The telephone probably ruined the art of writing letters, and the computer has almost destroyed the traditional art of illustration. But fortunately, there are still good letter writers, just as there are still great illustrators. And while most students would choose to use the calculator whenever possible, there are still good teachers out there advising to do the math in our own mind. In any case, there are still scientists who know exactly all the underlying mediations that they are using, and so on. Many scientists actually spend most of their time programming, and only a few hours a week doing the experiments.

    From deep down in my heart, I have nostalgia for a time when we were more connected to a concrete, tangible world, also the pace of our life was slower and more peaceful. Therefore, I am trying to resist technology a little bit in my spare time, just enough to understand the subjectivities of the past generation. I think that it is an exercise of imagination most of the time, but sometimes it is very concrete: writing with a real pen, using an analog camera with real film in it.

  • Andrew Cerrito

    The fact that this was published in 1909 and, from your description, sounds like it predicted facets of the modern internet is fascinating to me. You said that the technology is mostly depicted as buttons and mechanics as a reflection of the era — out of curiosity, how are the networking elements described? Was it imagined as a person-to-person connection more like the telephone, or did the author predict masses of people gathering in an unreal space?

  • Nancy

    Lots of discussion on this piece.. see what others have been saying. It’s interesting in most books on the future, it’s always worse than it is now… which must give some comfort to those living in the present. Certainly it hasn’t served as a warning, b/c here we are!

  • Michelle Cortese

    Huxley, Orwell, Lewis, Forster, Bradbury; many early-to-mid 20th century fiction authors poetically published their dystopian hypotheses about technology, the future and the human condition. From the mutants of the Chrysalids to the “Fireman” of Fahrenheit 451, every attempt seems to get the future (READ: present day) just a wee little bit wrong. Impressive as they may be in their insights, there’s always a piece of the puzzle that gives us a sigh of relief and that glowing feeling that says, “wow, things really didn’t end up all THAT bad.” We’ve yet to find ourselves floating around in a world of big brains or converted into biological batteries or watched at every turn—we’re happy, right? Foster and Bradbury and Orwell got it wrong, … right?

    Maybe not.

    When it comes down it, we didn’t circumvent the danger, we ended up in one of the more fantastical stories: we ended up in a Brave New World.

    Every single one of these authors feared an intellectual elite (of biological or mechanical nature)—an elite that could govern our decisions, our access to information, and in some cases, our awareness of this reign. What differs in each of these works, and set Huxley above the rest in the realm of accuracy, is the manifestation of this reign. George Orwell and Ray Bradbury forecasted extreme censorship, EM Forster and William Gibson saw big machines with human integration, C.S. Lewis and John Wyndham foresaw changes in human nature/form; but Huxley saw something far more innocuous.

    In his 1932 surrealist dystopian science fiction novel, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley describes a world in which an intellectual elite controls the mass population’s decision, will, ambition and intelligence with a gentle touch. There’s no Big Brother, no torture cells, no mutants, no human batteries and no censorship. While the other authors in the lot feared that powers that be would violently deny our rights, Huxley saw a world of over saturation. Humans are drifted to intellectual sedation and permanent childhood/dependence through an unlimited flow of hedonistic options. Information is not banned, it is ignored due to distraction. The truth is not concealed but immersed in a sea of nonsense. Society is not tortured to submission, instead it is trivialized with over-sexualization, hyper-stimulation, and promoted recreational intoxication. A world of passivity and egotism.

    Sound familiar?

    So, no, the future portrait we paint in science fiction need not be dystopian, at least not overtly. The most accurate sci-fi renderings are simultaneously the most dangerous and most innocuous.

    [for more up this alley check out Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”]

  • Allison Burtch

    Not sure if anyone has ever read J.G.Ballard. He’s written many science fiction short stories and books.

    He said this in the 1970s, way before the internet, though he predicted many internet-like things:

    “A lot of my prophecies about the alienated society are going to come true … Everybody’s going to be starring in their own porno films as extensions of the polaroid camera. Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head. It’s going to be commercial and nasty at the same time, like “Rite of Spring” in Disney’s Fantasia … our internal devils may destroy and renew us through the technological overload we’ve invoked.”

    Michelle’s reference to Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is, that Huxley, not Orwell, was correct in imagining future bleakness. I disagree, however, because history has proven that there actually are violence, oppressive forces. Also as a sidenote, Orwell ended up selling out much of the left he supposedly aligned himself with. I’m currently reading “The Betrayal of Dissent,” a book that talks about how Orwell has actually been used to suppress dissent.

  • gm1467

    Although I have not read the novel written by EM Foster that Bill mentioned, but I have always been interested in novels describe the future. For the human beings, the future is like a black box, it can not be seen (I mean in real) and can not be touched, however, you can slightly feel of it because our days keep going and going. Moreover, lots of people also put more imaginations on the future, no matter it is full of hope or desperation.

    When I was a child, I was attracted by a movie called “back to the future” ( This films follow the adventures of a high school student, Marty McFly(Michael J. Fox), and an eccentric scientist, Dr. Emmett L. Brown (Christopher Lloyd), as they use a DeLorean time machine to time travel to different periods in the history of Hill Valley, California.

    Whether the context of movie is good or not, the ability to go back and forth from the past and the future is a stunning fact for me!! However, the future of this movie is not necessary to be distopic world, but a place full of mystery. If you have interests on the timeline they have travelled, you can also check this: Can you guess what Marty was doing when he go back to 2015? Guess what, he get a newspaper that records the ball game result within 50 years (1950 – 2000) in order to win the lottery ticket when he was back to the 1950. This is some sort of interesting that the author maybe is trying to imagine if he faces the future, what would he do? or make an assumption that is “if we can foresee the future (game result), we can make more money (lottery money)”. Although the movie context is sometimes nonsense and full of entertainment, I still found this movie is so interesting that reflects the different point of view for the future, that is somewhere not necessary to be isolated or people lack of the ability to live on the ground.

    Furthermore, I have also stunning by a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. These picture were foreseeing the 100 years afterward, that is year 2000. The publish year is around the same time period as EM Foster’s short story – The Machine Stops. If you have a chance to look around those pictures drew by French artists, the imagination can be categorized into life in the sky, under the sea and the robots! However, do you notice that there are always crowds to do something! (studying, fishing…), not like The Machine Stops imagined that “They rarely interact in the physical world and touching each other is considered tabo….”. If I can decide what does the future look like, I would like to choose French artist’s imagination, that is imaginative, colorful and hopeful.

  • tw981

    Nancy, there is a saying” almost all of the well educated people thinks they lived in a disappointed generation and worse than any other ones people lived-”Xiaosong Gao”. Now 100 years passed it is similar as what the author described at that time-“a machine generation”. As Willian concluded,” Humans lose their ability to cope with the natural world and The Machine is basically responsible for keeping us alive. That’s how we live exactly! But do we feel really bad about that?
    Maybe not, the most important reasons for this is ,my generation has already lost the chance to owning the memories of “coping with nature“ and been used to the way we are. Since now people are more urbanized. People take subway every morning, bring their laptop, get a cup of coffee to work or study, living in a high pace of life to pursue efficiency. For me, I feel it is what life is, not so bad, not so good. Life is defined by everyone and every generation, and that is how people’s nature drive themselves to do. So is it because our nature is more closed to “ greedy”, “selfish”?….
    Our future is mostly defined by the drivers from everyone’s inner heart, it’s hard to predict because only small number of people know themselves well. Maybe when people grow up, they start to lose the initial enthusiasm for the world. So, only time will tell.