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.