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The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

September 27, 2009

RUL07121

This really has little to do with this story.

The Machine Stops

A prescient, magnificently appalling vision of our future and our present.

In the sense that he envisioned the invention of technology that behaves like television or the internet, he was clearly in the vanguard with the likes of Jules Verne and HG Wells, and way ahead of writers like Edward Bellamy who merely imagined ubiquitous speaking tubes and telegraphs. The visions of the fleets of decaying and empty airships making their way over the Himalayas on schedule for the sake of the schedule like a great watch left in a drawer is hard to forget.

It’s not really clear whether there’s been an apocalypse, or whether mankind simply turned away from direct experience. That he could see that our tools get in the way of direct experience seems remarkable, but as Ong pointed out, there has been awareness of this as far back as Plato, and probably further. What Forster adds to the discussion though, is the absolutely absurd limits to which we sometimes take technology for its own sake. He’s walking in the footsteps of writers like Mary Shelley who imagine man’s creations gone awry, but the idea that man stops trying to affect the external world when he fails at such a great undertaking as stopping the rotation about the Sun is beautiful. Forster never says why anyone would attempt such a thing, and he would probably say it does not matter. We attempt many things because we can, not because we should.

It is fascinating how repulsion and terror are seemingly interchangeable reactions toward direct experience with the world–and as well with other humans as an extension of the world. The retreat as response into the cocoon-like state he describes is yet another example of his prescience of similar concerns regarding television and the internet, and the manner in which their consumption comes at the cost to direct social interaction. All the networks created to bring us closer serve as well to distance and isolate, and just as we experience today with our myriad electronic social tools, Vashti is nearly immediately overwhelmed by a deluge of missives if she does not monitor them constantly.

The terror that some colonists must have felt upon first venturing into the Americas is incredible when one contemplates the fact that they went through the experience nonetheless, and that we today have built up around us so many “civilized” artifices to protect ourselves from such experiences.  Even as recently as the early 1800’s Charles Brockton Brown wrote of the fearsome wilderness on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  Joseph Conrad talked of much the same horror at moving away from the so-called civilized imperial centers as one made one’s way up the rivers and into the jungles that literally stood in for the horrors lurking within our own imagination.  Are the cities we are building and the infrastructure linking them the Machine?

Kuno’s assertion that if the Machine “could work without us, it would let us
die,” begs the question, what are these people really doing? They talk about ideas and events, but they have neither, at least of little significance. Although we are only peering into the life of one or two souls, one doesn’t gather that anyone really is tending to the Machine, although there are committees with important titles. How can you fix something if you abhor direct experience? It is interesting that Forster did not resort to the class society predicted in such works as Metropolis or Brave New World.  One is left with the impression that Forster’s was a society of individuals who had so isolated themselves with a system that really did function for a quite a long time, that they could reasonably believe that it would continue to do so.  Malfunction was disconcerting, but not an impossibility.  The system for reporting malfunctions had no feedback loop: either the malfunction was fixed or it wasn’t.  As long as it was fixed, there was no reason for disquiet or inquisitiveness, but as soon as it began to be a problem, one wonders if there was ever actually a human being doing the fixing, or if it had always been simply left to the Machine itself.  Either the Committee knew there was a problem brewing and sought to bury it politically, or there was a bureaucratic structure such that everyone could remain satisfied in the illusion that the problem was under control.

My guess is that the Machine could care less whether mankind lived or died, that it was not vengeful or even sentient, but that even Kuno, who abhorred what was to become “undenominational Mechanism”, suffered from personifying a machine that had originally been set up merely to serve man.  Perhaps the Machine was sentient to the extent that it collected and processed data, but it was more likely the Committee that turned it into a tool of vengeance and control.

Available at manybooks.net:

http://itp.nyu.edu/~mp51/commlab/emforster.pdf

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