The Machine Stops

November 18th, 2009


One hundred years ago this month, E.M. Forster published a short story that describes a world uncannily like the one we live in today. Social networking, video blogging, a blighted environment, and even “the button that produces literature.” In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t end well.

“The Machine Stops” is E.M. Forster’s first and only experiment in science fiction — “a counterblast to one of the heavens of H.G. Wells,” as Forster himself described the story which he first published in the November 1909 issue of the Oxford and Cambridge Review.

Sometime in a far-off future, the atmosphere and surface of the Earth have been poisoned and can no longer sustain life. People live entirely underground in vast catacomb cities of artificial air and light, rarely venturing from their identical rooms to meet or travel anywhere. A vast global mechanism called simply “the machine” mediates all human activity. The machine has enabled miraculous advances in travel, communication, economic production and the furtherment of knowledge, all of which are wholly entrusted to its mechanisms. Although various committees oversee its maintenance, the machine is capable of extending and repairing itself, and no one person fully understands the duties of another, nor the system as a whole.

A young man named Kuno has begun questioning the machine and tentatively exploring the forbidden surface of the Earth, learning to use his muscles, reacquainting himself with nature and trusting in direct experience for the first time in generations. His mother Vashti strongly disapproves.

This may sound like some bizarre sequel to “The Matrix” or Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” but no. We’re talking E.M. Forster in 1909, a writer who is best remembered today for period novels such as A Passage to India and Room with a View.

Here Kuno and and his mother Vashti have just finished a strained conversation via the cinematophote, as the videoconference features of the machine are called:

His image in the blue plate faded.


He had isolated himself.

For a moment Vashti felt lonely.

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? – say this day next month.

To most of these questions she replied with irritation – a growing quality in that accelerated age.

Later in the story, Vashti undertakes a rare journey by automated train and air-ship to see her son Kuno face to face.

Of course it was perfectly easy. The car approached and in it she found armchairs exactly like her own. When she signaled, it stopped, and she tottered into the lift. One other passenger was in the lift, the first fellow creature she had seen face to face for months. Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking?

The air-ship service was a relic from the former age. It was kept up, because it was easier to keep it up than to stop it or to diminish it, but it now far exceeded the wants of the population…. as Vashti saw the vast flank of the ship, stained with exposure to the outer air, her horror of direct experience returned. It was not quite like the air-ship in the cinematophote. For one thing it smelt–not strongly or unpleasantly, but it did smell, and with her eyes shut she should have known that a new thing was close to her…Inside, her anxiety increased. The arrangements were old-fashioned and rough. There was even a female attendant, to whom she would have to announce her wants during the voyage. Of course a revolving platform ran the length of the boat, but she was expected to walk from it to her cabin. Some cabins were better than others, and she did not get the best. She thought the attendant had been unfair, and spasms of rage shook her.

I’m reminded here of that YouTube hit from about a year ago, “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” The comedian Louis C.K., appearing on the Conan show, evoked the simpler days of rotary phones and pre-ATM banking. How is it, he wondered, when we’re flying in an airplane or using high speed data connections, that we get impatient when the signal takes a little to long to fly through space. “Could you give it a second,” he asked, “to get back from space?” He said that if this complex system is coming apart, a little bit, that could be a good thing. “Maybe we need some time, where we’re going around with a donkey with pots and pans clanging around on the sides.” Based on the viral sharing of that clip, millions of people seemed to agree.

But back in the days when people were just starting to have telephones installed in their homes , E.M. Forster was looking forward and what he saw was similar in many ways, and in others, much more bleak. Besides the technical details, he also describes how people change in response. Everyone has become complacent, dependent, spoiled and vaguely irritable. But while Louis C.K. wonders why this amazingly convenient and miraculous world is wasted on such a spoiled generation, Forster saw the spoiling as a direct result of the convenience and dependency it creates. And instead of a gradual process of coming back around to our senses, Forster depicted the whole complex apparatus as literally falling down on our heads.

“The Machine Stops” was never a big hit with the critics. A reviewer named Edwin Muir found the work “unconvincing,” another named Edward Shanks pronounced it inferior to the work of H.G. Wells. In Lionel Trilling’s 1965 critical study of Forster, “The Machine Stops” is only mentioned in passing as a “counter-Wellesian fantasy of the future,” and Trilling generally treats Forster’s short stories as interesting only as sketches and indexes to the themes of his longer works.

But over time, the story gained an increasing cult following. The poet Edith Sitwell wrote in 1928 that the story “made me feel as though I had come out of a dark tunnel in which I had always lived, into an immense open space, and were seeing things living for the first time. I believe it is the most tremendous short story of our generation.” “The Machine Stops” became a viral hit in the text-heavy days of the early internet, as sys admins and other ubergeeks would upload the text to university servers, often with a note marvelling at the fact that it was written back in the days of the telephone and telegraph, before there were radios, televisions, commercial air travel, computers or the internet.

More recent phenomena like social networking, blogging and Google’s mission to make the world’s information organized and accessible have only served to further vindicate Forster’s strange vision. The artificial intelligence behind the computer HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey, created forty years ago, seems as quaint today as personal rocket ships.  But we may find it harder to shrug off this hundred year-old specter of a brute mechanism that owes its power to the fact that everyone must use it for just about everything they do.

Towards the end of the 12,000-word story we see the machine falter, with only the faintest symptoms at first, then fall apart and collapse entirely. Even the subtle ways that the machine begins to fail will ring true to anyone who has ever used Windows software. The music delivered by the machine is disfigured by odd sighs and sounds, which people gradually accept as part of the music, until the deodorized bath water begins to smell and the artificial air grows murky and foul.

The moralizing in ”The Machine Stops” is often heavy handed, to be sure. Freedom, courage, nature and bonding with your fellow humans = Good. Mechanization, conformity and derivative ideas = Bad. Still it’s a fairly ingenious parable that can simultaneously appeal to luddites and computer geeks, to idealists, reactionaries and aspiring Unibombers alike.

We spend alot of time these days thinking about technology, sustainability and the future of the planet. We’re alternately optimistic and terrified by social and environmental change, mutating media and mountains of data and what it all really means. It’s an oddly comforting experience to step back 100 years and realize that things were already looking pretty grim and complicated back then. It was not the kinder, simpler era that our nostalgia would like to make of it.

Personally, I confess I’m consoled by the idea that the machine stops. I’m more with Louis C.K. on this one than E.M. Forster. Perhaps not a cataclysmic stopping, something more periodic and self regulating. We’re taking the machine down for some unscheduled maintenance. The donkeys with the pots and pans on their backs, that sort of thing. If the stopping doesn’t destroy us, it just might save our lives.

You can read the complete story here: “The Machine Stops”

Photo Credit: The ElectriClerk was inspired by the retro-futuristic machines in the movie Brazil by Terry Gilliam.

Cocoa Bucks

February 17th, 2009

Endangered Species Belgian Chocolate Bars - Chimpanzee Smooth Dark Chocolate

Endangered Species Belgian Chocolate Bars - Chimpanzee Smooth Dark Chocolate

Like many people I’ve been paying more attention to prices at the grocery store and to what’s on sale. So when I noticed a row of organic chocolate bars on sale at Rainbow Market, I decided to go for that instead of the pricier choice. Never mind that the best choice all around would have been: no chocolate.

Standing at the checkout line, I looked at my selection. It was Endangered Species Chocolate: specifically, the bar with the Endangered Belgian Chimpanzee on it. Or maybe it was just the chocolate that was Belgian. I wondered why I had never tried it before. Even now, about to buy it on account of the dollar discount, it just wasn’t…. appetizing.

I care about endangered species. I appreciate that this company donates 10% of their profits to wildlife conservation. I will even generally pay a little more to support fair trade imports. So why my resistance to this product?

I think it’s the juxtaposition of the endangered chimpanzee (or bat or butterfly) on the wrapper versus the chocolate bar inside. I’m used to packaging doing one of two things:

  1. the more usual scenario, showing us an appetizing or stylized vision of what we’re about to eat.
  2. the more visceral strategy of luring us with a picture of some celebrity or model — and the implied promise that by eating this food, we will become more like they are. I think this is related to some mythic impulse to ingest our deities and heroes — without the mess of actually eating, say, Lance Armstrong.

There may be other categories, like the cartoon monsters on cereal boxes that little kids eat, but anyway — the point is, when I’m craving chocolate, I’m rarely also in the mood to either eat or become an endangered chimpanzee.

“The chimpanzee isn’t in the chocolate, silly,” my friend said as we sat outside finishing our lunch and eying desert. She had bought fruit.

“I know, but instead of helping the chimpanzee, I feel like I’m eating him.”

“What you’re eating is your paycheck,” she pointed out.

“Well, if they had a picture of my paycheck on the wrapper, I probably wouldn’t have bought it now would I?”

She did not argue with this logic. But it reminded me of something even more remarkable. Chocolate used to be money.

I told her about the presentation on sustainable economics at the Green Festival. The speaker was Daniel Pinchbeck and he was talking about Ithaca Hours, a local currency in Ithaca NY which encourages people to spend their earnings within their community. Afterwards someone asked what happens when this currency pools — when one business is stuck holding alot of the Ithaca dollars but needs to pay suppliers that don’t participate in the program. After looking at different mechanisms for dealing with this scenario, Pinchbeck took a longer view of the issue.

Our current economic system encourages investments that will yield the highest short-term return regardless of the long-term consequences. But what if we could measure and reward investments according their ability to sustain community? Currency only has value as long as it’s in play. Pinchbeck mentioned the work of Bernard Lietaer, architect of the Euro, and alternative systems that Lietaer had proposed including currency that would depreciate over time — a kind of negative interest.

The Ancient Aztecs, Pinchbeck noted, traded in cocoa beans. The actual unit of currency decayed over time and lost value. The point was to spend and trade wisely, not hoard the wealth.

With this in mind, I let go of any impulse I might have had to hold onto that chocolate bar with the picture of the chimp on it, to use it as a hedge against an uncertain future. I broke off a small piece for my friend, and before we knew it, the whole thing was gone.

Found Poetry on Wikipedia

January 26th, 2009

Dried valerian under Goðafoss in Iceland, November 2007

Found Wikipoetry?  The text below is from the Wikipedia entry for Valerian, a medicinal root. It reads like something out of McSweeney’s magazine or George Saunders.

I quote it at length, for posterity, because who knows how long it will endure in this eerie form:

The name Valerian comes from the Latin word valere, meaning “to be strong or healthy”, generally thought to refer to its medicinal use, though many references suggest that it also refers to the strong odor.

An explanation for the theory regarding the etymological reference to the strong odor is that the herb was also known as “Phou” or “Fy” in antiquity . «Phou» or «fy» is describing a common expression of the peoples of the European continent when smelling a dried Valerian root. According to folk belief this medicine could turn everything painful into good. It was therefore called “wenderot” or similar in Germanic language groups, meaning the root that could turn things bad to good. Domestic animals, pets, especially cats become ardent when they smell the herb.

Is this some wikipedian who channels an ancient nordic shaman?  A case of herb-induced prose?  I have traced the moment in version history when the apocryphal author appeared, but all that can be known of him or her is an IP address that hails from Lillehammer, Norway, north of Oslo….



When speaking with smart, hip, literate and esthetically-attuned folks such as yourself… I sometimes hear of a lingering resistance to blogs and blogging that has alot to do with the words “blog” and “blogging.”

Yes, I know that “blog” was born of “web” plus “log.”  But that doesn’t make it right.  It just makes it the ungainly child of two rather plain parents.

A brief historical digression: the 16th century French writer Michel de Montaigne created the modern essay (or Essai, as you can see in his title page above) from the French verb meaning “to try, attempt, have a go at something.” But what if instead of Essai, he had chosen to call it a Schtrumpfwaffel or Shplaff or Dreck? Maybe high school students across the world today wouldn’t be writing essays in order to get into college.  They’d be procrastinating on their shplaffs, or else inscribing magical spells on birch bark.

So, in the dubious name of progress, I’d like to propose some alternatives.  Hopefully you’ll have some even better ideas.

Yes, you.



Sounds Like…

web + log blog blob, slog, slob, frog, bog, slug
live + journal vejournal vegernal, something either anatomical or vegan-related, or both.
journal + vif journavi journey, bonjovi, other rock bands from the ’70s and ’80s.


Children of the Amazon is an exquisite film, and a very personal look at a vital issue.

Clips on YouTube:

Filmmaker Denise Zmekhol of Brazil recently returned to the Amazon to find some of the indigenous people whom she had met and photographed there almost 20 years before.  She documents how their lives had been altered by the construction of roads and clearcutting of the forest to make way for cattle, logging and mining, and how they gradually acquired the awareness and the organization to have a voice in these changes.

Those 15 years between her two visits are a critical time span.  Several of the tribe members she interviews refer to “tempo de floresta,” forest time, before all the changes came.  The children of the amazon whom she photographed, within their lifetime, have witnessed the destruction of their land and their way of life. As she shows them the photos she had taken of them, it turns out they had never seen photographs of themselves as children.

It’s a very personal and inspiring film: it translates the movements of peoples and continents to the scale of an individual, a family, a village.  It doesn’t sentimentalize, but it’s hard not to be affected by the story of Chico Mendes, who had organized and represented the rubber tappers in that region.

Though not indigenous, the rubber tappers depended on the Amazon forest for their livelihood, so ultimately they joined forces with the native peoples to resist the ranchers and other forces of development.  Zmekhol remembers her conversations with Chico over the years, interweaving photographs and video footage with recent interviews she conducted with his surviving family and friends.

Chico was assassinated in the intervening years, along with several other leaders of the movement to resist deforestation.  One of the young girls whom Zmekhol had photographed and hoped to meet up with again had also been killed.  She drank some poisoned juice that had been intended for her father, a chief of the Surui tribe.

Watching this movie,  I found myself wondering about all the all the indigenous peoples throughout history whose lands and lives gave way to invasion, genocide and other forms of progress, from the Aztecs and Native Americans all the way back to the Ancient Hebrews, Gauls and Celts under the Roman Empire. It’s a pattern as old and as inevitable as the progress of time.  Two thousand years ago Virgil’s Aeneid told the story of Turnus, a mythological prince who resisted the first Roman invaders.  Virgil ascribed to Turnus the noble yet misguided heroism of a man devoted to a lost cause.

I find myself thinking, or hoping, that this story might yet turn out differently than all those others,  that the children of the Amazon might actually stand a chance — because their land and way of life is as important to our survival as it is to theirs.  The film is not a polemic, and does not preach.  But biodiversity — and the role of indigenous peoples in preserving it — has gradually been recognized as essential to the continuity of human life.

Consider this : the amazon forest is home to one third of all plant and animal species on the planet, and source of about 20% of the world’s supply of oxygen.


I’m walking by Duboce Park cafe wanting a cup of soup, and there’s some talk going on in front of a live audience and everyone is riveted, so I go in (ducking under the camera) and order my soup (whispering) and the show is about incarceration and different viewpoints and approaches with a focus on Bay Area programs.  There’s a cop, a lawyer, and a super sharp/funny host (Deborah Pardes) actually they were all smart and informed, cared deeply about the issue, and were speaking from a real experience of the situation.

One highlight was when they’re talking about convicts doing Vipassana meditation in prison, and the cop says something like “Oh great, the victim has 300 stitches, and the perp gets to meditate.” And the lawyer manages to totally include that perspective, and adds: but if sitting 10 days in silence helps them to arrive at enough consciousness of what they did and awareness to NEVER do something like that again, isn’t that the point of jail in the first place?

To learn more listen to their podcast!!!  but I just want to say how utterly cool it is that they do this in a neighborhood cafe with a live (and sometimes serendipitous) audience. Sure the The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are smart, and pretty cool, and have some high production values.  But what are the chances that you can stumble onto the set while in search of a cup of soup?

Next time, I’m going to try to actually show up on the set of this show on purpose.  Yeah!