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.


The Russian River watershed, just north of San Francisco, is surely one of the more progressive and resource-conscious areas of the country. I was staying in Guerneville on the river for a few days, about midway between Santa Rosa and the coast, and I got into a conversation with a local couple about the river and related water issues. They were in their sixties. They had lived in Guerneville over 30 years, raised their kids there and remained involved in the community.

When the topic of water use came up, the man spoke with deep resentment. I’ll paraphrase:

Santa Rosa just keeps dumping on us. Literally! This has been going on for decades. They take the water out of the river for development, always more development. The more water they use, the more waste they’ll wind up flushing downstream.

Once we proposed that they put their own intake pipes downstream from their effluent, so they’d need to use the same water we do. They looked at us like we were crazy. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they asked.

I asked him if there was any solution that might work. He smiled.

Well, we had a farmer around here who once drove up to Santa Rosa City Hall and dumped a truckload of manure on the steps. I think that got their attention.

His wife added that another step, at least as effective, had been the construction of a pipeline that ships treated wastewater to the Gysers steam fields – over 10 million gallons per day – where it helps produce enough electricity to power all of San Francisco.

Since then I’ve been intrigued by the question of water use along the Russian River. One important pitfall which that conversation highlighted: the temptation to frame a resource crisis as a conflict between two opposing groups, in this case the city upstream and the town downstream. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and some big questions that remain unanswered.

Competing Interests:

  • Downstream Residents: the river provides most of their water supply; sufficient water quality and flow is also needed for tourism and recreation (swimming, canoeing, fishing) which is vital to the local economy
  • Fish: Endangered species such as the Coho and Chinook salmon need unpolluted rivers for spawning with sufficient forest cover to provide shade and erosion control along the riverbank. However, apparently they also require LOW overall flow rates on the lower river near the estuary.
  • Agriculture: Sonoma county vineyards and other agriculture use the lion’s share of water. But extractive industries, including logging and gravel mining, also require water for their operations.
  • Urban Residents and Development: Earlier this year, water contractors representing Santa Rosa water users successfully fought a proposed 30% increase in water rates. Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Water Agency continues to try to increase the amount of water it draws from the river from 76,000 to 101,000 Acre Feet/Year (over 30 billion gallons).

Of course there are many more groups and subsets of groups at work, and agencies that represent different interests and mandates. Brenda Adelman at the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee has been reporting on these issue now for some time: see


Are there any solutions on the table that would balance the needs of all the impacted groups fairly> Could pricing water use in accordance with its scarcity and high environmental impact not only curb unsustainable development in urban/suburban areas like Santa Rosa (by reducing the economic incentives for developers) but also reduce waste discharges downstream. Less water used equals less wastewater discharged.

My biggest question is this: if Guerneville and Santa Rosa can’t make peace over the Russian River, what are the chances for India and Pakistan over the Indus?

(Photo Credit: brian-m under a Creative Commons Attribution License

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….


demographics of social media

December 23rd, 2008


Just finished a research project on the demographics of social media.  Which led me to the question, “What are the demographics of social media?” Funny you should ask.

Who uses social media?

  • – Everybody
  • -  Nobody
  • – Young kids

As it turns out, all 3 answers are wrong. One of my most interesting discoveries was that, although the 18 – 29 age group is still the most active sector in terms of participation in social media (according to the Technographics survey, see below),  the fastest growing demographic for Facebook is those 25 years old and older, and  sites such as that were originally created for teenagers have since found that it’s the over-18 crowd that predominates.

Will the old folks slack off once they’ve reconnected with all their high-school and college friends and run out of things to say?  We’ll see.

It was also  interesting to learn that Facebook has 70% higher participation from African American users than the internet audience average, but that they make up only 14% of the site’s user base (see chart above, from Quantcast.)

Here are some excellent tools and sources for demographic data on any particular website, collection of sites that you designate, or ’social media’ as defined by a large, friendly research firm.

  • type in a URL, you get a very detailed breakdown of demographics measured against the internet average.
  • yields slightly less detailed demographics than quantcast, but you can create a ‘media plan’ based on a group of sites, and see  a chart of the aggregate numbers for all of them.  Conversely, you can define your target demographic and see which sites will reach them.

two really useful offerings from Forrester Research.


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.


November 17th, 2008


Another inspiring social media phenomenon, this one with a very San Francisco flavor.  GetSmartRadio combines social media with the actual “getting together at a time and place having a shared experience” dimension of social.  They put the Live back in Feed, or the Odd back in Podcast, or something.  Very smart, fastpaced, funny, yet focused on real issues.

About a month ago I stumbled on their live event at Duboce Cafe.  They’ve since released the podcast of that show: Doing Time – Can Jail Save Society?

check it out!


Al Gore was keynote speaker at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco on November 7th.  His theme was that web 2.0 has to have a purpose, and that purpose is climate change awareness.

Now it’s easy to be cynical about such a statement.  Every politician and activist believes that technology, which for the most part is value-neutral, should be harnessed to promote his or her own agenda.  And maybe it’s because I agree with Al Gore’s values that I think social media has a lot to offer their spread and advancement.  Or maybe there really is something inherent in this new medium that promotes openness, constructive change, intelligent optimism, spontaneous organization and a kind of instinct toward altruism.

I couldn’t find a transcript of Gore’s entire speech, and though the language is very unpolished, here’s a video link and my very partial transcription below it.

interactivity, social networking, user-generated content…. the ‘gee whiz’ factor.. we need to move past that to a time where all of that is taken for granted, just like the water the fish doesn’t know it’s swimming in.  The incredible explosion of new ways of collaborating, securing information, of introducing new levels of creativity and quality…  Web 2.0 has to have a purpose… I would urge all of you… to bring about a higher level of consciousness about our relationship to the planet and the imminent danger and opportunity that we face, because of the radical transformation of the relationship between human beings and the earth…  We have to take this issue, and raise it in the awareness of everyone.

We have to not only raise awareness, we have to empower widespread, collective action at many levels, from what students study to what consumers buy and who you vote for in between.

That’s why I happen to agree with Al Gore, and I look forward to mending the effects of our 8 year hiatus from democracy.


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!