The Machine Stops

November 18th, 2009

electriclerk

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.

‘Kuno!’

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.