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


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.