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The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster (1909, read in 2020)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

I first read this short story at the beginning of 2019, but recently re-read it. In these pandemic days, even more of the story resonated with me than on the first reading.

The story is about a woman named Vashanti and he son Kuno, who live on a future Earth where The Machine has long since taken up the caretaking of mankind—so that people can concentrate on getting and sharing ‘ideas”.

Each person is contained in its own little pod. One room for everything. The bed and bath slide out of the floor when needed. Medical equipment descends from the ceiling.

All communication is remote. People almost never see one another physically.

Each person has exactly one book—they all have the same book. It is “The Book of the Machine” and it contains everything that anyone would ever need to know about how the world works or how to communicate with The Machine.

Mankind thinks itself free of religion, but it has replaced its classic, irrational religions with a supposedly rational one that ends up in people worshiping The Machine. No-one knows how The Machine works; all of its mechanisms are automated and have been so as long as anyone can remember.

The world has been homogenized.

“Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race.”

The following examples illustrate how our supposedly advanced civilization was pretty easily predicted by Forster a century removed from it. How unique and creative can it possibly be if he was able to predict it so well?

“Vashanti”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?”

Does this not describe how a phone or device acts when it returns from isolation? Is this not the experience of an average social-media user “coming back” to their phone after a temporary absence?

Amazingly, Forster’s predictions of video-conferencing are also spot-on:

“The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.”

That the story nails the self-isolation of 2020 due to COVID-19 explains why the story resonated for me more on re-reading now. In our modern case, this live of video-conferencing applies only to the upper-level caste, while lower castes continue to work as usual. We don’t have The Machine (yet). In Forster’s vision, the “Machine” took care of day-to-day minutia for everyone, with seemingly no castes left over from the previous civilization. Or, perhaps more accurately, the non-upper-class castes have been eliminated.

In this next section, Forster somehow manages to capture the superficiality of TED Talks nearly a century before they even existed.

“Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately.”

The listeners are flighty and don’t really pay attention to anything specifically—they sip widely but shallowly, adding nothing of value on their own. The lecture on the sea above has absolutely nothing to do with Vashanti’s lecture. That reflects our social-media feeds quite well—like hummingbirds, many flit from topic to topic, guided by The Machine.

Hell, Forster even foresaw the delivery culture—albeit here he also foresaw everyone getting access to it, which isn’t the case with our modern version of The Machine. In our version, the workings of The Machine are still very much run on the backs of manual labor provided by an underclass.

“[…] the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people.”

Forster also foresaw the homogenization of travel destinations—our cities have “tourist areas” that aim to make people comfortable by providing services that they would have at home. There’s a Starbucks; there’s a McDonalds; there’s a theme park.

“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?”

Finally, there is the erosion of ideas and information, recycling well-worn thought and denigrating original thought until no-one knows anything of value anymore. Experts are suspect; expertise is evil; information is best when its already known—common sense.

“And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. […] Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element − direct observation.”

So we have a society homogenized and reduced and made completely dependent on The Machine. (I wonder whether the world of Wall-E was based, at least in part, on this story?) Forster tells us what happens when The Machine stops after mankind has become inescapably dependent on it.

“Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.”

Citations

“Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race.”

“She considered, and chose her words with care. Her son had a queer temper, and she wished to dissuade him from the expedition.

““It is contrary to the spirit of the age,” she asserted.

““Do you mean by that, contrary to the Machine?””

“Vashanti”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 month.”

Forster quite accurately predicts what it must be like for an average social-media user to “come back” to their phone after a temporary absence.

“The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.”

He also managed to predict the COVID-19 remote culture, as well. In our modern case, it applies only to the upper-level caste, while lower castes continue to work. In Forster’s vision, the “Machine” took care of day-to-day minutia.

“Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately.”

In this next section, Forster somehow manages to capture the superficiality of TED Talks nearly a century before they even existed.

“And of course she had studied the civilization that had immediately preceded her own − the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people.”

Amazon and deliveries also accurately predicted.

“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?”

Globalization as well.

“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.”

The utter depravity and egotism of the privileged.

“In the dawn of the world our weakly (sic?) must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.”

“And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. “First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element − direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine − the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.

“[…]

“You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time” − his voice rose − “there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free From taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.””

“Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine. The sigh at the crises of the Brisbane symphony no longer irritated Vashti; she accepted it as part of the melody. The jarring noise, whether in the head or in the wall, was no longer resented by her friend. And so with the mouldy artificial fruit, so with the bath water that began to stink, so with the defective rhymes that the poetry machine had taken to emit. all were bitterly complained of at first, and then acquiesced in and forgotten. Things went from bad to worse unchallenged.”

And so we are with our unquestioning and unknowing acceptance of whatever our technology masters grant us.

“But there came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended.”

And so would it be for us, should a similar cataclysm consign us to blindness and incommunication. I, for one, would be left with only the handful of books left on my E-Book reader, should that even continue to work. Perhaps I could continue programming or writing. I still have movies and series to watch that I have secured on local storage.

“As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.”
“Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.”