Quarantine Reading: "The Machine Stops"
Thinking about our digitally mediated lives with E. M. Forster's 1909 short story
A few years ago, I read and wrote briefly about a classic short story by E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” which depicted a world where people spend most of their time physically isolated from one another but technologically connected. Ten years ago or so, it seemed prescient in its anticipation, in exaggerated fashion, of a digitally mediated world. Today, in the midst of a crisis that has accelerated and deepened our dependence on digital media, it seems all the more relevant and the exaggerated quality less pronounced, if only because of the drastic measures we’ve been forced to take to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The point, of course, is not simply to take a dystopian view of our situation. Rather, it is for the story to become an inducement to thought and reflection. I tend also to assume that stories of this sort aren’t really about the future so much as they are a provocation to consider elements of our present condition. In their exaggerated portrayals of a fictional future, they offer us a vantage point from which to better apprehend the true nature of our time.
So consider this something like the convening of a Convivial Society reading group. Below you’ll find links to the story, an edited/updated version of the post I wrote several years ago serving as an introduction of sorts without too many spoilers, and some questions for your consideration.
Comments are open should you like to stir some discussion about the story. I’d be delighted, too, online discussion groups emerged among your own circles with the following as a mutual resource.
Text of the story: “The Machine Stops”
Audio version at LibriVox: “The Machine Stops”
It would be apropos to prefer a print edition. If you do, the story is included in this Penguin edition of Forster’s short stories.
Two related resources:
The late neurologist Oliver Sacks reflects on Forster’s story and contemporary digital culture: “The Machine Stops”
Silvana Caporaletti’s 1997 article in Utopian Studies, “Science as Nightmare: 'The Machine Stops' by E.M. Forster,” is available to read online through JSTOR.
In 1909, E. M. Forster imagined the future. Teleconferencing, instant global communication, televised entertainment, and worldwide air travel all make an appearance. Forster envisioned a networked world in which every person lived physically isolated from, yet at the same time mechanically connected to every other person. Humanity had driven itself under ground and each person lived in a habitation like the one Forster describes at the start of his story, “The Machine Stops”:
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
The action begins when the woman, Vashti, is contacted by her son, who lives on the other side of the globe. His call is a great inconvenience because it requires Vashti to silence the music, dim the lights, and disconnect from the flow of networked communication. The constant wall of sound and sight is the norm, and she must press the “isolation knob” in order to speak exclusively with one person. We discover that this person to person communication takes place with the help of a device which projects a holographic image of the other person. The son, we learn, wants to see his mother face to face, and in the following exchange we begin to recognize the nature of the third main character in the story, The Machine:
“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn”t say anything against the Machine.”
“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other. “I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.”
In the world Forster has create, ideas rule and materiality is a burden. Explaining why she would rather not travel to see her son, Vashti, explains, “I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark. I get no ideas in an air-ship.” And it is the ideas that everyone is after.
Each day they awake, they are bathed automatically, they are fed artificial food, and they tap into the network in search of ideas. They gather virtually, for example, for “lectures” to hear about new ideas, which, we later learn, are valued to the degree that they are derivative rather than a product of direct experience. Vashti, for example, delivers lectures on the history of music. When the artificial day is done, a bed emerges so that they may sleep and do it all over again tomorrow. People rarely emerge from their cells. Everything they need is delivered to them and they are connected to everyone with whom they might wish to interact. The “clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned” and, as the narrator puts it, while an earlier age made machines to take people to things, this age had learned the real purpose of machines was to bring things to people. They were “funny old days, when men went for change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!”
Finally unable to convince Vashti to make the journey, the son disconnects, Vashti re-enters the flow of networked communication, and “all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her,” as apt a description of checking in on Twitter as one is likely to find.
Time goes on and Vashti carries on, delivering lectures and searching for ideas, all from her armchair. Meanwhile, the “Machine hummed eternally,” yet no one noticed the noise for they had heard it from birth. Vashti, finally moved by a tempered maternal compassion, decides she must go to see her son. It would not be hard since a system of airships still ran across the globe. Few ever used it, however, “for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over … What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury?”
Travel in the airships exposed people to more physical stimulation than they were accustomed to, and it was experienced as a great annoyance. The glimmer of light from the sun or the stars, the sight of others, god forbid the touch of others, and the smell—it was all nearly unbearable. Vashti regretted her decision, but pressed on. As she glides over the earth the narrator informs us that “all the old literature, with its praise of Nature, and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child” in the face of humanity’s triumph over the natural world, a triumph effected chiefly by the erection of a self-sustaining artificial reality.
As the story unfolds we come to understand that the Machine and the book that explains how to use the Machine to satisfy every need are treated with nearly religious veneration even though religion had long since been exposed as a superstition. Occasionally, the characters in the story break into liturgical exchanges:
How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!”
“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” said Vashti.
“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” echoed the passenger …
Passing over one place and then another, Vashti sighs, “No ideas here.” Later she looks again, “They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, ‘No ideas here,’ and hid Greece behind a metal blind.”
When Vashti finally arrives at her son’s room, he informs her that he had been to the surface. Strictly speaking this was not forbidden and one could request a respirator with which to travel momentarily to the outside world where the air was assumed to be toxic. The son, however, had found his own way out through an old ventilation shaft, and because of his impudence he was now being threatened with homelessness. Homelessness, we later learn, was assumed to be a death sentence imposed by exposure and abandonment on the earth’s surface.
The story goes on to its climax, which the title already suggests, but I will not give away anymore of the plot here. Like Orwell’s 1984, the evil emanates from a centralized, authoritarian power represented by the Machine and its Committee. But in a Huxleyean mode, it is a power that humanity has acquiesced to in its pursuit of comfort and its flight from material reality.
The body is the victim in Forster’s tale. The body has been starved while the mind has been indulged. The senses have atrophied in a world of ideas, or, we might say, of information. Even sex is uninteresting. Moreover, at one point the narrator informs us that, “by these days it was a demerit to be muscular.” In one of the more striking exchanges in the story, the son tells of his first experience with genuine physical activity:
You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of “Near” and “Far”. “Near” is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. “Far” is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet; the vomitory is “far”, though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.
This is a remarkable passage for its insistence on the fact that our embodied experience is an essential component of our apprehension of reality. It anticipates the later philosophical work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the even later cognitive science that has revealed the degree to which our thinking and experience of reality depends on our embodied interactions with the world and with others who share it with us. Forster’s imagined world, by contrast, was a Cartesian paradise. Ideas and abstractions reigned. The further removed from experience and the more abstract an idea could become, the better:
Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote. 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.
Contemporary readers, as you may have already guessed, tend to read the Machine as a prescient allegory of the Internet. Most striking perhaps is the degree of dependence upon the network of telecommunications exhibited by all of the characters except the son, as well as the ubiquity of the Machine’s stimulation represented by the constant, unnoticed hum. As he approaches the surface, the son explains,
The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power.
Many will also be jolted into startled recognition by the degree of agency that was ceded to the Machine.
We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It was robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.
Later on we also catch a warning about the alienation from our fellow human beings and the exploitation of nature, all in the name of efficiency:
Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbour, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole … Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.
Presently, we find ourselves thrust into a situation that, in certain particulars, more closely resembles the state of affairs in “The Machine Stops.” We are isolated, although, in many cases together with friend or family. We are dependent on digital media and deliveries to sustain our contact with the outside world and fulfill our needs for both companionship and provisions. Our experience of space and time, already a bit tenuous, now feels even more attenuated.
Reflecting on Forster’s tale may give us the opportunity to better understand the challenges posed by our situation and how the turn toward digital remedies can be both helpful and detrimental.
Have present circumstances heightened your appreciation of digital tools or have they made you more circumspect about their value? Or has your judgment about digital tools simply become more complicated or nuanced?
While we are unlikely to deploy explicitly religious language to speak about the internet or digital media, does this aspect of Forster’s story nonetheless disclose something important about our relationship to either?
In the following paragraph, Forster introduces the idea of an “imponderable bloom” to describe something essential about reality that cannot be conveyed by the Machine.
“He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people — an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something ‘good enough’ had long since been accepted by our race.”
Is there something to this, in your view, or is this mere sentiment or romanticism? Has the sophistication of our digital tools overcome this problem?
Time, like most everything else, operates artificially, the ordinary pattern of day and night does not exist underground. Vashti complains of being irritable and not having enough time to satisfy all the demand on her time. She clutches time and is loathe to give it. Much of this seems to resonate with our situation, even before the crisis. Can this be famed as a denial of our physical nature? Does digital media encourage such a denial?
A curious feature of the story is the fixation on ideas, a compulsive inclination to consume or propagate information. This seems like one of the more disquieting features of the story because it rings true. Disconnected from a more direct experience of a wider world, we crave information about it. In the story, this generates an aversion toward direct experience with the material dimensions of reality. Does digital media predispose users toward a certain kind of relationship toward materiality? How does this play out in our context, have we been guilty of an aversion to the material? How has the health crisis influenced this dynamic?
It is frequently suggested throughout the story that a kind of mono-culture envelops the planet as a consequence of the Machine’s ordering of human affairs, a common concern with roots in the age industrialization and mass production. Can digital culture be classified as a mono-culture? On the surface, there appears to be a dizzying array of variety, but does this mask some underlying tendency toward uniformity?
Kuno explains that he had lost his sense of space, his sense of being a body in the world. The experience of both time and place, the coordinates of our embodied condition, are disordered by the experience of life through the Machine. Is this also the case, to some less dramatic degree, for those of us whose experience is mediated by digital technology?
The story ends cataclysmically but hopefully. There is some question as to whether humanity has learned its lesson. Is there a lesson for us today that might arise out of our circumstances? Several, perhaps. What might they be in your view? Are you hopeful that the lessons will be learned?
What, ultimately, does the Machine in this story embody? What tendencies, trends, or assumptions inform Forster’s depiction?
What other aspects of this story unaddressed by these questions do you think also merit reflection?
Has an encounter with this story generated insights into our situation, before or after the health crisis? Do these insights suggest any better ways of coping with life in a time of severe social distancing?