The Machine Stops is a short story (or maybe a novella) about a future world where humans stay in their rooms and interact with the world through a web of wires. It was published in 1909, when radio was just getting going, TV was barely an idea, and the Internet was over a century away. Yet Forster’s predictions about social media’s implications for the human race are bang on.
Humans live in isolated apartment buildings above the earth’s surface, which is toxic and inhospitable. Everything humans need is indoors, controlled by the Machine. Humans spend most of their days attending and giving virtual lectures, stressed about coming up with new ideas. They can go into “isolation” to have one-on-one conversations, but when they turn off the isolation switch three minutes later they’ll have “accumulations” of questions and comments buzzing unpleasantly. Remind you of Facebook notifications or work emails?
On the deterioration of communication with FaceTime and Instagram Live Concerts:
“…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… Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race.”
On addiction/affection for our phones:
“For a moment Vashti felt lonely. Then she generated light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her… The ecstasy of touching a button, however unimportant, or of ringing an electric bell, however superfluously.”
On the churning regurgitation of information on the Internet:
“Beware of first-hand ideas! Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element — direct observation.”
On automated call centres:
“No personal complaints are received by the Central Committee,” the Committee of the Mending Apparatus replied.
“Through whom am I to make my complaint, then?”
“I complain then.”
“Your complaint shall be forwarded in its turn.”
“Have others complained?”
This question was unmechanical, and the Committee of the Mending Apparatus refused to answer it.
How could a writer in 1909 come up with such a thing? Perhaps, even with the limited technology a century ago, humans were wrestling with similar problems. Maybe kids were turning into zombies in front of their cross-stitch, maybe men were addicted to feeding the machine at the factory. Maybe Forster saw how transfixed and removed humans got when they talked on the telephone, and he worried it was the beginning of the end.
The Machine Stops is a dystopia, but it brings me hope. In 1909 Forster believed humans were in danger of turning into mindless blobs, but 100 years later we’re still pushing back on the machine. Sure we’re still worried about turning into blobs, but we haven’t yet. It feels like smartphones are a new problem facing modern society, but Forster shows us they’re not. Every new technology makes us feel like we’re getting out of touch, and every generation we find a way to stay connected to the land. As a species we’re not doing great, but we’re not past hope.