“She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.”
My God, I love The Machine Stops. On-the-nose, some claim, but it’s deliciously so, I think. And besides, who can scoff at such straightforwardness when it hits the mark of the pitfalls of today’s modern society so often, and so much more accurately (I’d argue) than 1984 or Brave New World, its bigger, more famous cousins.
Like when Vashti turns off her “isolation switch”, and is assaulted on all sides by the voices of the people she “knows”, wanting to communicate with her,
“What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Had she any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas?”
Hello, Facebook Chat.
If you don’t know E.M. Forster’s savagely anti-technological short story, it describes a world in which mankind has not so much been imprisoned by a totalitarian regime as imprisoned itself, through slovenliness, convenience and the desire to escape reality. All life is focused around the Machine, which is....just that, a great machine that stores information and enables communication between all members of society. In a quick burst of dark humour, the only book left in the world is an instruction manual for using the Machine, which is just beginning to become a sort of holy book in the minds of some.
And if on-the-nose makes you cringe,
“We created the Machine to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has 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.”
If I’m being reduced to copying out passages verbatim instead of being rather more interesting in my discussion, well, it’s because I can’t fault Forster’s logic. The obvious link of carnality to pornography doesn’t intrigue me quite so much as the suggestion, elsewhere in the story, that physical contact with another human being has become abhorrent to us. I’ve met, myself, some young men of my age who have come to prefer the safety of pornography to the reality of sexual contact – to the risks of dealing outside the Machine. “Second-hand ideas” themselves become preferable to those experienced IRL. And that our sense of the spaces around us is lost – I couldn’t possibly disagree with that, having known, myself, the horrid, fuzzy feeling after breaking away from two many hours staring at the screen, as if reality itself has become unreal.
And, more worryingly, for our purposes, living outside the Machine becomes living outside society itself – becoming “homeless.” Damn straight. In order to preach this Luddite sermon about how the Internet is killing us, I, er, have to go onto the Internet and post it, and for people to agree or disagree they’ll have to do the same. And in order to write, I use my laptop, and in order to research, I use the Internet. I am becoming a slave, of sorts. I even feel a little guilty for typing this, because, hell, the damned thing is immensely useful, and it’s convenient. It seems inconsiderate to blame it because I’m too feeble to use it without it using me.
Or perhaps it’s wrong to call The Machine Stops Luddite. It doesn’t believe in the evil of technology so much as the frailty of humanity, when faced with great power. But it does have an enormous satisfaction to it when the Machine does finally come crumbling down. And I have to ask myself – if Facebook or the entire Internet itself collapsed today, for ever, I might be panicked, because I’d lose a great deal. I’ve stored a lot of photos there, a lot of memories. I’d be rendered pretty much blind, deaf and dumb. But I’m not sure I’d be saddened. I might even, in the end, be a little pleased.
That final exchange between Vashti and her son, as the Machine comes crashing down, all around them – perhaps one of my favourite dialogues in all of literature;
“Is there any hope, Kuno?”
“None for us.”
We are all children of the Machine now. We rely on it; we’re all tainted. But perhaps there is a way we can stop future generations from ever becoming addicted.