When the Machines Stop: E.M. Forster’s Vision Revisited in an Age of Collapse

From 9/11 to the latest revelations about the Trump administration, the predominant theme of 21st-century America has been collapse. Collapse of buildings, bridges, levees, infrastructure, political institutions, social organizations, families, marriage, civility, morals, humanity, faith, you name it. Collapse. The Red, White, and Blue Screen of Death.

Rather than face the collapse head-on, many of us retreat to our homes, our “caves,” and minimize our risks via technology. Our electronic “hive minds” nurture and protect us, even as we hear disquieting analyses that our dependence on them changes how we live, how we think. We persist even when we learn that the technology itself has flaws. In the main, we dismiss or disregard such warnings. (Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this essay.)

Who we turn to for guidance at this critical juncture? I seriously doubt you would suggest E.M. Forster (1879–1970), the English novelist best known for A Passage to India, Howards End and other works popularized in the Merchant-Ivory films of the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet Forster’s foray into science fiction, the 1909 dystopian novella “The Machine Stops,” has become more relevant to me in 2018 than when I read it for fun as a college student over 30 years ago. Perhaps you’ll agree.

“The Machine Stops” begins underground, in a small room “like the cell of a bee.” We are in the underground hive of humanity, where technology — the Machine, in the story — exists to light our room, provide us music, tend to us, and connect us to others. All that’s missing in Forster’s vision is Alexa.

The resident of the room, Vashti, knows “several thousand people,” like friends on Facebook and all through remote communication. Vashti gives lectures to strangers on obscure minutiae, as if on Skype. This is their lifeline, since in Forster’s future the “horror of direct experience” is feared above all else. The Machine’s communication package lacks nuance, not unlike modern e-mail or social media, but everyone is fine with that, except Vashti’s son Kuno.

Vashti is too busy with her online life to spend more than five minutes talking to her son. Kuno’s shocking request to meet with Vashti directly is the complication that sets the plot in motion. After an airship flight (the story was published fewer than six years after the Wright Brothers’ first aircraft flight), Vashti meets with Kuno, who makes a stunning revelation: he has violated all the rules by going to the surface of the Earth, “known” to be an unstimulating barren wasteland. Vashti disowns Kuno.

Some years later, “the troubles began quietly.” First, the music doesn’t work quite right. The Central Committee fields the complaint as indifferently as a cable provider. There are jarring sounds. These minor annoyances could be accommodated by acceptance by the masses: “Things went from bad to worse unchallenged.”

But then the beds malfunction — for everyone, everywhere. After recriminations and conspiracy theories, it is revealed that the debugging apparatus of the Machine is itself in need of debugging. An influential lecturer advocates sympathy to the technology, given all the wonders the Machine has provided.

But when the lights dim and the air turns foul, even the apologists aren’t listened to anymore; “panic reigned.”

Vashti had been warned at the beginning of the troubles by Kuno: “The Machine stops… I know it, I know the signs.” She laughed then, but she isn’t laughing anymore. Particularly not when the communications system fails, “and the world, as they understood it, ended.”

Vashti’s TEDx lecture loses its audience at the moment of disruption, and the silence is oppressive — especially when the hum of the Machine disappears. She emerges to find the hive dying, a colony collapsing in disorder.

There is a reconciliation, ended abruptly when an airship crashes into the dying city, “exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel.”

Forster’s vision is compelling in an era of collapse. Our enemy is not (solely) oppressive omnipotence; it is our willing slavery to our own creations, humanity “strangled in the garments that he had woven.” Whether it is the latest software “upgrade,” spam bots, or entrenched bureaucracy that you combat, this is the life you lead.

There isn’t a lot of hope anymore that it’ll ever get better. The general sentiment I encounter about American infrastructure of just about any type is that we’re all quietly relieved if it didn’t crash today, and we hope it won’t crash tomorrow. This is as true of your college’s learning management software as it is for the North American power grid. It’s as true of the U.S. Congress as it is of your local public schools.

In short, “The Machine stops… I know it, I know the signs.”

What did we do before we built the systems that are consuming us in their collapse? From 1909, Forster has a suggestion, and it is literally sensual. His dystopia’s “mechanical” zeitgeist committed a “sin against the body… the centuries of wrong against the muscles and the nerves, and those five portals by which we can alone apprehend… until the body was white pap, the home of ideas as colourless, last sloshy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars.”

A 109-year-old novella is an unlikely place to search for guidance in 21st-century high-tech America. But when it begins with the hive mind and ends with an air disaster with mass casualties on the ground, the eerie parallels seem compelling enough to take notice and to pursue further. I encourage you to do the same, preferably with a hardcover copy of “The Machine Stops” and with some friends, in person.

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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