Recently, author and columnist Mark Steyn drew attention to a prescient dystopia about the internet age, a long short story written in 1909 by British novelist E. M. Forster (1879–1970).
Forster is hardly a household name, the way George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) became. Their dystopias are everyday concepts (Big Brother, for example). Now that all-consuming social media are headline news, accompanied by calls for the government to Do Something, let’s also have a look at Forster’s forecast in “The Machine Stops” (1909).
He was an old-fashioned liberal, of whom Britannica says, “During World War II he acquired a position of particular respect as a man who had never been seduced by totalitarianisms of any kind and whose belief in personal relationships and the simple decencies seemed to embody some of the common values behind the fight against Nazism and Fascism.”
In Forster’s dystopia, those common values have been shredded by the Machine. Everyone lives alone in an underground room where machines attend to all their wants and they interact with each other only through the Machine:
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…
She is immersed in gathering second- and third-hand ideas about music and history and culture from …the Machine.
The woman (“swaddled lump”), Vashti, is disturbed by a message from her son, who wants her to physically visit him, a request that a denizen of her society finds most unwelcome:
The air-ship service was a relic from the former age. It was kept up, because it was easier to keep it up than to stop it or to diminish it, but it now far exceeded the wants of the population… 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? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.
Steyn riffs, “’All unrest was concentrated in the soul’—or more explicitly Twitter wars and Facebook de-liking.”
The truth is, Vashti doesn’t—and can’t—care about her son:
“But she thought of Kuno as a baby, his birth, his removal to the public nurseries, her own visit to him there, his visits to her — visits which stopped when the Machine had assigned him a room on the other side of the earth. “Parents, duties of,” said the book of the Machine, ”cease at the moment of birth. P.422327483.”
So she spends her life giving lectures or listening to them from inside her cube:
As for Vashti, her life went peacefully forward until the final disaster. She made her room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light. She lectured and attended lectures. She exchanged ideas with her innumerable friends and believed she was growing more spiritual. At times a friend was granted Euthanasia, and left his or her room for the homelessness that is beyond all human conception. Vashti did not much mind. After an unsuccessful lecture, she would sometimes ask for Euthanasia herself. But the death-rate was not permitted to exceed the birth-rate, and the Machine had hitherto refused it to her.
In any event, her son, who has been experimenting with living on the surface of the Earth, has been threatened with Homelessness, which meant certain death.
She is merely offended. “Vashti departed, nor, in the troubles that followed, did she ever see his face again.” As the title suggests, it all ends badly for everyone.
Interestingly, in a wholly materialist environment, science and other disciplines have, by preference, ceased to explore anything but their own ideas:
‘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 life 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.
Steyn observes that it is “a brilliant vision—from 110 years ago—of how we live now, anticipating the Internet, Google, Apple, Skype and, even more brilliantly, their likely effect on us.”
As Neil Duffield, who adapted the tale for the stage in 2016, says, Forster “predicts the internet in the days before even radio was a mass medium.”
It would have all seemed so far-fetched back in that time, when people weren’t even used to telephones – and that makes it more relevant now than it was in his time.Chris Long, “The Machine Stops: Did EM Forster predict the internet age?” at BBC News
How accurate was Forster, relative to Orwell or Huxley? Well, he should definitely be included with the other two in the ongoing discussion. He gets so much right.
One minor misstep though: Characteristically for a man of his time, Forster assumes that Vashti would give and receive lectures. Today, she is just as likely to pound the phone with vicious tweets, promptly responded to with enthusiasm or venom by opinion leaders who did not read what inflamed her and saw no need to do so.
But in fairness, few people of Forster’s time could easily have imagined Twitter.
Further exploration: “The Machine Stops,” a long short story, was first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909. The text is online here. You can hear it read aloud or presented as a BBC radio drama at YouTube. Forster’s best-known full-length novels are Howard’s End and A Passage to India. Mark Steyn reads it in three parts for his Club members (subscription required) but provides notes, linked above, for the public.
See also: How did Twitter become a virus of the mind?
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