Summary of “The Machine Stops“, written by EM Forster in 1909.
The story describes a world where people live in isolated chambers and communicate with each other on devices much like FaceTime.
There is no human contact. Everything is facilitated by the machine, every need and comfort is taken care of. There are no public gatherings. Everything is done remotely, in a livestream kind of way.
Day and night do not exist in this world. Everything runs according to the rhythm of the machine. People do not venture outdoors. They remain inside, on their devices, in the isolated dwelling spaces, and communicate with each other from afar. All the comforts have become uniform across the world, all the beds and desks and appliances and air and temperature have converged in optimization for the consumer public.
The only persistent sound is that of the machine, humming in the background, barely audible to the conscious ear, like the steady hum of an electrical signal powering it all.
The world brings everything to the people, their shopping and conveniences. Gone is the age where people go to things. Everything comes to the people. You summon whatever you’d like, a car (referred to as a “lift”), a meal. People don’t change the room for fresh air, they change the air in their room.
Healthcare is administered by a doctor via a robot within the convenience of your room.
“Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.”
Anxiety is rife.
People never touch one another. That is inappropriate.
People are never direct with one another, but rather speak indirectly. It is barbarous to speak directly, lest you offend someone’s sensibilities.
People worship the machine. It is the spiritually minded thing to do, to confer with the rules of the machine, put forth by the committees that govern the machine, who have become the moral arbiters of machine.
Those that rebel against the machine are excommunicated to “homelessness”, and must live outside the comforts and conveniences the machine provides those who abide.
Going outside is not permitted. Breathing natural air is dangerous, a risk to exposing yourself to toxins.
You are not to exert effort, but must rely on the machine for your needs.
Muscles earn you demerits, social points lost. Babies are inspected at birth, and if found to possess too much musculature, are destroyed. It would be unkind to let athletes live, for they would desire to stretch their legs and climb and jump and work, and this is not conducive to progressing the machine, which must persist eternally.
The world is full of lecturers who exchange ideas for audiences on these live stream devices, providing spiritual guidance and ideas to other audiences watching from their isolated chambers. Similar to YouTube and Instagram personalities.
“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? 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. 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.”
Stimulating ideas are the currency of the Machine.
“I was surrounded by artificial air, artificial light, artificial peace, and my friends were calling to me down speaking-tubes to know whether I had come across any new ideas lately.”
Everything is an abstraction of some distant foreign thing, similar to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation:
“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 love 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. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine — the French Revolution.”
Hard facts derived from observation and experience are replaced by platitudes of inert generalizations:
“there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation
‘seraphically free From taint of personality,’”
Slowly people become desensitized to problems, and rather than act to remedy the dissonance, acquiesce and learn to live with the dysfunction:
“No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. 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. Those master brains had perished. They had left full directions, it is true, and their successors had each of them mastered a portion of those directions. But 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.”
“The defects [of the Machine] had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine… All were bitterly complained of at first, and then acquiesced in and forgotten. Things went from bad to worse unchallenged.”
Along with visceral experience, silence has become humanity’s greatest, most crippling fear:
“Then she broke down, for with the cessation of activity came an unexpected terror — silence. She had never known silence, and the coming of it nearly killed her — it did kill many thousands of people outright. Ever since her birth she had been surrounded by the steady hum.”
We are living in the Machine.
Perhaps man is nothing more than, as Hume put it in his Treatise of Human Nature, “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”
We are in an age where generations cannot conceive a world beyond the Machine. Raised on a steady diet of stimulation and convenience, conditioned to the persistent, reliable hum of the Machine, it’s pervasive influence is shaping our minds to its end, rather than the other way around.
We no longer use the Machine. The Machine uses us. It depends on our complicit attention to fuel it’s growth, while simultaneously robbing humanity of it’s will.