E.M. Forster didn’t just predict the internet in The Machine Stops – he foresaw the dangers of going digital.
E.M. Forster is best known for novels about love and duty, including A Room with a View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924). But he also wrote short stories, including The Machine Stops (1909).
In it, Forster describes how future humans adapt to technology – and how it eventually destroys them.
The story is striking for predicting not just the internet, but how we rely on it. Remarkably, Forster was writing around 30 years before the first digital computer. TV and telephones were still in their infancy. By speculating instead on human nature, Forster was still able to predict the world we now inhabit.
7 ways The Machine Stops predicts the digital age
- Protagonist Vashti communicates with thousands of people through a telescreen, but has no emotional intimacy with any of them. This could describe almost any social network.
- Her home is completely automated. “There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature.” When she’s ill, she consults a doctor remotely.
- All entertainment comes via The Machine, from books and on-screen lectures to ‘music-tubes’. It’s pretty similar to the way we consume eBooks and YouTube.
- People don’t meet face-to-face – everything happens through always-on video screens. When Vashti mutes hers, she’s inundated with notifications.
- She mocks earlier humans for thinking technology is for bringing people to things (i.e., airplanes). Really, it’s for bringing things to people (i.e., Amazon).
- The Machine, like the internet, is a vast library. People turn to it first with any questions or concerns.
- Religion and unscientific thought are redundant in the machine age. Yet later, people start to worship The Machine (a bit like our relationship to the iPhone).
Is it a prediction or a warning?
For those who live under The Machine, everything is automated. There’s no need to leave your room (or your chair – even these are mechanical).
When Vashti, visits her son in person, it sends her into a panic. She’s repulsed by other people and the natural world, and is completely reliant on the sterile conformity of the machine age.
The Machine Stops ends with technology destroying mankind. Humans are so reliant on it, and so divorced from the messy, imperfect natural world, that they can’t survive without it.
Like the characters in the Forster’s short story, we’re in thrall to the power of digital. At the same time, we’re less politically savvy, and feel more helpless as community facilities are dismantled around us. We can access all the knowledge we want – yet the world feels ever more uncertain.
Forster’s story is compelling because he writes of an age he could only imagine. His knowledge of human nature is what makes it accurate – and what makes the predictions particularly chilling.
Do we heed the call, or do we keep calm and click on?
Picture credit: Rodion Kutsaev