E.M. Forster didn’t just predict the internet in his short story The Machine Stops – he foresaw the dangers of the digital age.
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). He also wrote The Machine Stops (1909), a short story that describes how future humans adapt to technology – and how that technology comes to destroy mankind. Now, research shows just how prescient Forster’s predictions were.
His story is striking for predicting not just the way the internet works, but how we’ve come to rely on ‘the machine’. Remarkably, Forster was writing around 30 years before the first digital computer, and at a time when TV and telephones were still in their infancy. Speculating instead on human nature, Forster was still able to predict the world we now inhabit with unnerving accuracy.
7 ways The Machine Stops predicts the digital age
- Protagonist Vashti communicates with thousands of people through a telescreen, but shares no emotional intimacy with any of them. This could describe almost any social network.
- Her home is completely automated: anything can be done or delivered by a button: “There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature.” When she’s ill, a doctor treats her 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 later inundated with updates and notification bells.
- Earlier humans are ridiculed for thinking technology is for bringing people to things (i.e., airplanes) instead of bringing things to people (i.e., Amazon).
- The Machine is a repository of knowledge that people rely on for every question they have, and is the first thing they consult when worried.
- Religion and unscientific thought are redundant in the machine age, yet later, people start to worship The Machine.
The greater prediction
For those who live under The Machine, everything is automated. Life has become so easy and immediate that there’s no need for anyone to leave their room (or their chair – even these are mechanical).
When Vashti, is finally compelled to visit her son in real life, it sends her into a panic. The trip reveals her repulsion for other people and the natural world, and her reliance on the sterile conformity of the machine age.
We haven’t quite reached this level of isolation and paranoia, but we do seem to be heading in that direction. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been charting some of the attitudes that Forster’s story warns us about.
How connected are we?
Social Capital in the UK collates data about wellbeing to reveal how connected we are to the world around us.
The most recent data release (February 2020) shows that, as the digital age progresses, we seem less connected to those around us, and more reliant on remote relationships.
- In 2002, 71% of those asked said they met up with others socially at least once a week. By 2016 it had dropped to 62.8%
- Positive engagement with neighbours, such as exchanging favours or stopping to talk, fell between 2011 and 2018
- Our sense of belonging to a neighbourhood has dropped, too. Meanwhile, more people say they feel lonely some or all of the time (up from 5.4% in 2016-17 to 6.1% in 2018-19).
- The number who’ve used the internet for social networking in the last 3 months has risen to 68% in 2019, up from 45% in 2011.
This isn’t the whole picture, but it does reflect the current national mood. For all the potential technology brings, we’re increasingly ‘disconnected’ from each other in real life. We struggle with fake news and are wary of others – yet flock online to share our digital lives with strangers.
Prediction or warning?
The Machine Stops ends with technology destroying mankind. Humans become so reliant on it, and so divorced from messy, imperfect natural world that when The Machine stops nurturing us, civilization falls apart.
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. Sometimes we contribute to this directly, for instance, in shopping online instead of locally.
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