Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

The Machine Stops: Forster's Dystopia

"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."

This might as well be from a piece of fan fiction inspired by The Matrix trilogy. But it isn't, it's more than a hundred years old. Written in 1909, E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" has already turned out to be, in quite a few ways, a hugely accurate prediction of what was then mankind's future. Imagined versions of the things we now call webcams and email are present in the story, as is a strong sense that man's exponentially increasing dependence on technology (believing as he does that it will advance the species beyond measure) leads ironically only to his weakening and ultimate demise.

The quotation above pinpoints the terrible consequence of technology Forster seems to have feared most; that it would somehow take over, in the act technologists refer to as ‘Singularity', that a machine, in its mechanically powerful imitation of life, could turn on its creator and destroy him. Like Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein before and The Terminator or Matrix films since, this is far from a new idea in its essence. Man (who has, not by coincidence, for centuries largely revered the notion of a supernatural creator, or god), supposedly discovers with horror that his own invariably deviant act of creation will result in no good. Perhaps we are simply regurgitating the Genesis story, where God, having created man, is forced to witness man's disobedience (and implicit) destruction of ‘Him'. Whatever the origins of this fascination, the internet is now contributing to our sense of creator paranoia. The question is: should it? In this piece I want to discuss the popularity of Forster's story and raise some of the prescient issues within it by means of introduction to this website.

1. Popularity

"The Machine Stops" has become popular among some more philosophically-minded techies as a precognitive comment on the functions that the thing we call 'the web' performs. In 1996, Frank Borsch made the analogical connection between the internet and Forster's story, and in more recent years, web architect and philosopher Jaron Lanier has frequently mentioned the text during speeches and interviews. Bemused blog posts and other citations have helped to position the story as a terrifyingly ominous and seemingly accurate description of what technology could do to us.

2. It and Us

For me, Forster's story does have astonishingly proleptic elements, but it does not have to become the all-out prophecy some would claim it to be. The crucial point lies not in whether we build a machine such as the one in the story, or whether the internet seems like it could be that machine, but in where we draw the line of control. Of interface. Are we accessing 'it', or is 'it' accessing us? "The Machine Stops" asks us to consider at what point we might become beguiled into handing over the will of our thoughts and actions to a computer, and whether we are prepared to tolerate the consequences of such a transaction. Some commentators, such as Nicholas Carr, are already (relatively famously) proclaiming that we have handed too much of ourselves over to the internet, but there are others who argue the opposite view.

By the way, the machine does not have to be entirely sentient to control us, it simply has to be the sum of our parts, bigger than us, a thing to which we more or less wilfully submit. In that sense, there are a hundred and one things for which the machine could be said to be an analogy. Government, love, religion, the law, and so on.

3. The Machine Inside and Out

One of the most compelling quotations from "The Machine Stops" is this one from the middle of the story: "You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say "space is annihilated", but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves." Annihilating the sense of space, of distance, of discomfort, of physical limitation, may empower us for a while, but does it in fact threaten to destroy us? Are some of the things that technology promises to ‘fix' for us actually fundamental to human identity? If so, how will we cope when they are taken away? Perhaps our foibles define us, and getting rid of too many, or any, of them would actually be a self-destructive act.

The narrative of "The Machine Stops" follows the efforts of a man, Kuno, to try and enlighten his mother, Vashti, to the evils of the machine which they inhabit. His mother is highly sceptical, having given herself over entirely to the processes and schedules of the machine. It responds to her needs, it nurtures her physically and intellectually - for what more could she ask? Kuno, alternatively, seeks an older conception of human 'reality' in contrast with what he sees as a utilitarian, uniform and meaningless existence. Kuno's search for freedom from the machine ends in apocalypse (with a tidy allegory of heaven and hell thrown in). Will the same cataclysmic finale apply to man's relationship with the internet?

4. Positives

But after all, the way some people use the internet allows us to much better appreciate the 'reality' of 'humanity'. Things do come through the internet to us in proverbial tubes, like the literal ones in "The Machine Stops", but we also use the internet to better engage with our society and others. Of course we do. And I will be writing about many such benefits in due course. Would it really be possible to reach a point where we look upon the surface of the earth as "only dust and mud, no advantage"? It seems to me that rather than shunting all people into a 'disappreciation' of the physical world, the internet simply polarises inherent appreciations that already exist within individuals. Those who are inclined to engage with the natural world find new ways of facilitating and celebrating that engagement online while those who don't, don't. They may indeed prioritise a digital landscape in place of a physical one, but the result of this polarisation does not have to end up one way or the other for all of humanity. When has mankind ever been that universally decisive about anything?

Forster's story is limited by the absoluteness of its vision

When one sees tourists in art galleries who stop not to look at the paintings, or read the curator's notes, but pause only for a second or two to take a picture of the portrait on their mobile phone's low resolution camera and move on, it is very easy to marvel at technology's disruption of our interaction with the world. But then again, we are talking about tourists.

My point is that Forster's is a story of extremes. As much as I adore Forster's narrative for its drama, themes and predictions, it is limited by the absoluteness of its vision. The characters are barely more than types, it is an allegory; it is not reality, it is simplified many times over. Though compelling and full of truth, we ought to take it as a warning, not a death sentence. E. M. Forster was no anarcho-primitivist. Thus, "The Machine Stops" is really an invitation to observe and be cautious, and this website is one of an increasing number of efforts to respond to that invitation.

I think the most hopeful line, perhaps in an odd way, from "The Machine Stops" is this one: "So the human passions still blundered up and down in the Machine." Humanity never quite entirely becomes the machine. What I believe we ought to strive for more than anything is an ability to refer to the distinctions between how human beings behave and how machines behave. In turn, we should be able to notice when machines change our behaviour for the better and when for the worse. But we always have to make that distinction ourselves, being mindful of our responsibility to do so. The real challenge is in acting quickly enough - before the machine stops us.


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