The Machine Stops

I recently bought a copy of The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster. It’s a short story originally published in 1909. I learned of it, of course, in Touchstone.

It’s the story of a woman who lives alone in a comfortable pod underground, as do everyone. The surface has been rendered uninhabitable, but technology meets every perceived need at the push of a button. All are connected to a worldwide apparatus, and people can see and speak with one another by looking into a glowing round plate. She has a virtual audience of thousands with whom she shares her thoughts.

She’s very content, until she hears from a son who had been taken as an infant to a public nursery, and then placed in his own pod on the other side of the world. He wants her to come for a visit. She can’t understand why, but makes the trip.

In a meeting with her son she learns of his brief escape to the toxic surface with a respirator, and his feeling that the only thing that is really living is the Machine. Such thinking is heresy to his mother who worships the Machine. She can’t wait to get back to her pod.

Some years later, as the Machine is dying, they are briefly reunited. Then, when it stops, crawling over the bodies of the dead, he gasped, “Quicker, I am dying—but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.” He then kissed her, and said, “We have come back to our own. We die, but we have recaptured life.”

The article in Touchstone closes by noting, “Forster wanted to offer a counterpoint to claims being made by the technological optimists of his day. His ability to imagine things like Zoom, Skype, and Instagram, and his insights into the potential dehumanizing effects of Machine Culture ought to inspire some serious contemplation. As we climb out of our Covid haze…let us realize the great gift of face-to-face communication.”

I would also add that it might do us all good to take an occasional break from dependance on our machines.

God Bless, Rick