“Men made [the machine], do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.”
“Cover the window, please. These mountains give me no ideas.”
First published 100 years ago in the context of the Industrial Revolution, E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ foreshadows currently relevant issues arising from increased dependence on, and trust in, technology.
Forster depicts a world in which humans live in isolation beneath Earth’s crust, have lost touch with their souls and senses. The parameters of their lives are defined by the Machine Book, and most residents are oblivious to anything that exists outside of the Book. For them, “machinery” has gone beyond functioning as an enabler of human communication, to the point where it functions as an intentional barrier to physical human interaction.
I was struck by the stark meaninglessness of Vashti’s life. A music professor, she cuts herself off from the outside world and surrounds herself with switches that control every movement. The music is worked by “machinery;” no musical instrument is ever mentioned; and it seems that the lack of interaction within her profession, combined with the loss of the human soul, has led to the “defect” that she identifies in the music. While Vashti knows “several thousand people,” it’s evident that she seldom, if ever, physically interacts with any of them. Moreover, she is shocked when her son requests to physically meet with her. A rather sad existence, no?
The Machine Stops highlights the difference that exists between technology enhancing the quality of life, and inhibiting human interaction – a difference that we must not lose sight of while at ITP. While we can geek out on new technologies to our hearts’ content, we must remember that ultimately, the human experience we create is the meaningful part. Or, as Forster puts it, “man is the measure.”