How have our lives changed since the advent of the computer age? What if this question had already been answered in the first decade of the 20th Century? Written at a time when computers were still considered people, E. M. Forster wrote a short story that presaged our current condition of screen addiction, social media frenzy, and the resulting feelings of isolation.
In his 1909 short story, The Machine Stops, Forster describes a future of people living in subterranean chambers that serve as their entire physical world while mentally they are stimulated by content being shared through what he described as plates (i.e. screens). The main character, Vashti, is a loyal subject of The Machine, an omnipotent entity comprising mechanical components, bureaucracies, and all of the rules and regulations that society lives by with a user manual as its bible.
While Forster provides a bleak perspective on technological progress, his predictions are surprisingly prescient for his time. Even now it has taken many different events to wake us up to the idea that Forster seems quite familiar with: that technology can be a prison.
During Baratunde Thurston and Kenyatta Cheese’s conversation on media and technology in this week’s Applications lecture, they discussed the way that the internet has in some cases brought worse characteristics out in people. The internet and computers (probably the modern analog of Forster’s Machine) were thought to be inherently good developments and inherently good in nature. Only goodness can come from a technology that brings people together, allows them to communicate better, and allows them to share ideas freely or so we thought. Somehow in doing so, we have become more isolated and more distant in ways that have allowed hate speech and discriminatory groups of people to flourish.
What is astounding to me about this story is that Forster appears to have understood the possibilities of technologies more than half a century away and then understood how problematic they could be. Are these insights of a singularly visionary person? Or does this indicate that we have lost our way from wise understanding that guided technological progress? These understandings might indicate that we need physical experiences and interactions to be healthy and happy.
It would appear that the voice of our technophobia is both new and timeless, and our desire for advancement can sometimes only come with the silencing of that voice. Sometimes that voice is wrong, and sometimes that voice is only temporarily wrong as might be the case with The Machine Stops.