The Machine Stops - Short Essay

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The Machine Stops - Short Essay

Postby A Thing of Eternity » Wed Dec 03, 2008 8:40 pm

This isn't really a review, but Omphalos suggested sticking it here. This is an essay I did recently for a class, and probably not very interesting unless you've read the story. If you haven't read this story I would highly recommend it, it really is an important story in the history of Science Fiction.

Almost exactly one hundred years ago E.M. Forster wrote the novelette The Machine Stops. Written not long after the invention of the telephone, this story describes a world in which people no longer need or want to directly interact with each other. Forster saw in the earliest versions of telecommunication a terrible fate for mankind, one that, when read today, sounds more familiar with each page turned. He envisioned people living in individual underground cells, only rarely ever meeting in person. All communication is accomplished via remote audio or video connections, all functions of life are accomplished via the Machine, a term Forster uses to name the mechanical apparatus which runs human society. A century after being written The Machine Stops still rings as prophetic and eerily accurate. Replace the technologies in his story with modern equivalents and it could stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the most cutting edge Science Fiction of the last decades. Today in western culture we are building our own Machine, and it is very similar to Forster’s.

Forster’s tale of what remote communication could eventually do to society hits startlingly close to home for us living in the internet age. Written long before the first computers were built, this story describes an analog version of the internet that is essentially identical to ours, differing only in its technical operation and presentation. Instead of responding to typed messages like our internet, his simply has a button for every conceivable task, from summoning literature to activating an audio-video connection with another person. The ramifications of the Machine in this tale are no different than what could occur with a digital system, and we see the beginnings of his predictions emerging today. Every new advance in communication technology brings us closer to the Machine, though at first it is in ways that seem only beneficial. For example: the act of walking to a neighbors house to converse being replaced by phoning them, saving much time and effort, but also reducing the amount and quality of human interaction in day to day life. An example from the more recent past is mailed letters being almost completely replaced by emails. Initially this leads to an increase in interaction as people find it faster and easier to write to each other via email, but as time goes on people begin to realize that email is also faster and easier than phone calls. Now that written messages can be sent via cell-phone, the preferred use for that product is becoming text-messaging rather than vocal communication. When even text becomes too tedious, some people revert to shorthand and acronyms for common phrases, such as “lol” for “laugh out loud”. People seem to consistantly opt for the least direct form of communication possible. Online communities such as Myspace and Facebook are bit by bit eroding the human need, and with it the human urge, to interact directly with each other. Online grocery shopping is even beginning to become common, where an order is placed on a website and the food is then brought straight to the customers’ homes, saving much time that would have been wasted. Where E.M. Forster imagined one button to call for food, we must press many buttons to achieve the same task, but achieve it we do. Even what most people have complained was lacking from telephone and written communication, body language, has now been added to our own Machine, via the webcam. Most people in the Western world today would likely acknowledge that we are indeed moving ever closer to the situation Forster predicted so long ago.

From a real-life perspective, the accuracy of The Machine Stops is frightening, but from a literary perspective its timelessness is inspirational. That it was written a century ago, but could almost pass as having been written yesterday, is a remarkable feat of creativity. A common fear amongst Science Fiction writers is that, with time, their stories will become outdated and irrelevant. Forster shows us that this need not be the case, for if the story is well thought out and strongly written, people will see past any technical antiquity and into the real story. Replace his many buttons with a keyboard, his glowing blue plate with a computer screen, his speaking tubes with a telephone, his airships with airplanes, his book with Google, and - voila - you have a modern Science Fiction masterpiece. The amazing influence of this story resonates today with writers who try to imagine humanity’s future. Even with a hundred years of technological advancement, writers still come up with much the same ideas for their stories. Modern writers such as William Gibson, Karl Schroeder and many others, have taken the idea one small step further, by placing their characters directly inside cyberspace, inside the Machine itself not just in body, but in mind. No longer having to deal with any aspect of reality, the characters exist in complete physical isolation from each other. Though the exact methods of the virtual interaction between people presented in modern fiction have advanced from Forster’s work, there really is no great departure from his ideas in even the most “revolutionary” of today's SF. Forster too placed his characters directly inside the Machine in more than a physical sense, for he seems to have meant the word Machine to read also as a metaphor for system.

While his story seems to perfectly reflect the current view on where we are headed as a people, the prophetic accuracy of Forster’s story may have one single flaw hidden in the title event of the story: the Machine stops. His Machine eventually breaks down and frees humanity. He did not write of a Machine that would never end, or one that actually improved with time. Though his Machine could repair itself via the “mending apparatus” it could not quite keep up with the rate of decay, and eventually the repairs fell too far behind for the system to remain functional. The first self-replicating machines are being pioneered right now, as well as computers designed to evolve and improve their own programming. Before long, each generation of computers (and other machines) will be designed not by humans, but by the computers which preceded them. If we do eventually find ourselves in a society like the one imagined by E.M. Forster we can be reasonably sure of one difference. Our Machine may not stop. Not on its own.
I deleted some of your posts because they were derailing the topic and not focusing on the issues asked, and instead going after the authors or their material. That's why. ~ BM
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Postby Omphalos » Wed Dec 03, 2008 9:03 pm

Here is a link to an online version of this story.
Something is about to happen, Hal. Something wonderful!

-James C. Harwood, Science Fiction Writer, Straight (March 5, 1956 - May 25, 2010)



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Postby SandChigger » Thu Dec 04, 2008 2:13 am

:D

Love that little hint of Butlerian mujahideen sentiment at the end. :lol:
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Postby A Thing of Eternity » Thu Dec 04, 2008 11:12 am

SandChigger wrote::D

Love that little hint of Butlerian mujahideen sentiment at the end. :lol:


Thanks, Chig. Did you notice that I left a couple little language treats just for you in there? They actually happened naturally, but I thought of you immediately when they did. :wink:
I deleted some of your posts because they were derailing the topic and not focusing on the issues asked, and instead going after the authors or their material. That's why. ~ BM
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