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Home » Communication » “The Machine Stops”: A 1909 novel by E. M. Forster that predicted our addiction with social media (like “Wall-E”, but written 100 years previously)

“The Machine Stops”: A 1909 novel by E. M. Forster that predicted our addiction with social media (like “Wall-E”, but written 100 years previously)

In my last post, I discussed how the emphasis on texting and striving to receive as many “likes!” as possible on social media can actually make people less social.

A novel was written about this inverse relationship…it takes place in a bleak future.

In this dystopian universe, most of the population lives underground. Each person inhabits his or her little cell and gets sustenance from the ubiquitous “Machine”. This is not a lonely world—oh, no, for people are glued to each other through the Machine, through which they communicate with all their “friends” and discuss ideas (most of which are not that good). This superficial world is a safe one, and most people like it that way. (They also get all their sustenance through The Machine, and eventually start to worship it as a deity.)

Does this world seem just a little bit familiar?

Travel is considered an onerous task and no one wants to do it: face-to-face communication is considered exhausting at best and rude and uncivilised at worst. In a scene from the book, the main character, Vashti, is on a plane. She stumbles, and the flight attendant touches her arm in order to steady her:

When Vashti swerved away from the sunbeams with a cry, she (the flight attendant) behaved barbarically—she put out her hand to steady her.

“How dare you!” exclaimed the passenger (Vashti). “You forget yourself!”

The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let her fall. People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.

What is this book—futuristic sci fi, written by a technophobe with a bad attitude who was simply sick and tired of too much texting?

No. This novella was written in 1909 by E. M. Forster (of A Room with a View and A Passage to India fame). Its title is The Machine Stops, and I’d recommend it to anyone; it’s a fabulous, easy read—and you can download it, legally, for free.

1909! This was the Edwardian era: pre-World War I, with men in stiff collars, women sporting stiff hair styles, and everyone with stiff upper lips. Queen Victoria had just died eight years previously. I’m astonished that Forster was able to predict the type of behaviour that is becoming all too prevalent today: an addiction to communicating on machines, and a resulting aversion to face-to-face communication

Now, who knows what all this online communication means for the future. Pundits have made dire predictions that have been totally erroneous; could be we’re shaking our heads over nothing. We’re facing a brave new world that, hopefully, will not become the kind of horrible, dehumanizing universe as envisioned by either Aldous Huxley of the real Brave New World fame—or that of E. M. Forster.

PS There have been a few video adaptations of this novella, but I would think a major production is in order. Here is one version:

 

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