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“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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Sometimes the Old-Timers Get It Right: Too much texting, not enough conversation going on

While many of us who love conversation enjoy casually bemoaning young people’s lack of social skills, many scholars have confirmed our whinging: 1) Texting and e-mailing are addictive, 2) people who often text and use social media are less likely to want to engage in actual face-to-face conversation and 3) this is not a good thing.

  • ADDICTIVE: We’re constantly checking our emails or our cell phones for messages. A Psychology Today researcher speculates that texting and emailing can trigger a “dopamine loop”. Dopamine is a chemical that sparks our “wanting” system, which is stronger than our “pleasure” system. (We enjoy craving things more than being pleased by things.) Hence, we can’t stop responding to texts or emails: we get a dopamine rush that will make us want to write more, seeking yet another response. When we get that response, we write some more. . . and on and on it goes.1

    People texting

    This situation is all-too common: people sitting together, not looking at each other, each immersed on his or her phone or other device.

  • LACK OF FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATION: MIT professor Sherry Turkle has spent decades studying the effect of technology on human behaviour. She concludes that we still communicate with each other through Facebook, Twitter, etc., but that all this “talk” doesn’t add up to nourishing conversation. We’re talking at each other and not with each other. Indeed, an article in Forbes notes that employers such as JP Morgan Chase have offered to eliminate voicemail for some of their employees, and many of them, especially the under-40s, are snapping up the offer. These people are so accustomed to communicating through text and email that the idea of speaking to someone on the telephone is a bit nerve-wracking.

    Not looking at each other

  • NOT A GOOD THING: All this “Look-at-me! “Like me!” interaction can be satisfying, but it isn’t necessarily good for the soul. “An emoticon or a little smiley face doesn’t really convey joy versus minor happiness—and I think that might lead to a lack of empathy,” notes a scholar.3 Indeed, I have been asked many times by my students to help them learn how to socialise and make small talk: “I don’t know how to read people, and I don’t know what to say to people,” has been a common refrain. Maybe this has always been the case? I’m not sure.

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, dehumanising universe as envisioned by either Aldous Huxley of Brave New World fame—or that of E. M. Forster, who predicted this sorry state of affairs as early as 1909. (Yes, 1909; I’ll write about that tomorrow.)

 

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: 

www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking,
self-presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

Email me at arashap@eloquentenglish.com

Remember: “It’s your story. Get it right.”

 

 

1https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201408/are-you-addicted-texting

2http://qz.com/162117/saving-the-art-of-conversation-in-the-age-of-the-smartphone/

3http://nj1015.com/experts-say-too-much-texting-is-dangerous-series/