The Machine Pauses: Will our means continue to dictate our ends?

Essay by Stuart Whatley: “It is now a familiar story. A civilization that measures itself by its technological achievements is confronted with the limits of its power. A new threat, a sudden shock, has shown its tools to be wanting, yet it is now more dependent on them than ever before. While the few in a position to wrest back a semblance of control busy themselves preparing new models and methods, the nonessential masses hurl themselves at luminescent screens, like so many moths to the flame.

It is precisely at such moments of technological dependency that one might consider interrogating one’s relationship with technology more broadly. Yes, “this too shall pass,” because technology always holds the key to our salvation. The question is whether it also played a role in our original sin.

In 1909, following a watershed era of technological progress, but preceding the industrialized massacres of the Somme and Verdun, E.M. Forster imagined, in “The Machine Stops,” a future society in which the entirety of lived experience is administered by a kind of mechanical demiurge. The story is the perfect allegory for the moment, owing not least to its account of a society-wide sudden stop and its eerily prescient description of isolated lives experienced wholly through screens.

The denizens (for they are not citizens) of Forster’s world wile away their days in single-occupancy hexagonal underground rooms, where all of their basic needs are made available on demand. “The Machine…feeds us and clothes us and houses us,” they exclaim, “through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being.” As such, one’s only duty is to abide by the “spirit of the age.” Whereas in the past that may have entailed sacrifices, always to ensure “that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally,” most inhabitants now lead lives of leisure, “eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas.” 

Yet despite all of their comforts and free time, they are a harried leisure class, because they have absorbed the values of the Machine itself. They are obsessed with efficiency, an impulse that they discharge by trying to render order (“ideas”) from the unmanageable glut of information that the machine spits out. One character, Vashti, is a fully initiated member of the cult of efficiency. She does not bother trying to acquire a bed to fit her smaller stature more comfortably, for she accepts that “to have an alternative size would have involved vast alterations in the Machine.” Nor does she have any interest in traveling, because she generates “no ideas in an air-ship.” To her mind, any habit that “was unproductive of ideas…had no connexion with the habits that really mattered.” Everyone simply accepts that although the machine’s video feeds do not convey the nuances of one’s facial expressions, they’re “good enough for all practical purposes.”

Chief among Vashti’s distractions is her son, Kuno, a Cassandra-like figure who dares to point out that, “The Machine develops—but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds—but not to our goal.” When the mechanical system eventually begins to break down (starting with the music-streaming service, then the beds), the people have no choice but to take further recourse in the Machine. Complaints are lodged with the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, but the Mending Apparatus itself turns out to be broken. Rather than protest further, the people pray and pine for the Machine’s quick recovery. By that “latter day,” Forster explains, they “had become so subservient that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine.”…(More)”.