The Machine Stops – did E. M. Forster predict the future?

‘The Machine Stops’, a short story written by E. M. Forster in 1909, portrays a future world of subterranean humans bound to (and eventually worshipping) an omnipresent machine. It is one of the earliest examples of dystopian fiction and presents a bleak future where society collapses under the weight of its reliance on technology. 

The story takes place in a future world where ‘the Machine’ governs all aspects of human life. Humans have come to prize ‘ideas’ over all else (except the Machine, which increasingly becomes an object of worship) and activities such as travel and human touch have become both archaic novelties and feared. The narrative revolves around Vashti, who spends her time delivering lectures remotely, and her son Kuno. Early in the narrative, Kuno reveals to Vashti that he plans to reject their technologically based society and live on the surface of the Earth. Eventually, the Machine stops, and chaos descends. Kuno fails in his attempt to transcend to the surface and instead dies in an embrace with his mother, having re-established physical contact with her in their last moments. The catastrophic ending serves as a clear warning of what is at stake when we give up our autonomy to ‘the Machine’ and to technology.

From fiction to fact

The story is very readable, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to marvel at what was able to be foretold in a story written over 100 years ago. What is most striking about ‘The Machine Stops’ is the resonance of some of the technological advances described in the future world in relation to communication and travel. In fact, it is hard not to read the story without drawing parallels to our modern tech: tablets, social media, remote tutorials, and trends towards social isolation. The descriptions of a ‘round plate’ that lights up and enables Vashti to talk with her son who is on the other side of the world (tablets/smartphones); Vashti’s delivery of remote lectures from her armchair (YouTube tutorials, Zoom) and airships that circulate the world (commercial flight) are all examples of futuristic technology in the story that mediate human connection that read as eerily familiar but would have been unknown to the world to which Forster first aired the story. 

The parallels between Forster’s world and today’s are hard to ignore and this has been recognised in BBC articles (here and here), blog posts and the general rising interest in the story in academic criticism. People usually remark in shock and excitement at the similarities between the technology described, the isolation, the compartmentalisation of life, and our current world. But this phenomenon is new, what is surprising is that this story was largely forgotten until it started to bear resemblance to our technological world in the 1990s and 2000s. In fact, as recently as 1987, Lesser states that ‘the reason we cannot sympathise much with Forster’s characters is that they inhabit a world which is defined as strictly other to ours’.

Why was Forster able to get it right?

‘The Machine Stops’ is Forsters’ only foray into science fiction, a genre that was gaining popularity at the time, with the success of authors such as H. G. Wells and William Morris, among others. In fact, Forster himself stated that the story was a direct attempt to ‘counterblast one of the heavens of H. G. Wells’. It has been suggested that the story was specifically a response to Wells’s A Modern Utopia, a work that portrays a kind of socialist utopia on another planet. Forster, a humanist, disliked the conformist implications of Wells’s ideology, which threatened his humanist liberal ideals.

One argument, therefore, as to why Forster was able to see into the future is that his views were the dominant ones at the time and since: liberalism (and neoliberslism) is the paradigm in which technological advances unfolded, not socialism. Basically, Forster’s concerns about identity, personal freedom and experience are the same concerns that trouble and drive our society today. It is not that Forster had any special power of prophecy but that he was worried about the same things. If individual identity is your biggest ideological worry in 1909, you might imagine a world where people never meet face to face; and in 2022 a ‘liberal’ society will likely worry that people are forgetting the necessity of human bonds. 

It is therefore interesting to take a moment to consider some of the ideological strands in the story that do not resonate, to look beyond the prophecy of blue plates and isolation buttons. For example, Forster’s emphasis on the sovereignty of the English Kings (particularly the Kings of Wessex) reads very poorly. This is a motif that is returned to again and again, along with descriptions that describe the constellation Orion and of Orion’s belt (alternatively named the ‘Three Kings’ so also with sovereign connotations). This image, of noble kings who are the inheritors of the earth and who represent pure experience and connection with nature, now appears colonial. This, especially as they are placed as the alternative to the post-imperial, post-border world that Vashti and Kuno inhabit. Forster’s narrative speaks of a world where countries no longer exist and laments the loss of culture, but the only culture that seems to be worth mourning is that of England.

It is in this romanticised portrayal that the internal logic of the story’s moral about technology begins to unfold. Namely, via the artificial line that Forster draws between ‘good technology’ – anything old, and ‘bad technology’ – anything new. For actually, what are the belt and sword (that are used to describe a better, older, purer existence), than pieces of technology? A sword and a belt is an older technology but is nonetheless an object that is fashioned to mediate our existence with the world.

Forster was driven by a humanism that was located very firmly in Edwardian England, therefore however progressive in parts his views were, he romanticised a particular type of human experience. A story that on the surface reads as a warning about dependence on technology, is, in fact, a warning about the new. I find this interrogation useful in terms of understanding our own fears about technology, which are easy to reignite when reading Forster’s short story. I am not saying that there is nothing to interrogate about the implications of technological advances, but that we must in turn interrogate our analysis and be aware of any ideological drivers behind our perceptions. 

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