While nonfiction is our bag at The Book Shelf, E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops is stranger than fiction. It has an uncanny resemblance to the world we find ourselves living in, especially in the era of Covid-19, lockdown, and #fakenews. Humanity is on a path that could go two ways, and Forster’s novella can teach a thing or two about the route we choose.

The premise 

In the world of the Machine, humans have ceased physical contact. Each human lives alone in a pod, serviced by the Machine in every possible way—be it to summon food, health checks, medicine, and even their beds. People no longer live on the surface of the earth and are disconnected from nature, living in underground structures connected by tunnels and airships that barely anyone uses, because people rarely need to physically interact. Almost all communication occurs through the Machine—voice and video chats.

Without “work” to do (as the Machine does everything), humans spend their days giving and attending virtual lectures, seeking “ideas”, and speaking to friends who they’ve never met. The Machine has replaced religion, physical interaction, careers, and purpose. Humans are entirely reliant on the Machine, and what’s more, they are entirely content with this way of life. It’s unfathomable that anybody would want out of this system, yet some do. Unfortunately, anybody who fails to comply with the Machine is banished to “homelessness”—the earth’s surface. This means death, because humans can’t breathe normal air without a respirator to cleanse it for them.

Sound familiar? 

If aspects of this way of life sound oddly familiar, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the author wrote the book recently. It’s pretty staggering then that Forster wrote this novella in 1909. To put it into perspective, the telephone wasn’t a mainstream feature in people’s houses until the 1930s. Forster was predicting the future 40 years before Orwell was writing “1984”, and a century before technology became our way of life.

While we still live on the earth’s surface, there is something unsettling about Forster’s predictions—and our entire reliance on technology doesn’t seem a too-distant future. In our Covid-19 lockdown world, we have experienced—perhaps for the first time in human history—separation from each other, communication almost solely through electronic devices, and confinement to our homes. Not to mention almost half of the population without work while they are furloughed.

A warning for humanity 

If lockdown was a taste of Forster’s imagined future, it should remind us of the vital aspects of human life that we shouldn’t be too quick to forget.

#1. The importance of in-person interaction. If you’ve experienced Zoom burnout, you’ll know that communicating via technology just isn’t the same, as it loses the nuances of body language and facial expressions. Humans are social creatures, and spending time together is one of life’s beauties, not just through screens, but real human contact.

#2. A warning for humanity about technology. Yes, technology makes my job—and many jobs—possible, makes life easier, and creates progress, but we should be wary of relying entirely on the internet to live our lives. From time to time, we should step outside, turn off the tech, and be one with nature and each other.

#3. Fake news. In the world of the Machine, ideas are considered valuable only when they have been recycled through multiple people. When everything we believe comes second- or third-hand through the news or social media, we’re in danger of losing touch with the truth. It’s a stark reminder that we should dig a little deeper, do our own research, and form our own opinions. In essence, be independent, free-thinking humans.

In summary 

Right now, we can still choose our path for the future of this world, so let’s choose it wisely. While technology can help us build a better world, let it not become the only world. Let’s choose nature, physical interaction, careers with purpose, and free thought—where technology is an enabler and not a controller. Let us hope that The Machine Stops remains fiction.

Further reading 

If you’d like to read The Machine Stops, it’s available for free here.

Other dystopian books you might enjoy are:

  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Aldous Huxley,  Brave New World
  • Ray Bradbury,  Fahrenheit 451

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