“How can I possibly explain this? It was naked, humanity seemed naked, and all these tubes and buttons and machineries neither came into the world with us, nor will they follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here.”
This year marks one hundred and ten years since The Oxford and Cambridge Review printed ‘The Machine Stops,’ a remarkable short story by E. M. Forster which seems to predict the Internet. It is a strange, Wellsian tale set in a distant future where humans have abandoned the surface of the earth and retreated into a hive-like network of interconnected hexagonal rooms. Though they live alone, they have access to every material convenience and to everybody else in the world at the push of a button, through a global network of networks of machinery known reverentially as ‘The Machine.’ ‘The Machine Stops’ tells the story of Vashti, a ‘swaddled lump of flesh’ with a face ‘as white as fungus,’ and her son Kuno. Kuno is a ‘savage type,’ who defies the Machine to travel to the earth’s surface. After learning, contrary to what he’s been brought up believing, that one doesn’t ‘die immediately in the outer air,’ Kuno tells his mother that ‘The Machine is stopping […] I know the signs.’ To Vashti’s horror and disbelief, Kuno turns out to be right.
The resemblance of the Machine to the Internet is so striking that it’s hard to believe that Forster could possibly have come up with it in 1909. Vashti has Facebook, inasmuch as she ‘knows’ ‘several thousand people,’ with whom she communicates by ‘button’ from the comfort of her armchair. Other ‘buttons and switches’ are her Amazon, allowing her to order food and clothing, and her Alexa, ‘producing’ music, ‘literature’ and ‘lectures’ on command and controlling her room’s lighting and temperature. Vashti talks to Kuno through a kind of Skype or Facetime, whereby a tablet-like ‘plate’ that she holds in her hands glows with blue light and permits her to ‘see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the world.’
Her favourite way to spend her time is ‘exchang[ing] ideas with her innumerable friends,’ who ask her if she’s ‘had any ideas lately’ before immediately interrupting to tell her their own ‘ideas.’ Her time is consumed by this constant exchange of ‘ideas’: short, shallow, ten-minute discussions of subjects, which are sent out unedited through the Machine for the whole world to hear. Vashti responds to this constant influx of ‘ideas’ with ‘irritation,’ which is ‘a growing quality in that accelerating age,’ but it never occurs to her to stop. In other words, she’s on Twitter. Continue reading