‘The Machine Stops’: What E. M. Forster Knew About the Internet

“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. 

 But it would be wrong, I think, to say that ‘The Machine Stops’ predicts the future. Despite the Machine’s astonishing resemblance to modern technology, Forster didn’t attempt to predict a single scientific or technological development: there is no explanation in ‘The Machine Stops’ of how the Machine works. Forster was a humanist, not a scientist. He recognised the traits and wants in humanity that would eventually lead us to invent Facebook, Amazon and Twitter, and he followed them to their logical conclusions.

 It’s also important to remember that he was talking about the present rather than the future. In the winter of 1909, Forster had just published A Room With a View to near-universal acclaim, and was in the middle of working on Howards End. These novels are quietly satirical and deeply moral, preoccupied with the conventions and contradictions of English middle-class life under the established Edwardian order. Yet even as he wrote, that order was crumbling. The Empire had lost Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and was about to lose South Africa; Ireland seemed on the brink of civil war; the Suffragettes’ campaign of civil disobedience was escalating to terrorism; trade unionism was exploding; the Lords were at war with the Commons; Germany was arming itself to the teeth. To a nation brought up believing that ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire,’ it must have felt like the end of the world.

 So the Machine is in part an analogy for the complex network of structures and ideologies that govern society, which seemed in 1909 to be ‘stopping.’ It’s no coincidence that his analogy takes the form of technology. Much of the turmoil of the early twentieth century was perceived as the direct result of nineteenth-century industrialisation. Like much Edwardian sci-fi, ‘The Machine Stops’ articulates this acute contemporary fear: 

Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had overreached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence.

These words could hardly be more apt in 2019. In the wake of the Brexit vote and the Trump presidency, we find the world crumbling around us once again. And once again the impending doom has everything to do with technology. We are only just beginning to reckon with the roles played by hostile Russian hacking and corporate data mining in those two political crises of 2016. Meanwhile Alt Right populism is spreading like a disease, and its vector is social media.

 Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Machine is that nobody really controls it. There is a ‘Central Committee’ which is ostensibly in charge, but we’re told that:

The Central Committee announced the developments […] but they were no more the cause of them than were the kings of the imperialistic period the cause of war. […] No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year, it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbour, and in all the world there is not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished.

Rereading this section last summer, I couldn’t help but think of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in April 2018 following the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal. Zuckerberg began by holding his hands up and accepting responsibility, stating that “I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.” But it soon became abundantly clear that Zuckerberg has very little control over his website, which has by his own admission been overrun by “fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech.” 

 No one person is in control of social media, or of the Internet. Mark Zuckerberg himself admitted that he is not in control of Facebook when he announced to Congress that 

This is an ongoing arms race. As long as there are people sitting in Russia whose job is it to try to interfere in elections around the world, this is going to be an ongoing conflict.

Yet lawmakers refused to accept this. It’s easy to laugh at the ludicrous questions they asked him. Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer, for example, asked how many ‘data categories’ Facebook stores, to which Zuckerberg replied that he was “not sure as to what that is referring to.” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch wanted to know how Facebook makes money, given that its users don’t pay for service. “Senator,” said Zuckerberg after a stunned pause, “we run ads.” These questions are evidence of more than the technological ineptitude of out-of-touch Washington dinosaurs. Behind them all is a belief in, or a longing for, some ‘master brain’ of the Internet, who might ‘understand’ and thus control the ‘monster’ it has become. When the House Judiciary Committee questioned Google CEO Sundar Pichai about data privacy last November, Iowa Representative Steve King asked him why his granddaughter receives negative news about him on her iPhone. Pichai informed King that Google doesn’t make iPhones. 

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  It has become increasingly clear that, like Forster’s Machine, we created the Internet ‘to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now.’ Like the Machine, the internet ‘develops— but not on our lines’; it ‘proceeds— but not to our goal.’ According, famously, to Slavoj Žižek, it has become ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’

 How easy would it be to imagine the end of the Internet? 

 Young people seem to be able to imagine the end of social media quite readily. One 2017 survey by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference found that 63% of British schoolchildren said they would be ‘happy’ if social media had never been invented. Another survey found that the proportion of 18-24-year-olds who agreed that “social media is important to me” dropped dramatically from 66% to 57% between 2016 and 2017. I read these statistics last year when I was working in a high school. The next day I asked all my students which social media platforms they used, and found that almost none of them used Facebook. When I was their age, ten years ago, a world without Facebook was inconceivable. But as 2008 should have taught us, there is no such thing as ‘too big to fail.’ Young people are leaving Facebook in droves. It is only a matter of time until, as in Forster’s story, there comes a day ‘when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system [breaks] down, all over the world.’

 After the Machine stops, and ‘thousands’ have died from ‘the silence,’ Vashti and Kuno weep ‘for humanity’ in the darkness. Wondering what will happen next, Vashti is pessimistic, believing that “tomorrow— some fool will start the Machine again, to-morrow.” Kuno, although he is dying, is adamant. “Never,” he tells her, “never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.”

 I don’t think this ‘lesson’ is necessarily a Luddite one. Forster’s story is not opposed to technology per se, but rather to a type of interaction that the Machine encourages. The problem with the kind of communication you can have through the Machine is that it does not ‘transmit nuances,’ but only ‘a general idea of people.’ Kuno tells his mother with frustration that “I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.” Because communication is only ever approximate, only ever ‘good enough,’ people cease to be able to form meaningful connections. The ultimate symbol of this social breakdown is that people have stopped touching each other. Touch has ‘become obsolete, owing to the Machine,’ and comes to be seen as taboo, even violent. 

 Yet when the Machine stops and the world is ending, Kuno and his mother finally touch each other, as he lies dying in her arms. All of a sudden, he is filled with knowledge and emotion: he tells her as he kisses her that “we have recaptured life, as it was in Wessex, when Aelfrid overthrew the Danes.” Thousands of years of fear and estrangement are eclipsed by this one moment when, for the first time, “we touch, we talk, not through the machine.” A single moment of understanding, and all the damage is undone. One year later, in Howards End, Forster states his simple solution to complex problems again: ‘Only connect!’

 Forster offers us a clue as to where we might go to find these moments of connection in the way he narrates technological apocalypse. His style changes dramatically when the Machine stops:

Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.

Forster owes the image of society as a woven garment to Plato, but all the rest to Shakespeare. Behind this passage echoes Hamlet’s soliloquy: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” The opposite of the Machine is literature and the human emotion it communicates; Forster’s narration is suddenly invigorated and moving, after fifty pages of sparse prose. Finally liberated from the suffocating Machine, Forster’s story can reach backwards and forwards in time, forging connections between people separated by vast temporal gulfs. Mark Zuckerberg wears the same $300 plain grey t-shirt every day, strangled in the garments he has woven.

 So Forster diagnoses the problem of modernity and he offers us Shakespeare as a cure. If this is a cop-out it should be a comforting one. We’ve known the answers all along. Marcel Proust wrote A la recherche du temps perdu in bed with chronic asthma, at a time when the condition was little understood and was largely being treated with arsenic. Michael Wood writes in Literature and the Taste for Knowledge that we cannot ask ‘what Proust knew about the condition or what doctors now know or knew in Proust’s time,’ but that we can and should ask ‘what A la recherche du temps perdu knows about asthma— what it knows and perhaps will not tell us directly, or what it knows that only novels know, or only this novel knows.’ 

 E. M. Forster knew nothing about the Internet, but ‘The Machine Stops’ knows a lot. Sometimes new problems have old solutions. Everything echoes now. The fall of empires, the end of the world: we’ve done all this before. None of us knows how to cope with the dire political, ecological and psychological situations we have somehow found ourselves in of late. But we should take heart from Forster that perhaps we can write books that do know. Perhaps those books have already been written. I suppose that’s exactly the kind of thing that a novelist, or a Literature PhD student, would say. But it can’t be a bad place to start.

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Lizzie Hibbert is a first-year PhD student in the English Department of King’s College London. She works on Forster, Ford, Lawrence and Woolf.

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