The Machine Stops

Gift from the iPod gods this morning- Heart of Darkness by Sparklehorse
(one of my all-time favorite bands that no one has ever heard of, plus you gotta love that the iPod gods hit me with a Conrad reference this morning.)

I’ve always liked E.M. Forster, I’m a big fan of Room With a View and Passage to India.  Though these works were rather revolutionary for their time, both books fit into the category of novels with ladies in white dresses, and preachers with overbites that are later made into BBC or Masterpiece productions.

That’s why, when I recently read The Machine Stops, I was completely floored.  Get this, it is set in the future, where human beings live underground, isolated in tiny hive -like cells.  All of their needs both physical and social are provided for by The Machine.  They communicate with each other via a tiny, video hand held “speaking apparatus” and rarely travel or see each other in person.  They attend lectures through the speaking apparatus, communicate with family members, debate issues of politics…all without leaving the comfort of their cozy little cells.

So here’s the killer part.  E.M. Forster wrote The Machine Stops in 1909!  Before the invention of the computer, or facebook, or twitter, or commercial airplanes for that matter (which a surprising example of is also featured in the story including flight attendants!)

I was amazed at how many aspects of future technology E.M. Forster nailed in this one short story.  He also describes a sense of isolation and a craving need for the outside world.  Ummm…sound familiar all you other cubicle dwellers?

We’re all Facebooking and Twittering and I know more about my family and friends from what they post online than any actual conversations I have had with them lately.  It’s both a blessing and a curse. I love knowing what my sisters are up to.  I never kept up with friends when I moved before Facebook. I’ve become a Twitter junkie in such a short space of time, that I likely need intervention and a twelve step program to stop.

But we all saw the role that social networking played in the Arab Spring.  And social media gives average people a voice and the potential to reach a great number of people.  I am speaking to you now through this thing called a “blog”.  (I’ll bet E.M. Forster would have come up with a better name than that.)

But a major theme throughout the story is what happens when the machine stops? What do we do when the power is off?  When the machine winds down? What do we think? What do we create? 

So I will continue to nurture the machine. It’s been pretty good to me.  But I am also going to set aside some time where the machine stops.

And I for one, am going outside.


  1. Wow - I've never heard of THE MACHINE STOPS before! But that definitely sounds like an interesting concept, especially since it was written over a hundred years ago (I love books like that!).

    Sometimes I do wonder what would happen if the "machine" stopped...but honestly, I think that would bring more mass hysteria, than say, a zombie sad is that?

    And sadly, I wish I could go outside and play. But the good ole' Seattle rain is back, and well, there's also that thing called work. *sigh*

    Great review, Kris!

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    1. Social media are multi-headed beings: on the one hand, they do open new ways of interacting socially. On the other hand, sometimes a handshake and a hello beats a tweet or email any day. They make us more isolated; and, in other ways, less. Who's to say when it will end?

  3. Have you ever seen the episode of the 1966 British television anthology series "Out of the Unknown" in which they adapted "The Machine Stops"?

  4. And there's also a short 2009 video (100 years after the story was originally published) made by the Freise brothers.

  5. The movie "Wall-E" borrowed elements from Forster's story, and the October/November 1952 issue of MAD magazine featured a story called "Blobs" that was based on "The Machine Stops".