Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk - that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh - a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
By her side, on the little reading-desk, was a survival from the ages of litter - one book. This was the Book of the Machine. In it were instructions against every possible contingency. If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or at a loss for a word, she went to the book, and it told her which button to press.
Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.
'Beware of first- hand ideas!' exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. 'First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element - direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine - the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought Lafcadio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.
Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops - but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds - but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.
Those who had long worshipped silently, now began to talk. They described the strange feeling of peace that came over them when they handled the Book of the Machine, the pleasure that it was to repeat certain numerals out of it, however little meaning those numerals conveyed to the outward ear, the ecstasy of touching a button, however unimportant, or of ringing an electric bell, however superfluously. 'The Machine,' they exclaimed, 'feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.'
There came a day when over the whole world - in Sumatra, in Wessex, in the innumerable cities of Courland and Brazil - the beds, when summoned by their tired owners, failed to appear. It may seem a ludicrous matter, but from it we may date the collapse of humanity. The Committee responsible for the failure was assailed by complainants, whom it referred, as usual, to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, who in its turn assured them that their complaints would be forwarded to the Central Committee. But the discontent grew, for mankind was not yet sufficiently adaptable to do without sleeping.
But there came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended.
The equivocal opening phrase, 'imagine, if you can', suggests that the capacity for imagination is already dwindling and that the disappearance of orality in the short story is, in part, symptomatic of this decline. To that extent, 'The Machine Stops' is not a tale of the future but an allegory of the present where formal inconsistencies describe tensions in contemporary cultural thought.
Paul March-Russell. 2005. 'Imagine, If You Can': Love, Time and the Impossibility of Utopia in E. M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops'. Critical Survey 17, no. 1: 56-71.
"The Machine Stops" basically expresses the same ethical and social preoccupations that inform all the other works of Forster, who repeatedly denounces the dangers of a materialistic ethos and of a general conformism imposed by rigid social conventions, exposing the spiritual barrenness and the emotional impoverishment generated by the repression of diversity, spontaneity and creativity.
Silvana Caporaletti. 1997. Science as Nightmare: 'The Machine Stops' by E. M. Forster. Utopian Studies 8, no. 2: 32.
The rationality of the many generations of scientists who spent their energy in perfecting the Machine and making it more and more powerful and autonomous, triumphed in extending its control over what is, by nature, irrational, until, little by little, mechanical muscles and "electronic" cells replaced almost completely the physical and mental functions of human beings, expropriating them of their human prerogatives. So, at the time of the story, not only have they become so weakened as not to be able to pick up what they drop unless the floor raises it back to them, but they are also incapable of original thought. Music, literature, even poetry are produced exclusively by "electronic" devices. In their blind enthusiasm for scientific discoveries human beings have exceeded the limits allowed to them by nature and provoked the trespassing of the mechanical into the human; so the Machine, that stupendous and tangible testimony to human intellect, almost perfect in its capacity for autoregulation and autoregeneration, has gradually and inadvertently deprived human existence of all significance, negating it almost completely in the pale and inept beings that are entirely dependent now on its obscure and omnipresent power.
[The] very first description of the internet in any detail was probably E M Forster's The Machine Stops from 1909, decades before computers existed: "People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine." It might still be the most accurate description. How Forster did it remains a mystery.
Jaron Lanier. 2011. The suburb that changed the world. New Statesman 140, no. 5066 (August 15).
I think that in most cases, technological nature is probably better than no nature, but not as good as the real thing. That's the take-away message from my research so far. The analogy I use is from E. M. Forster's 1909 short story The Machine Stops, in which, in a future world, people live underground. A mother talks to her son by videoconference. She thinks it is "good enough" to be able to communicate with him at all, whereas the son yearns to see her in person, recognising all the nuances that have been lost in the digitally mediated form of communication...Eventually, humans will be able to design technology offering substantive nature-like experiences. But my research tells me that, just as in Forster's story, these will always be diminished compared with real nature. If this is true, then we should think of technological nature as a bonus, not as a substitute. Otherwise we might come to believe, as we have already to some degree, that "good enough" is "good".
Psychologist Peter Kahn in George, Alison. 2011. Through a window, darkly... New Scientist 210, no. 2815 (June 4): 32-33.