The Machine Stops

Wired ran an article on November 1 reviving a science fiction piece by E.M. Forster titled “The Machine Stops.” In the article, author Randy Alfred draws comparisons to Forster’s futuristic underground world, the current state of society, and where society might be heading toward in the near future. After reading the introduction and the well placed “spoiler alert” (thank you, Randy Alfred) I went online to find a full text version of the story to read for myself. Within it, I found a short yet visionary tale that begged to be discussed in the frame of complexity in modern society. I will give credit to Alfred for drawing some of these comparisons, but the article was brief and did not go into much depth. Answers to questions were left to the imaginations of the readers. Allow me to lay out my comparison of “The Machine Stops” to the present day.

Spoiler alert! Here’s the full story if you’d like to read it first. I suggest you do this and draw your own parallels before being influenced by mine!

Parallels to Modern Society in “The Machine Stops”

Reliance on Technology

The society in “The Machine Stops” is housed in a large underground network of hexagonal cells. One person lives in each cell, isolated physically from other people. But these people are not truly isolated. They are connected together by a sophisticated network that allows them to practice Forster’s 1909 vision of video conferencing. The cells also provide other amenities, all accessible through various buttons: they have instant access to clothing, music, literature, and really anything a person needs or wants.

While we do not live in the underground, physically isolated in hexagonal cells, we are certainly connected together by a network that permits us to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any moment, from the comfort of our chairs. Some would argue that the Internet is a mere adjunct to social interaction. I’m not so sure anymore. Imagine a day without the Internet. Really, with the rise in popularity of smartphones, people no longer need to spend a minute outside of the comforts of connectivity. Forster captures a bit of the anxiety people suffer when they are deprived of the constant stimulation of response-producing button pushing, and how the mere presence of the technology can be uplifting as a drug user who has finally earned their long-awaited fix:

His image is the blue plate faded.


He had isolated himself.

For a moment Vashti felt lonely.

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.

I find the last sentence particularly foreboding. If Forster followed around a handful of people in today’s Internet-connected society, she might just believe that the world within our 4G phones, TVs, and desktop computers were all that we cared for in the world.

Utter Dependence on an Incomprehensible System

None of the amenities in the hexagonal cell – buttons for food, music, clothing, hot-baths, deodorized liquid, literature, and so on – would exist without infrastructure. In “The Machine Stops,” the infrastructure is the Machine: a sort of invisible, ubiquitous ultra-powerful provider of everything that humans created to serve them. The Machine, within the frame of the present, can be seen as a metaphor for the systems maintaining the existence of society. True, education, government, and economics are not invisible. We can take classes at schools, visit the White House, and walk down Wall Street. However, I would argue that no one actually grasps the interactions of these systems on a grand scale; thus they are invisible to the common person, understanding blocked by an unprecedented level of complexity. Even smaller systems are nigh incomprehensible by the layperson. How many even understand the back end processes of an online shopping order, from credit card validations to supply chains to shipping routes? For most, the package just arrives at their doorstep. Like magic.

Or maybe, like religion? While the Machine is manmade, the citizens of the underground resort to a ritualistic worshipping of the powers of the Machine (I promise, I did read it and didn’t just sample from Alfred’s article. He just picked the best quotes):

“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!”

“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” said Vashti.

“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” echoed the passenger who had dropped his Book the night before, and who was standing in the passage.

Arthur C. Clark’s third law of prediction states, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This might be a stretch, but I might adapt this to society by saying, “any sufficiently complex societal system is indistinguishable from religion*.” The people created the Machine just like we created systems of education, economics, and government. Over time, the people became so reliant on the Machine that its functional characteristics disappeared; it invisibly provides what people need. We see in modern times people going about their daily lives not seeing the millions of cogs and gears permitting the stability of their reality to continue. I don’t see people worshipping the system – we’re not there yet – but during really good times while things are going well for us, we do tend to give praise. Religion works in a similar way. An omnipresent, unseen force provides people what they need. Faith serves to represent truly understanding how this relationship works. Only, in the case of the Machine and our social systems, we created these systems to serve us, and over time, due to over reliance and growing complexity, the systems become incomprehensible (indistinguishable) to the point where a loss of agency occurs. We have great difficulty making alterations to the systems we once upon a time created. We cannot control them.

*Please do not take this as a criticism of religion. The idea: once a set of social systems becomes sufficiently complex, at the very least, the laypeople (the majority) cannot comprehend how the systems function; the very language used to discuss the systems are only understood by a few. It is ironic because we created the systems, not God.  I’ve left the idea undeveloped (maybe for a later post). It’s just what I saw in “The Machine Stops.”

A Fatal Lack of Agency

A part of the Machine called the Mending Apparatus fixes parts of the Machine when they go into disrepair. The people, having been hopelessly dependent on the Machine for so long, cannot fix the Machine themselves. Forster presents a relevant question in the novel: what happens when the Mending Apparatus itself breaks? At first, the functions of the Machine falter:

“He does not refer, I suppose, to the trouble there has been lately with the music?”

“Oh no, of course not. Let us talk about music.”

“Have you complained to the authorities?”

“Yes, and they say it wants mending, and referred me to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus. I complained of those curious gasping sighs that disfigure the symphonies of the Brisbane school. They sound like some one in pain. The Committee of the Mending Apparatus say that it shall be remedied shortly.”

The music! What would they do without the music? The people do complain to the higher-ups. After nothing gets fixed, they instead grow adaptively complacent.

Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine. The sigh at the crises of the Brisbane symphony no longer irritated Vashti; she accepted it as part of the melody. The jarring noise, whether in the head or in the wall, was no longer resented by her friend. And so with the mouldy artificial fruit, so with the bath water that began to stink, so with the defective rhymes that the poetry machine had taken to emit. all were bitterly complained of at first, and then acquiesced in and forgotten. Things went from bad to worse unchallenged.

This passage bears a lot of relevance to present society. You have this huge, utterly complex beast of intertangled systems we believe can fix itself. After all, we designed it that way. We have rights. We have the free market. We have government regulation. Until one day, a few chips get removed from the block of rights we hold in the name of security. The free market fails to block banks from bringing our economy to its knees while the government fails to punish the greedy criminals whose actions still might bring about an economic collapse. Unhappy and unable to feed their families, the downtrodden caught in the poor state of the US economy complain endlessly and flock to voting booths to elect officials they believe will be different, the people who will usher in real change. But this is the limit of the people’s perceived power to fix the conflagration of problems surrounding them: to hope the higher-ups they think can mend the issues get elected, and if they do, to hope that they actually do anything about it. Vashti, the main character in “The Machine Stops,” complains (votes) to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, demanding they fix – at once – the broken music.

Of course he had made it at a venture, but the coincidence annoyed her, and she spoke with some petulance to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus.

They replied, as before, that the defect would be set right shortly.

“Shortly! At once!” she retorted. “Why should I be worried by imperfect music? Things are always put right at once. If you do not mend it at once, I shall complain to the Central Committee.”

“No personal complaints are received by the Central Committee,” the Committee of the Mending Apparatus replied.

“Through whom am I to make my complaint, then?”

“Through us.”

“I complain then.”

Complaint registered. And that is the extent of Vashti’s ability to change the failing Machine. You can guess what ultimately happens. The people, unable to fix the Machine and doomed by a broken Mending Apparatus, sit about idly, fearful of a future with an ailing Machine, yet occasionally fueled to extending their complacency by false hope. Finally, everything collapses. The Machine Stops.

Dilution of Knowledge

A side effect of growing complexity is a phenomenon someone might call the dilution of knowledge. On the Internet, people redistribute information on a large scale. When people pass the information along they slightly modify it, twisting it to meet the specifications of their argument or to match up with their view of reality. Consider how lecturers promoting the Machine push the idea of learning only second-, third-, or tenth-hand ideas:

“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 LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives.

The lecturer believes that information learned this way is free of “personality,” or, as Vashti and her peers would say, more “mechanical.” Information processed through many sources or even one source suffers from the taint of bias. The Internet, T.V., radio, and other media outlets bombard the individual with biased information on a grand scale to the point where it is difficult to grasp what is real. Interpretations of scientific studies (which are touted as the pillars of truth) often suffer from these biases; researchers, writers, and laypersons commonly make broad-sweeping conclusions about studies that may just be false. Take the example of Prozac. Commonly accepted: Prozac “cures” depression. This idea has been pushed for years by psychiatrists, drug companies, and advocacy groups. People with depression have a chemical imbalance. SSRIs correct them. But the serotonin hypothesis of depression has not panned out in research. Millions of people take SSRIs, causing abnormal states in the brain that just so happen to offset certain symptoms of depression in the short run, and many psychiatrists say little to nothing because the pharmaceutical companies pay them a lot of money. If money can bias information and doctors, the people we trust to be careful with the knowledge they use to diagnose, treat, or cure disease, then what information can we trust? First-hand information is hard to come by in the modern era and a lot of knowledge is diluted by second- to tenth-hand processing.

This brings up another point. Only experts can really interpret first-hand knowledge in complex topics such as medicine, economics, and politics. And these experts, upon whom we rely on for information, can be biased strongly as shown in the pharmaceutical example.

Panoptic Control

Forster’s society in “The Machine Stops” differs from the world presented by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There is no Big Brother watching anyone, despite the Machine controlling the population and restricting its agency. Within the realm of the Machine, the people propagate the imprisoning ideas among themselves. They create the stigmas barring creative thought, they treat thoughts of anti-Machine sentiment as poisonous, worthless drivel, and they continue to live their lives of utter dependency without question. The Machine does have one object of panoptic control: the respirators. People must wear respirators when they leave the confines of the underground to explore the surface. Although they shielded the lungs from the so-called poisonous surface air, the respirators serve to connect the people to the Machine as they venture outside of its domain. Even on the surface you depend on the machine. Do not forget that.


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