Chances are, you’re hunkered down at home right now, as I am, worried about COVID-19 and coping by means of Instacart deliveries, Zoom chats, and Netflix movies, while avoiding others and the outside world. As shown by the experience in China1 and recent studies,2 voluntary isolation to extreme lockdown are effective in slowing or stopping pandemics. But as cabin fever sets in and we miss friends and family, it’s natural to wonder about the mental and social cost of widespread physical separation. Yet the surprising fact is your tech-heavy exile is not a brand new idea in the Internet Age. It was foreseen long ago. The prophet was the great English novelist E.M. Forster. His literary classics Howards End, about British social relationships in Edwardian times, and A Passage to India, about British rule in India, are also known through their masterly film versions.
Howards End is the origin of Forster’s famous catchphrase, “Only connect!,” expressing his belief in the essential need for human relationships. Protecting those connections in an increasingly mechanized world was the theme of Forster’s 1909 story, “The Machine Stops.” The science-fiction story is a protest against what Forster saw as the dehumanizing effects of technology. It is meant to be a counterweight to H.G. Wells’ faith in the value of scientific and technological progress. Forster was firmly on the humanities side of the Two Cultures, the other being science, delineated by another English novelist, C.P. Snow, in the 1950s. But time and progress have a funny way of reshaping literature. Today “The Machine Stops” can be read as a remarkably prescient depiction of the Internet. What’s more, Forster might be astonished to learn his Machine can draw us together and preserve our humanity and relationships. That’s not to say, however, that a warning about technology in “The Machine Stops” doesn’t linger.
Today we face the Machine grinding to a halt—the global machine of public health, of governmental power and its ability to reassure us, of business and trade.
“The Machine Stops” is set in an undefined future when people have left the Earth’s surface, perhaps after a catastrophe such as climate upheaval or a deadly pandemic, and live underground, each in a separate room. We meet Vashti, a middle-aged member of this society, in her personal cell that she rarely leaves. Lacking sunlight or exercise, humanity has physically deteriorated. Vashti is described as “a swaddled lump … five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus.” Her small room contains only a desk and an armchair, but offers amenities. At the press of a button, Vashti can summon illumination, food, clothing, music and literature, even a warm or cold bath. If she is ill, medical equipment remotely guided by a physician diagnoses and treats her. For companionship, she uses a communications device, a hand-held blue video plate not much different from a smartphone set up for video chat.
All this is made possible by a global entity, the Machine, which supplies everything Vashti and anyone else could want. The Machine functions like a combination of the systems and processes that help us endure today’s enforced isolation: the Web, the Internet and Internet of Things, online ordering and delivery, and telemedicine. Just as we are in today’s social media, Vashti is also linked to many others through the Machine. She knew “several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously,” writes Forster. She interacts with these one-on-one through her blue video plate, or addresses a large audience in their separate rooms about her studies in the history of music. As Forster relates, “the clumsy system of public gatherings had long since been abandoned.”
This limited life based on remote human contact and mediated by the Machine seems to fulfill Vashti’s physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. With her fellow humans, she worships the Machine with religious fervor. But some in this society resent the Machine and feel a great lack in their world—among them, Vashti’s adult son Kuno.
Like every other child in this society, Kuno was raised in a public nursery. He now lives far from his mother on the other side of the Earth, but Vashti still feels connected to him. When he calls on the blue plate and asks her to visit him because he has something to say “not through the wearisome Machine,” she cannot say no, although the trip is difficult for her. Leaving her cell to board an airship, interacting face-to-face and physically with an air hostess and a few other travelers, and looking out on the natural Earth as she flies, are all deeply upsetting.
What Kuno has to tell Vashti is even more unsettling. He has long felt the need for more space, more freedom than life under the Machine provides. His yearning leads him finally, and illegally, to break out and reach the Earth’s surface through an old railway tunnel. There he rediscovers the natural world of sun and stars, hills and clouds and grass. But the Machine had noted his absence, and sent long worm-like tentacles that drag him back to his underground cell. Now he is faced with homelessness, meaning permanent expulsion to the surface.
This is nearly the end of Forster’s story. Its last scene shows a greater cataclysm than homelessness for Kuno, as Forster gives his final opinion about the foolishness of relying too much on technology. He imagines that the Machine slowly and then quickly deteriorates. Small issues become big ones until suddenly the Machine completely stops. Humanity is utterly unprepared for this and perishes underground, the only hope for the race a few souls who may survive under primitive conditions on the Earth’s surface.
When we look past the Internet, Forster’s message comes into view. Today we face the Machine grinding to a halt—the global machine of public health, of governmental power and its ability to reassure us, of business and trade. Kuno’s story brings the final warning. Our screens show only pixels, not the full experience of the natural world and real people. We’re fortunate to have this technology as a backup; but once the present emergency ends, our fondest wish is to again see, touch and talk to each other directly, not only through the wearisome Machine.
Sidney Perkowitz is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus at Emory University. His latest books are Real Scientists Don’t Wear Ties: When Science Meets Culture, and Physics: a Very Short Introduction.
1. Cyranoski, D. What China’s coronavirus response can teach the rest of the world. Nature.com (2020).
2. Mahtani, K.R., Heneghan, C., & Aronson, J.K. What is the evidence for social distancing during global pandemics? The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (2020).
Lead image: Gorodenkoff /Shutterstock