Book Review: The Machine Stops

E.M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops, was published in 1909.  Considering that fact, it is dripping with technological prescience that is downright spooky.  Is there a danger of becoming too reliant on technology?  What happens when the machine stops?

I’m well aware that it’s mildly ironic that I’m reviewing this book online.  However, I’m not a complete technophobe, although I’m not necessarily a techno-optimist either. This is because technology is neither categorically good or bad.  In my opinion, technology becomes evil when we use it in ways that are anti-human, but it also has many positive applications as well.  There is, however, a very real danger of becoming too reliant on technology.

Essentially, this novella is about a dystopian future in which humanity has the lost the ability to live on the surface of the earth.  Humans, then, live below ground in ‘cells’ breathing artificial air and eating techno-food.  In short, the physical needs of humans are met by what is called ‘the Machine’.  Humans interact with the world and each other through “cinematophotes” (think televisions) and through Skype-like videoconferencing.  When I look around and see people glued to their iPhones, while failing to recognize the other human beings in their immediate presence, I can’t help but think that Forster had a Delorian time machine.

Forster ultimately envisions a future world in which technology is used to shape a depressing human experience.  Some of these visions, as I’ve mentioned, sound strikingly similar to aspects of our modern world.  This is absolutely incredible if you think about what the world was like when this book was written.

In an increasingly global economy, we live in a culture which values hyper-specialization, but it comes with plenty of costs.  The rise of hyper-specialization means that most of us have no clue how most things we use work or how to repair them.  As such, we further reinforce Forster’s point that there is an element of danger in becoming increasingly reliant on things we don’t really understand.

In the novella, Forster wrote:  “You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other.  “I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy.  Men made it, do not forget that.”  Sadly, many who suffer from neophilia have forgotten this fact.  In my opinion, there is an abundance of techno-optimism in the world today.  Techno-realism, however, is in short supply and I think we need more of it.  I think Forster would agree.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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