A Personal Journey Part I: The Machine Stops

Dante’s Forest Dark
Dante’s Forest Dark

A Personal Journey

The second chapter of the book A New City of God: Theology in an Age of Limits describes my personal journey through Dante’s “Forest Dark” as I learned more about the changes that are taking place, and as I thought about the theological implications of such changes.

The sections of that chapter are shown below. Every so often I will write a blog to do with one of these topics. We have already written about Jevons Paradox. In this blog let’s take a look at the second entry (highlighted in red): The Machine Stops.

  • A Brief Biography
  • The Machine Stops
  • A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article
  • Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World
  • A History of Knowledge
  • Twilight in the Desert
  • Down The Hubbert Curve
  • The Archdruid Report
  • Hard Times for These Times
  • Oil Price Collapse
  • Hegelian Synthesis
  • Jevons Paradox
  • Sustainable Growth: An Oxymoron
  • Peak Prosperity
  • Post Carbon Institute
  • Cassandra’s Legacy
  • Resource Insights
  • Francis I
  • The Last Question
  • The Journey
  • The Ladder of Awareness

The Machine Stops

E.M. Forster — author of The Machine Stops
E.M. Forster (1879-1970)

I start in the mid-1960s at my English high school, preparing for an English Literature examination. One of the prescribed works was a truly prescient and remarkable science fiction novella, The Machine Stops, written in the year 1909 by E.M. Forster. At that time the telephone was a novelty, many homes were not supplied with electricity, the motor car was unusual and television was undreamed of. Yet Forster not only anticipated many of the features of our current Internet-based world, he also foresaw how it might collapse.

Fifty years later, when I read the book, computers had been invented (just). But the internet, emails, ebooks, webinars, Skype, Facebook “friends”, widespread central air conditioning and social media were not even on the horizon. Yet Forster anticipated them all. Not only did he get the technology right, he even described the people of his future world as being physically unfit, lonely and obese. And finally, he anticipated how this society could collapse — how the Machine could stop.

**** SPOILER ALERT ****

The novella has a strong story line. My comments reveal the conclusion of the story.

Like all good stories, The Machine Stops can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It can be seen as futuristic science fiction. Or it could express the need to keep in touch with physical reality. But, in the context of what I am writing here, the greatest interest is to do with the relationship between human beings and “The Machine”.

Each person in the story each has his or her own room — the rooms fit together in a beehive-like structure. The people in the story live singly, no one shares a room with anyone else. The rooms have doors, and, in principle, the people can walk through their door and visit with other people. But they don’t. Instead they are addicted to their electric communication devices. (Why does this sound familiar?)

The lives of the people in the story are controlled in every way by what we could call a centralized computer system (the Machine). It supplies everything that they need: food, accommodation, communication with others via “computer terminals”, and — when the time comes — euthanasia. The Machine can even, if it chooses, expel people to live outside their controlled environment. This is a sentence of death.

The people in the story have only one printed book. It is an Instruction Manual that tells them how to interact with the Machine.

The Central Committee published it. In accordance with a growing habit, it was richly bound.

Sitting up in the bed, she [ Vashti — the story’s lead character ] took it reverently in her hands. She glanced round the glowing room as if someone might be watching her. Then, half ashamed, half joyful, she murmured “O Machine!” and raised the volume to her lips. Thrice she kissed it, thrice she inclined her head, thrice she felt the delirium of acquiescence.

Vashti is challenged by her son, Kuno (in a video, of course). He says,

“You are beginning to worship the Machine”.

At this she grew angry. “I worship nothing!” she cried. “I am most advanced . . . there is no such thing as religion left. All the fear and superstition that existed once have been destroyed by the machine.”

The story concludes with the Machine slowly but surely failing to work. One days it stops working altogether, and the people living in their “cubefarms” are forced into the outside world, where they die.

Forster wrote his story 11 decades ago. Yet it eerily predicts what seems to be happening in our society. We are controlled by our version of the Machine — the web of computer connections that pervade everything that we do — not just personal communications, but also the transportation of food and other essentials, the nature our medical treatments, and control of the drones that conduct our wars for us. Vashti and her “Friends” worshipped the Machine — we worship the concept of “Progress”.

(As an aside, it is for reasons such as this that I am uneasy about the introduction of computer technology into church services. It may eventually lead to our pastors and priests being replaced by robots — an idea that is not at all far-fetched.)

The following quotation is taken from the book at a time when the Machine is at the peak of its power — just before it slowly comes to a stop. The quotation describes two important issues: the flight from reality and the re-establishment of religion. The speaker is delivering what sounds eerily like a YouTube-style webinar to his “Friends”.

“Beware of first-hand ideas! . . . First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by life 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.

“there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”

Tremendous applause greeted this lecture, which did but voice a feeling already latent in the minds of men – a feeling that terrestrial facts must be ignored . . .

The second great development was the re-establishment of religion. This, too, had been voiced in the celebrated lecture. No one could mistake the reverent tone in which the peroration had concluded, and it awakened a responsive echo in the heart of each. 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 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.” And before long this allocution was printed on the first page of the Book, and in subsequent editions the ritual swelled into a complicated system of praise and prayer.

The word “religion” was sedulously avoided, and in theory the Machine was still the creation and the implement of man. But in practice all, save a few retrogrades, worshipped it as divine.

Persecution – that also was present . . . all who did not accept the minimum known as “undenominational Mechanism” lived in danger of Homelessness, which means death.

To such a state of affairs it is convenient to give the name of progress. No one confessed that the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbor, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole.

And to think that Forster wrote this novella 110 years ago. Wow.

Machine Stops Forster
Vashti communicating with her (Facebook) “Friends”

 

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