The Machine Starts: E.M. Forster’s surprising prophecy

Under threat of the COVID-19 virus, local and national leaders have blithely and universally deemed temporal, transitory, and immanent goods “Essential,” while eternal, permanent, transcendent goods are deemed “Non-Essential.” One is permitted to stock groceries, ship mail, frequent public transportation, and take care of the neighbor’s pet, but not go to school, practice the public arts, or carry on the traditions of faith. At all costs, we are told to stay away from each other in order to save lives–at least, at only the cost of cutting out those things which ennoble us and make us more than brute beasts in need of survival and physical comfort. Yet, even from a purely physiological point of view, the virus is exposing, more than causing, lack of health. Medical statistics show the virus is almost exclusively lethal to those who already have some chronic metabolic illness, like obesity, type II diabetes, or heart disease, and popular statistics generally fail to differentiate between these co-morbidities and death-by-COVID strictly speaking. These kinds of ilnesses, often called ‘diseases of civilization’ in that they arise not from accidents or genetics, but from voluntary bad habits, make up around 2/3 of medical spending in America, and these conditions are big culprits behind the COVID death-rate. While this is not, of course, to say that we should not protect those with chronic illnesses from contracting COVID, even so the long-term picture is pretty pathetic and all too ironic: we are social distancing and self-isolating to help those who have been too sedentary; we are destabilizing and harming our common life, our economy, to help those who, by and large, have contracted poor dietary habits from a culture of rabid private consumption. Failure to reckon with these facts dooms us to clunky euphemized moralizing and an aggravation of this unhealthy cycle that militates against our own humanity. Our modern world is addicted to the demands of its own addictive materiality, ignoring the importance of cultivating virtuous, responsible free-will with our own bodies.

These addictions are famously diagnosed in the 2008 Disney-Pixar Film Wall-E, now the usual narrative archetype for critiquing sedentarism, consumerism, machine-dependency, and the resulting human devolution and waste. Yet nearly a century earlier, in his only foray into science fiction, E.M. Forster wrote a perhaps even more prescient account of these same themes. Written in 1909, “The Machine Stops” punctuates Forster’s usual critique of class-based hypocrisy and imperialism with a much more nuanced religious critique of the mechanistic addictions and petty dependencies that underlie modern man’s apparent sophistication.

In “The Machine Stops,” all of human society lives underground in a Machine of its own making. Mankind, on the whole, is utterly dependent upon the function of the Machine. The opening describes the female protagonist, Vashti, sitting in her small hexagonal room “like the cell of a bee.” The only furniture is an arm-chair in the middle, in which she sits, and a reading-desk next to it. Vashti is described as a “lump of flesh” who, long inured to the ministrations of the Machine, rarely leaves her room, and rarely moves. All physical necessities and luxuries are provided by pushing a complex series of buttons near her chair. These buttons provide instant hot baths, cold baths, choice of food, and, if desired, human contact. On the reading-desk rests “The Book of the Machine,” a manual in every cell instructing which buttons fulfill which demands. Travel by “air-ship” is still permitted, but is rarely used and viewed with suspicion. Rather, to communicate with other human residents of the Machine, Vasthi pushes a button to bring up a face on her “plate,” a computer-like monitor through which they can converse. In 1909, Forster was predicting not only tablet-like video conferencing technologies, but also the human cost: a sedentary tendency to view digital conferencing as more convenient and sophisticated than in-person contact, a veneration of the former and denigration of the latter. Even the “custom” of touching has become “obsolete owing to the machine,” and it is a social faux pas to touch, even if only to provide someone physical support. 

 Yet Vashti’s existence is far from anti-social. She enjoys a sterling reputation among her “plate” audiences as a professor of important “Ideas.” The word “Idea” is one of the most repeated in the story, showing up thirty times—Vashti and her machine-milieu have an obsession with sharing “ideas” through their plates, listening to each other lecture and delivering their own lectures in return, joining and exiting the conversations at the push of a button from their arm-chairs. 

Their love of ideas to the exclusion of realities exposes, brilliantly, the neo-Gnostic tendencies of modernism. In one of Vashti’s favorite lectures on the French Revolution the speaker opines, “Beware of first-hand ideas,” which do not “really exist,” but are the “physical impressions produced by love and fear… let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element—direct observation.” He instructs, “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 Lafdacio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.” The Machine-Mind includes a repudiation of history, intellectual endeavor, and reality itself. Anything outside the Machine does not exist.

Vashti scorns all things that do not give her Ideas, including the hills and mountains she sees out the window while traveling by airship to visit her son, Kuno, in-person, at his insistence. He wants to speak to her, but not “through the wearisome machine.” (Ironically, Vashti is named after the Persian Queen, from the book of Esther, who is exiled and replaced for refusing to appear in-person before King Ahasuerus). He has been speaking of strange things recently, like his desire to see stars and the “open air.” Kuno’s desires, and the real natural vistas for which he pines, confuse Vashti because they give her no “ideas.” 

Their in-person visit is sufficiently platonic: “Kuno himself, flesh of her flesh, stood close beside her at last, what profit was there in that? She was too well-bred to shake him by the hand.” Kuno confesses to her that he has been threatened with Homelessness—a punishment for deviance in accord with the Machine’s decrees, involving ejection onto the earth’s now poisonous surface. He confesses, however, that he has been on the surface, and is now back with a message: the machine will soon stop. Vashti is troubled by her son’s behavior, but nonplussed, and ultimately leaves him to consider the drastic cost of “Homelessness” if he spreads these radical notions. She returns to her bee-hive cell and resumes her life of eating, sleeping, and sharing “Ideas” through her “plate.”

 As time goes by, two new laws develop in the Machine, laws that pose no real worry to those happily at home in it: “respirators” are abolished, making journeys to the surface of the earth no longer feasible, and the “re-establishment of religion” is imposed. In a Hobbesian twist, the Machine declares itself their god. The Machine’s laws had previously abolished organized religion, but now its re-establishment is hardly newsworthy to the Machine’s loyal votaries, who for some time have already harbored private feelings of affection, devotion, and piety for the Machine and the “Book of the Machine.” Early in the story, the reader is privy to an important moment in which Vashti, alone in her cell after her busy day of Idea-sharing has ended, exposes her religious piety:

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. The Central Committee published it. In accordance with a growing habit, it was richly bound. Sitting up in the bed, she took it reverently in her hands. She glanced round the glowing room as if some one might be watching her. Then, half ashamed, half joyful, she murmured, “O Machine! O Machine!” and raised the volume to her lips. Thrice she kissed it, thrice inclined her head, thrice she felt the delirium of acquiescence. Her ritual performed, she turned to page 1367, which gave the times of the departure of the air-ships from the island in the southern hemisphere…

In a society lacking any transcendent, religious practice is still close at hand: the Machine-God blesses worshipers with machine-imposed material comforts, self-disclosed via a handy, holy, User’s Guide. The Machine and the Book of the Machine are divinized, in a manner all too reminiscent of dependency and idolization of computer technologies in the 21st century.    

Caught in an entirely imminent frame—living and communicating only in, and through, the Machine—has a religious impulse behind it, and that religious impulse flowers out into public reverence at precisely the moment the Machine begins to break down and helpless dependency on the Machine is fully revealed. Kuno begins to send more and more cryptic, paranoid messages to his mother, and begins to whisper to her through the plate, “The Machine stops,” attempting to warn her of impending doom. The Central Committee tries to shore up the problem, suspicious that someone is “meddling.” Communications break down and eventually cease. Panels burst open, valves rupture, lights flicker, and the Machine becomes more and more unreliable. Vasthi hears that some friends have had recourse to “Euthanasia,” but eventually hears a rumor that “Euthanasia, too, was out of order, and that pain had reappeared among men.” The humans are incapable of doing anything for themselves, even enduring pain or committing suicide. They cannot make any willed choice or action, for good or for evil, apart from the Machine.

         The ending is a perfect apocalypse in its full sense—an unveiling, a revelation. The Machine breaks down, and its denizens flail and crawl around in the dark, prone and screaming, striking at the non-functional buttons “with bleeding hands.” Vasthi whirls around in confusion “like the devotee of an earlier religion.” They weep “for humanity, not for themselves… beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.” The collapse of the Machine opens its dying residents, in their last gasp, to the heavens which they had rejected, which Kuno prophetically longed for: “the whole city was broken like a honeycomb… For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.”

 Man’s total dependence on the Machine, to the exclusion of any real human or creaturely contact, is premised on the lack of any divine contact, devolving into a learned helplessness, Machine-worship, and self-destruction. While it will be God who graciously enacts the true end of history, man is often the maker of his own smaller ends, precipitated by failing to have any horizon beyond materiality, power, and physical well-being. Man in the Machine reveals his already stultified “Machine-Mind” that worships itself. Reading Forster’s original story is important for its religious critique of materialism. Collective material addiction and technological dependency are at root a divinization of man and his own machines. 

Vashti is in the lineage of a sad modern pedigree. Dr. Frankenstein robs graves in order to be like god. Dr. Faustus sells his soul in exchange for petty magic tricks. Ivan Ilych’s spiritual death is a social distancing from the rude concerns of family life in favor of over-ambitious work, while all along his real delight is drink and gambling. The Machine is no different—it demands worship of itself by perpetuating self-destructive carnal addictions. Man’s mass-addiction to the machines and temporal goods of his own creation are exposed by absolutizing anxious reliance on the methods for administering those same things, whether they be computers, cars, bottom lines, or medical care. Kuno tried to remind Vashti of the “stars,” of the open air of the Kingdom of Heaven that orders all temporal goods. But her religious devotion to the Machine, excluding the possibility of any religious devotion beyond her material domain, blinded her until the Machine, inevitably, stopped.

Read Forster’s story:

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