The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

The best thing I read today was a short story by E.M. Forster titled “The Machine Stops.” I found out about it while reading Atul Gawande’s tribute to Oliver Sacks.

“The Machine Stops” is a story about over-reliance on technology,in which people live alone in small podlike rooms in a honeycomb of vast underground cities spread across the globe. The physical comforts of food, clothing, and shelter are all taken care of by the global Machine. We meet a female protagonist named Vashti, who has to simply press a button to receive food or listen to music or summon a hot-bath :

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. She opened with a humorous account of music in the pre Mongolian epoch, and went on to describe the great outburst of song that followed the Chinese conquest. Remote and primæval as were the methods of I-San-So and the Brisbane school, she yet felt (she said) that study of them might repay the musicians of today: they had freshness; they had, above all, ideas. Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately. Then she fed, talked to many friends, had a bath, talked again, and summoned her bed.

And how Vashti’s son named Kuno wanted to meet his mother face-to-face:

The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.

Who knew that a story published more than 100 years ago would be so prescient of the world that is today–with social media pulling us at every angle, allowing Sacks to lament how it can absorb people, “to the exclusion of everything else, throughout their waking hours.”

The story reminds me of 1984, Blade Runner, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” It’s definitely worth reading. You can follow the link or purchase a Kindle edition of the short story for $0.99 here.

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