Tuesday, August 17, 2004
The Machine Stops
I've recently been pointed to E.M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops". A dystopic vision of the future, that, in the grand tradition of showing us where unbridled extension of current technology will lead us if we are not vigilant, puts humans in isolation chambers under the earth.
A copy of the story can be found here.
I find it interesting that the person on whose page this appears gives Forster credit for some things that Forster gets the general spirit of, but nowhere near the general implementation of, making it difficult to credit him for specific visions like email (pneumatic tubes not really being the same; more being the "Super Now" of the existing postal service). This feels much like crediting predictions to Nostradamus, or psychics by choosing the parts where they are right, ignoring the parts where they are wrong, and assuming the details.
I think the central flaw in this, and similar isolationist visions of the future, is the denial of Man's social nature. Sure, people like me wouldn't mind living, to an extent, in a chamber where all our needs are met, but self described "people people" (of which there are a great many), would just never be comfortable not being in the real presence of other people. The ability to shake hands, clap shoulders, and the like are still fairly fundamental to the existence of most of us.
It has long been my feeling that the Internet will be the new mechanism by which we form our modern tribes. It will help us find those people that compliment us well, and while some of this interaction will be virtual, a physical component will still be required lest the interactions feel, for all their projected reality, like that of a pen pal.
This story would seem to be a vehicle by which the author examines what it is to be human, rather than a likely outcome of human events. What is the likelihood of people continuing to have children if there is nothing in it but the burden of carriage and birth, the duties thus ceasing? Unlikely indeed.
Comfort is not man's primary desire, or at least not for all men, or even, likely, most. Exploration, the pushing of some sort of boundary (be it physical or mental), is far more fundamental.
What I think is lacking from visions of the future of this sort, is how, exactly, we get into such a place. Surely there would be factions wildly opposing a machine-enabled existence, or those who would prefer living topside regardless the risk. There would be people concerned with losing the fundamental freedoms on which the US (among others) was founded. We see this daily already. This vision, and those like it, require either some sort of cataclysmic event (for which there can be no planning), or that society is, on the whole, ignorant, or worse, passive. It is my experience with the latter that, for good or ill, people are rarely passive.
It is because we so readily identify with the son of the main character that this story is unlikely to happen.
Perhaps most damning, in my opinion, of this particular vision of the future, is that the INTP, exactly the sort who might well be suited to living in chambers physically isolated from the world, but virtually plugged it, these types of people are exactly those kinds of people who would be "lecturing" on how the machine worked. Picking it apart. Reading the manual. Tinkering with the way it works. Envisioning a better, more powerful version of it. The knowledge of the machine would most certainly not die as in the story, although, perhaps, the ability to actually perform the fixes might.