1909. The first television broadcast is carried out in Paris and instant coffee is mass-produced, the latest in a long string of inventions rapidly transforming the world. 1900 started with the invention of the zeppelin. Three years later the Wright brothers successfully launched their powered aircraft, and in 1907 helicopters were introduced. Land transportation was revolutionized by the invention of windshield wipers in 1903, and the first Model T. Ford was sold in 1908, bringing affordable safer cars to the masses.
Humanity wasn’t just going places though; they were also living better, eating better and sleeping better. The first nine years of the twentieth century saw the introduction of vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, cellophane, neon lights, cornflakes, tea bags, and the teddy bear. People were very obviously in a good place, or were they?
A hand-powered pneumatic vacuum cleaner, circa 1910. An early electric-powered model is also shown
While some people were celebrating modern machines and the perks they provided, many others were afraid of the revolutionary changes being brought about. Introduction of new technology meant dependence on new technology – whether you liked it or not, and there were plenty of people who did not like the air pollution caused by the new automobiles, or the noise pollution caused by the vacuum cleaners and air conditioners. Dependence on new technology, also meant that old skills were likely to be forgotten, and this could be a serious risk if ever the machinery were to break down. In 1909, E. M . Forster explores these concerns in his short story “The Machine Stops.”
Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) was an English author, who wrote novels, short stories, academic essays, and librettos (texts used for musical works, such as operas). Much of his writing explores the themes of class differences and hypocrisy. He is best known for his book A Passage to India, selected as one the 100 great works of twentieth century English literature. Forster was nominated for the Nobel prize in Literature sixteen times.
The world changed rapidly and dramatically during Forster’s lifetime. Born in 1879, he witnessed first-hand how cars and planes were transforming the English countryside, something that greatly disturbed him. Forster felt that the introduction of new machines, while heaven to many would be hell for him, and symbolized the downfall of humanity. However, like everyone else he was forced to adapt, and later in his life became a notable broadcaster on BBC radio.
“The Machine Stops” was written in response to one of the futures depicted in H. G. Wells, The Time Machine. Wells depicted a futuristic utopia in which the childlike Eloi lived an idyllic existence while below them toiled the brutish Morlocks. Forster felt that it was machines who would end up becoming the ultimate controlling force, and created a world in which all of humanity’s needs were provided for by a great machine.
In the world of the machine, humans are living a solitary existence underground. Each human occupies a single, small hexagonal room, consisting of a single armchair and desk. Buttons can summon food, beds, baths, or any other physical need. Communication is done via tubes and tablet like devices, allowing people to constantly talk to one another without ever having to leave their room, similar to today’s social media. In fact, leaving the room is considered anti-social, and possibly irreligious. When someone becomes tired of their existence, they can request euthanasia. All these services are provided for by the machine.
The story is told from the perspective of Vashti, a woman who has spent practically her entire life living in her room with no desire for anything different. Her life is disrupted when her son Kuno, who lives on the other side of the world requests to speak to her alone, only to demand that she visit him in person. Vashti can easily visit Kuno as the machine can take her anywhere in the world, but leaving the room is just not something that people do. Why leave and explore when everything you could ever possibly need or desire is provided for by the machine? Vashti, eventually summons the courage to visit her son, but that is just the first of the trials she will end up facing, as the world of the machine is slowly but inevitably doomed to fall apart – whether she, and the rest of humanity, are ready for it or not.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Forster managed to conceive of social media almost a century before it was invented. Already today there are humans who live an existence similar to the people living in the world of the machine, all communication is done through social media channels, all physical needs provided for by online services. I could see this future coming to pass if the AIs of Facebook, Twitter and Amazon were to ever stage a corporate takeover and replace all human employees with bots and drones.
However, I am not too worried about such a scenario. The machines that Forster was so worried about have been around for over a century, and most humans still go outside for fresh air. Online schools have not replaced physical schools, which means that most people spend their formative years interacting with others. Also as Jews, we have the additional bonus of Shabbat in which we get to turn everything off, go to shul, invite people over for the meal, and hang out with our friends at the park. Technology may have indeed transformed the world, but this has only resulted in increased human innovation and interaction, not less. And I think with our longer life spans and increased health the world today is a much better place than it was in 1909.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s a link to a musical number that does a pretty good job representing our parents as teens. They turned, out fine, we turned out fine, and our kids will also be okay.
The Omer today is courage in courage. An attribute that Forster and his characters have earned several times over. Vashti shows courage when she agrees to exit her comfort zone, and visit her son, even though she fails to see the necessity and the journey causes her extreme discomfort. Kuno shows courage in not being afraid to be different, even though the rest of humanity disagrees with his attitude. Forster showed courage in writing a science fiction short story, a genre with which he had no previous experience as an author. Forster showed even more courage in using the genre to argue against the very science it embodied, and using it to express an unpopular view, something he also does well in his other novels that argued against class differences. You should never be afraid to express your opinion, and I laud Forster for his courage to do so even though I disagree with his conclusions.