The Machine Stops

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The Machine Stops is a short story by E.M. Forster.

Video Adaptation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRIlegVJIoQ (c) Friese Brothers, 2009

BBC Movie (in parts) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fOflUdZDNc&NR=1

Contents

Plot Summary

The story describes a world in which almost all humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth, and most of the human population lives below ground. Each individual lives in isolation in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. The entire population communicates through a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which they conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and knowledge with each other. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas', as do most inhabitants of the world. Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He is able to persuade a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells Vashti of his disenchantment with the sanitized, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission, and without the life support apparatus supposedly required to endure the toxic outer air, and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. He goes on to say that the Machine recaptured him, and that he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son's concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, two important developments occur. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most humans welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and are threatened with Homelessness.

During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti's. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and he tells Vashti cryptically, "The Machine stops." For a time, Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. The situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost over the years, and finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing 'civilization' with it. Kuno comes to Vashti's ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realize that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.

Relations to Spring 2011 Class Themes and the Cyberpunk Culture

Selections from Sherry Turkle

The society portrayed ties in with the increasing dependence on technology as it develops further capabilities. Human interaction is replaced by communication devices and all activities and necessities are provided by "The Machine". In fact, direct confrontation between humans has become undesirable, as the need for a relationship has replaced by technology. The relationship with "The Machine" becomes much more dangerous in this community as it is not a friend, but a God and something to worship. In this way, humans have not constructed machines to become more human, but constructed themselves to become more machine-like. See in themes: Lack of Identity. Due to this view of "The Machine" being an omnipotent being, they fail to see the problems that arise as it begins to fail. In the end, the over-dependence on "The Machine" causes the community to collapse once it itself has been destroyed.

Control over Technology

In recent discussions, the idea of control for humans has popped up. It has been argued that how much control over something a human has affects the ability to accept it. The assumption is that the more control a person has, the easier it to accept. However, the opposite is portrayed in this story where humans welcome the control that machines exhibit over them. The control is welcomed perhaps it releases the sense of responsibility that comes along with control.

Tropes and Trope Intersections Appearing in this Work

  • The major thematic conflict in Forster’s “The Machine Stops” is between the ideas of human labor and machine labor. In The Machine Stops, the majority of physical labor and increasingly larger and larger amounts of intellectual labor are taken over by “the Machine.” Forster also juxtaposes the ideas of mechanical progress and humanistic tendencies with his two main characters Kuno and Vashti.
  • One of the minor themes is the opposition of mental and physical work. Vashti and her society view mental work as the only worthwhile pursuit. This is taken to the extreme with the use of infanticide of the strong. Kuno, on the other hand, has discovered the value of physical work, but not to the exclusion of the mental. He claims that, "We have lost a part of ourselves," recognizing that the self encompasses both forms of work [1].

Allusions

  • Mount Taygetus - When explaining the oddness of Kuno's unusual physical strength, Forster refrences the Spartan practice of infanticide[2] . In acient Greece, infants would be examined by a council and be judged [3]. If the child was found unworthy (weak, deformed, etc) the child would be abandoned. Mount Taygetus, a mountain range in southern Greece, is home to the Caeada chasm used expressly for this purpose [4]. This refrence is used to contrast the Machine's practice of culling the strong infants: "In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia" [5]. This reversal of roles underlines the switch of emphasis on Physical Labor to Mental Labor.
  • Leviathan-The Leviathan is considered a great sea serpent. In the bible, two Leviathans were initial created, but God decided to destroy one because, if they multiplied, they would destroy the world. The Leviathan is considered a creature of great strength and to conquer it implies that the conquerer has unmatched strength. In The Machine Stops, the society has conquered the Leviathan. Therefore, the society is strong, but in that same passage the speaker mentions that they also defeated every other challenge. So, the society has no more challenges and cannot be beaten in strength.
  • Communism - The civilization that Forster depicts is one in which there is no private property and no divisions of classes. Also, it seems as though capitalism is non-existant, in the sense that no one is working for wages, no one owns any capital, and there is no such thing as overproduction (what Marx though was the main negative consequence of capitalism). One could argue that this is the type of ideal Communism that Marx argued for in The Communist Manifesto.

Themes

Dependence

  • An interesting sub-theme could be the idea of 'perceived freedom'. How people seem to think they are doing what they please but in reality are limited and subjugated by 'The Machine'. This bears a resemblance to 'The Matrix' films where machines have subjugated the human race and most of them are oblivious to it. In the story it can be seen how the human race fears the world on the surface and near to worhships 'The Machine'. This furthers their dependence on 'The Machine' to provide for their every need.
  • Another example of dependency in The Machine Stops is the characters' dependence on technology. They rely on the machine (the technology) for everything including housing, food, entertainment, and communication. This dependency on the machine for communicative purposes can be compared to modern society and the use of the internet for communication. Programs such as Facebook[6] and Skype[7] allow people to form and maintain relationships with anyone who has internet access no matter where they are in the world. This situation is similar to Vashti and Kuno, who maintain their relationship across the world from each other, using the machine as their medium for communication.
  • An example of extreme dependence by those within this society can be seen in Vashti's dependence on The Book. This instruction manual provides the people of this society with instruction on how to handle almost any problem with respects to the machine. In the one instance when she decides to venture and see Kuno the book describes her as "clutching the Book" (p. 9) as she pressed the unfamiliar button moves to to the door and begins her journey. A person's character is often betrayed most at moments of extreme weakness and in this moment of extreme fear and anxiety, this action by Vashti speaks volumes of her society's dependence on The Book.

Lack of Identity

  • In this society, people are subject to the same living conditions as everyone else in the world. They all live underground, in hexagonal cells with many buttons that they can press to do whatever they want. This is apparent when Vashti goes to visit Kuno. She explains that his living conditions are exactly the same as hers. Also, the people in this world do not own any property to distinguish themselves from each other. The way that everyone functions (no one likes going outside their room, touching other people, etc.) is exactly the same and no one has any unique character.
  • In the fictional world created by Forster, there is rarely physical interaction. When Kuno asks his own mother to visit him, she is reluctant. This disconnection between people hinders their ability to develop an identity. In their isolation, the inhabitants of the machine become sheltered from any kind of influence. They are not given a chance to discover their own personalities.

De-motivation

  • As people in the community become more and more dependent on the machine (elimination of inter-room travel, talks of removing the blimps) they become less and less motivated to survive. Even when the music stops for the first time, the humans are even too lazy to complain because they believe that all is well and will be reconciled by the machine soon enough. Ultimately the machine is worshiped like a god and the epitome of sloth occurs when their lives are threatened by death and they are helpless to save themselves.
Challenge It could be argued conversely that they were as motivated as anyone, because even while they lived within, what are essentially cells, they were still motivated to continually seek inspiration to come up with their own ideas and share them with them with others. They were motivated to maintain friendships with their intellectual peers and a display of their motivation can be seen in the end when many go as far as to escape their rooms into the hallway. There might be the appearance of demotivation, but in fact the members of this society are only slaves of their own cultural/societal norms.

Deitization

  • As people of E. M. Forester's world become so dependent upon Machine Labor, they begin to view the machine in a divine way.
  • Over the course of the book as the citizens of this society become more and more spiritual and emotionally caught up with the abilities of the Machine, we see the resemblance of a type of Holy Book with the society. The Book of the Machine assumes a central role in the deitization of the Machine as its an empowering means for those within this society to gain the extent of promises offered by the Machine. Such is the same role the bible in our society, or any other holy book for that matter.

Historical Influences

In The Machine Stops may have been influenced by many improvements to the convenience of social interactions that occurred during the decade leading up to his publication.

References

  1. Forster, Edward. The Machine Stops Pg 16
  2. Forster, Edward. The Machine Stops Pg 16
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infanticide#Greece_and_Rome
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taygetus
  5. Forster, Edward. The Machine Stops Pg 16
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skype
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