E.M. Forster’s 1909 short work The Machine Stops is early for technology doom but it wasn’t the first nor last look at our dependence on the mechanical. Reading it reminds me of so many other stories, songs, movies, and other storytelling devices that I believe The Machine Stops must be one of the most influential novellas of the twentieth century.
The Machine guides all life, or what’s left of it anyway. All decisions and movements are controlled by it. What strikes me most deeply is the Machine’s heart, its instructions, being accessible only by book. Or, the Book, a clear reference to the Bible and the religious fever that sweeps the underground world of honeycomb cells (prisons). The character Vashti finds solace in the pages that provide directions “against every possible contingency.” Beautifully bound and printed in “subsequent editions,” it becomes the object that unifies believers who “spend their strength praying to their Books.” As the Machine begins to erode, “it became difficult to read.” Yet, “there was still the Book, and while there was the Book there was security.”
I do not know whether it was inside my head, or inside the wall…
It does not, however, hold the answer to escaping the tormenting grip of the Machine, which Kuno, Vashti’s son, discovers through a most physical and emotional transformation. Forster leaves us with hope. Kuno’s dying words let us know that people who have left the hive are living above and breathing real air. They will continue the species without the Machine. This regeneration is very typical of such stories. And yet, it wasn’t present in The Machine is Us/ing Us.
Professor Wesch put together a clever video illustrating the shift from printed text to hypertext to Web 2.0. However, his focus is on data. He does not spend time reflecting on how this new method of sharing data will affect people – communicatively, culturally, socially, emotionally. His end note on how we will have to rethink everything, like love, just touches on this. He seems optimistic that the removal of form from content will free information. I question this optimism.
Content looses meaning when it looses form. Ask an artist or librarian. In person, please.