Sunday, April 03, 2016

The Machine Stops

From today you have 23 days left to listen to The Machine Stops, a dramatization of the short story by E.M. Forster.  If you have never read the short story (and aren't likely to) I recommend it.  Otherwise make for the text of the short story, which is available here.

I first read The Machine Stops as a teenager in the 1970s.  It seemed then like a lot of science fiction, partly futuristic, but containing some language and elements which struck me as old fashioned, like many of the works of C.S. Lewis and other writers of that age.  It was written by E.M. Forster in 1909, and given that television and radio were in their infancy at that stage, he was able to imagine a world far ahead of its time.  That much was clear in the 1970s when I related the screens and sounds to tv and radio, but didn't really understand the irritation which minute delays caused one of the characters in the story.

The next time I read the story was in the late 1990s, when the internet had become a thing.  I got online in 1998, and soon recognized just how prescient Forster had been, with his imagining of the machine connecting people around the world having hundreds of messages from people in many different places.  Having started with a dial-up connection which often failed to connect me to the BBC website, one of the few UK places to have a website then, I understood the frustration and wish to hurry up by then.

Hearing the story in 2016, I realise that there is much I didn't understand in the 1990s which makes more sense to me now.  In 1998 I was very rare in the UK, writing a blog, uploading it via ftp to the Geocities website.  I was listed then in a list of blogs, and counted only seven UK blogs.  People would say "What's a blog?" and look puzzled if I told them.

The brilliance of the imagined world includes so many of the elements which apply to the internet and the way it works today.   In 1998 being able to attend Webinars was still in the future, and the rise of ideas and originality as a driver for success was still in its infancy. 

More than that, there was a message in the story which I believe was meant to warn us against polluting the atmosphere and making the world into a hostile environment.  The modern listener will immediately conclude that nuclear war has made the surface uninhabitable, but of course the invention of nuclear weapons was not to come for another 20 years when Forster wrote his story.  The industrial wastelands of the north of England and industrial towns elsewhere in the world may have given him reason to believe we might be heading in this direction.

Today I fear that we face a choice, between the continuation of fossil fuel reliance or putting our all into the development of renewable forms of energy.  Our country doesn't have long to take that decision between investing in a future world which can sustain life, and one in which we have ravaged the environment in the search for cheap fuel.  Already in America there are towns subject to poisoned water, increased earthquake activity and pollution from fracking, which have reason to regret allowing corporations with money to direct the policy they follow.

I worry that we are being swept up by a machine comprised of corporations which have mission statements that amount to "make money" which are blind to the damage they are causing, annd the human cost of the pursuit of wealth in the short term at the cost of our futures.  Indeed, the government machine in this country is busy crunching up the poor and disabled and spitting them out, in the pursuit of an ideology which has been dreamed up by rich people who have never had to search down the back of the sofa in order to buy a pint of milk.  They don't understand life in poverty and think that everyone has a support network which will pick them up when the state sanctions the benefits you rely on for food and heat.

Perhaps the message of the story is that we should all beware giving up our human compassion, human life, human failings, in favour of a perfect machine, whatever that represents.

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