My nomination for the most prescient work of science fiction is The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. Writing in 1909, not only did he anticipate television, the Internet, video conferencing, email, Amazon, Google and Globalization but, more significantly, the impact that they would have on our lives.
It is a short story about a world in which progress has run its course. This is how it begins:
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. … An armchair is in the centre … there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman [Vashti], about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. … There was the button that produced literature. … and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
The Machine provided access – direct and unlimited – to mankind’s desired ultimate ends. It thereby rendered redundant the necessity for access to the multitude of intermediate ends with which our civilization is so preoccupied. Access to shops to obtain food and clothing, access to work to obtain the money to purchase them, and access to recreation to obtain respite from work – all such concerns had lost any significance. Scientific and technical progress had set humanity free, within mortal limits, to devote itself exclusively to its ultimate ends.
The result was a civilization of intellectuals in pursuit of abstraction. And despite its facilities for instant communication and gratification of all material wants, it was always irritably pressed for time. The almost infinite disproportion between what was accessible and what it was possible to digest either physically or mentally, created an endemic frustration that could not be appeased. There was a pervasive, though rarely articulated, anxiety about the purpose of it all:
No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbour, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished. They had left full directions, it is true, and their successors had each of them mastered a portion of those directions.
On one crucial point Forster got it wrong – or, perhaps, not yet right:
Few traveled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was thegood of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.
Perhaps we still belong to Forster’s “previous civilization” – the hypermobile civilization that “had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people.” This “mistake” is now widely recognized by those who lament the inefficiency of our present “system” and who, in the vanguard of “progress”, chorus that “access not mobility” should be the objective of the planners of our transport and communications systems. The purpose of these systems is to take the waiting out of wanting, and they are succeeding brilliantly. I can now order a book from Amazon in the expectation that it will arrive tomorrow, or if that is not fast enough, I can download it today. Like Vashti, the central figure in the story, I can order food, music and clothing, and communicate instantly and costlessly with friends anywhere in the World, without leaving my keyboard. And like Vashti I can give and receive electronic “lectures” – or blogs – to and from anyone in the world who is online.
My anxieties and dissatisfactions with the wondrous benefits delivered by this Machine, are represented by Forster in Vashti’s son Kuno. Kuno’s hexagonal cell lay deep in the earth beneath what was once known as Wessex, and his mother lived in an identical cell deep beneath the surface of what was once New Zealand. And Kuno wanted to see his mother face-to-face:
“I want you to come and see me.”
Vashti watched his face in the blue plate. “But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”
“I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
Kuno’s wants explain the behaviour of the still increasing numbers who attend conferences and travel to meet friends, and Vashti’s incomprehension is shared by the frustrated purveyors of video-phones and Internet-conferencing. Some years ago, waiting in Vancouver airport to fly to London I got chatting to a man about to fly to Toronto – to play bridge with someone from Toronto, someone from Scotland and someone from San Francisco. They had met and played bridge on the Internet, and now needed a “real” game.
The Machine Stops is more than a farsighted commentary on the destructive impact of on-rushing trends in transport and communications on human sensibilities and human intercourse. It crystallizes anxieties about the modern Globalization Project. It proposes that the World can become too interdependent and too dependent on the technology and transport and communications infrastructure that binds its diverse parts together. Certainly the isolated pedestrian peasant village is socially claustrophobic, undemocratic, and vulnerable to famine, disease and misunderstandings with neighbouring villages. But might there be a limit to the “progress” that has relieved these conditions?
Almost 100 years after Forster wrote his story our “master brains” are struggling. The Machine is showing increasing signs of stress. The master brains in charge of transport offer no credible remedies for the creeping sclerosis of the systems they purport to manage. Governments everywhere are issuing more and more guidelines, targets, directives, risk assessments, regulations and laws, to less and less effect. Control of the increasing flows of migrants and asylum seekers across international boundaries is breaking down. Britain’s Home Office, the department of government responsible for maintaining social order, has been declared by the master brain in charge to be “not fit for purpose”. And civil rights are being sacrificed in pursuit of solutions to problems that have grown beyond the reach of traditional democratic means.
Meanwhile the Internet goes from strength to strength. A recent survey found that the average Briton spends 164 minutes online everyday, compared to 148 minutes watching television. The distinction between these two media will soon be blurred by the delivery of TV to computers via broadband. But the current total of 34.6 hours per week, already approaching Vashti levels, continues to rise. And I, as a novice blogger, am a part of this phenomenon. A blog is a note in an electronic bottle cast forth on the vast cyber sea. The note-in-bottle mode of communication is almost always futile, undertaken in a spirit of hope rather than rational expectation. We shall see.