4:16:13 "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster

"The Machine Stops," a short story by E. M. Forster (1909) is an imaginative leap 100 years into a future that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Information Age so preoccupying us now.

The story has two characters: Vashti, a middle-aged woman living alone and her grown son Kuno, also living alone.

The opening scene has Vashti holding a "round pan" in her hand that has begun to glow (think iPad). "...presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her." They then talk. (Think Skype running on an iPad)..

[the machine stops]

Something quite similar to our beloved Web is afoot in Forster's imaginative world: The "Machine'" does everything for human beings, enabling them to live agoraphobic, hermetic lives in human-sized beehive-like cells.

I might also mention Forster's prescient genius anticipates Internet radio/iTunes and downloadable music, describing similar phenomena. Moreover, Vashti's chief meaningful occupation, giving lectures to an audience of subscribers to her "content" via the Machine's network bares a striking similarity to blogging, YouTube, and the rest of social media today.

How did Forster, at the start of the last century, get so many details right?

Yes, Forster, with this one short story, has apparently surpassed legions of SF writers for decades to come with a technically familiar, connected Information Age. But I would argue Forster's greater achievement is getting at the emotional truth of what the Information Age delivers--or does not deliver--for the character of civilization and the needs of the human soul.

Forster asks important questions. Does living a hermetic life dictated on the Machine's terms lead to what is now called "nature deficit disorder," apparently rampant among our screen-saturated children. He also anticipates the consequences of hyperlinked content that "wants to be free" and is made available without regard to merit, authority or originality. Forster applauds, tongue-in-cheek, the "advantages" of sampling, cut-and-pasting, and remixing for " ... a generation serigraphically free from the taint of personality."

Today, much commentary about the impact of the Web asks questions like, Is Facebook making us more lonely? Or recently in The Atlantic: "The Touch-Screen Generation: What's this technology doing to toddler's brains?" Odd to think a literary novelist asked similar questions 100+ years ago.

"The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster is in the public domain in the U.S.A and is available in ebook formats here.

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

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