Amazon has claimed its drone delivery service will be ready to go “within months”. Walmart is launching a “deliver groceries to your fridge” service. We say please and thank you to Alexa and Siri and sexual relationships are initiated via app. Nowadays, there is hardly any reason to leave home, or interact with anyone, in person.
This vision of a consumer that sits alone in their home, clicks on their desires, tunes into entertainment and reclines in their easy chair to wait for all their wishes to be granted may seem as contemporary as it gets. But it was the premise of E.M. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops – which was published in 1909.
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The eerily prescient tale opens with Vashti, a woman who doesn’t leave her underground home. She doesn’t need to. No one leaves their little cells to venture out in to a post-apocalyptic world. They don’t have to: all needs are met by an omnipotent ‘Machine’. Communication with others is done via instant messaging and video conferencing. In any case, people have no inclination to meet up; they only want to share ideas. And the Machine knows what you want, without you having to ask…
It doesn’t feel so far removed from Amazon’s promise that, with its new “Prime Air delivery drone”, consumers will be able to go from click to delivery in 30 minutes. The convenience of such almost-instant gratification will be irresistible.
Meanwhile, Walmart is rolling out a beta version of their in-home delivery service – a direct rival to Amazon Fresh and Fresh Direct. Instead of boxes of food being left on doorsteps, the shopping will actually be delivered to your kitchen. Your fridge and cupboards will be stocked by Walmart employees, with the help of body cams on the drivers and special security locks on homes. They will even pick up returns for you if you leave them on your kitchen counter. You can wave at them from your reclining easy chair, if you can stand to look up from your screen to have a brief, real-life interaction with a stranger.
So often in our culture we avoid each other. We avoid taking the lift for fear we will encounter another person; we keep our air pods in-ear in the supermarket queue, or use self-checkout. Living in New York City, the most populated city in America, it is possible to go for whole days without speaking to another human being. We keep our eyes on our screens, recorded voices in our ears.
Phones, apps, laptops, smart watches, fit bits and GPS devices, drones and delivery trucks. We have built our machine around ourselves, swaddling ourselves with our own tech – mind, body, and soul.
It is salutary, then, to consider the ghostly, empty shells of humanity in Forster’s story.
Vashti’s relationship with her son Kuno is the most awkward thing in her life, because he wants to see her in person. She’s so busy with the interface that she barely has the time for travel – plus, she doesn’t want to (his cell is on the other side of the world). It takes multiple and increasingly demanding missives from Kuno to get her to leave her home, and board the air ship to see him.
But still, Kuno is a troublemaker. Everyone else seems content to live in an echo chamber, where new ideas are not as well attended as old ideas, reframed. “Beware of first-hand ideas!” one of the Machine’s believers says in the last chapter:
“First-hand ideas do not really exist… Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element — direct observation.”
It’s like Forster is satirising Twitter!
But Kuno is not content with living to serve the machine and be served by it. He wishes to see the Earth’s surface, feel its dirt, breathe its air, even though humans have lost the ability to live there. This very notion is apostasy. In The Machine Stops, the catered luxury of a thoroughly machine-facilitated life is the reward for those who put their faith in the machine. Those who won’t are threatened with homelessness, forced out onto the Earth’s inhospitable surface, and left for dead. This punishment is what Kuno wishes to embrace. He laments:
“We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills.”
He is alluding to the machine’s match-making service, which pairs off mates specifically for the act of reproduction and nothing else. Once conception has occurred, the parties are returned to their private, efficient existences; once the baby is weaned, it too is removed to a communal nursery. There is just enough human contact to continue the species – but it is done without joy, without love and without any long-term relationships.
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We have something similar today. People swipe, chat, maybe meet up, maybe hook up, maybe get knocked up, and move on with their lives, independently, without regret, and without connection.
Perhaps, 110 years after The Machine Stops was published, we are not as different from our ancestors as we think we are. We tend to believe we are making progress, but our desire to exert minimal effort remains the same. Yet we ridicule those who came before us for their ignorance. Vashti does, too:
“And of course she had studied the civilization that had immediately preceded her own–the 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.”
Forster predicted that humankind would, through technological development, give itself over to the mercy of an overweening power – with a sense that it’s what we’re entitled to. Now, we bemoan how we are cut off from each other just as we cut ourselves off more. We tweet and post about how much we need a break from tech, only to stay as integrated as ever, because the truth is that we are past the point of no return. We are locked into our progress.
We won’t turn back because we can’t turn back. We will submit to the drones and deliveries.
And what does that mean for the future? Right now, we hold the interface with our hands; it is separate from us. But the predictions are that it will increasingly become part of our physical form, it will be impossible to tell where a human being ends and technology begins. This is a kind of apocalypse – an apocalypse of the human form.
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And as scary as it sounds, it is a burgeoning reality that we barely notice, because it feels natural. People are already beginning to adopt these forms, linking to tech in a full and permanent way with chips and robotic limbs. It could make us stronger; but it could also turn us into exactly what Forster feared.
The interface could, eventually, become the reality itself. We once used our senses to reach out to the known and unknown world, to glean knowledge, or at least perception. In the future, we will reach with our interface, our machine.
And just as philosophers like Kant, Berkley and Plato questioned what our senses are – their reliability, their veracity – we must question our machine interface.
Because sinking into the comfort of believing the reality our interface presents could destroy us. And this destruction will happen inch by insidious inch. We won’t even notice the point at which we become neither human nor machine, but comfy blobs rehashing the same tired ideas, utterly enslaved to the machine we built to serve us. Might we be able to stop it from happening? Might we be able to stay awake and question and resist? We do still have the choice. But Forster didn’t hold out much hope.