The Machine Stops – The Dark Side of Roots and Visions

Today I discovered a serendipitous discrepancy between the required texts listed on and, and I ended up reading E.M. Forster’s sci-fi futuristic novella, The Machine Stops.  Considering how my luck usually runs, this fiction piece was probably removed from the required readings, and I theoretically ended up reading it for nothing. But hear me out.

Before I continue, the link to the short story is here: 7451697340_45d4279b87I
strongly recommend that you read it; it’s actually a pretty quick read for something so thoughtful. If you’re a TL;DR kind of person, think 1984 except Big Brother is a Machine that humans of the future live in. If not, good for you! Take a look and then read on.

The first thing that blew my mind is that this short story was written in 1909. Nineteen-oh-nine. That’s over a hundred years ago (although 2009 feels like it was just yesterday)! The amount of imagination and insight required to look into the human condition and write something that is still profoundly relevant today is phenomenal at minimum. And the sheer amount of imagery involved in crafting this futuristic world in which all of our needs are taken care of instantaneously is no small feat. But I digress. Let me say why I think this is the “dark side” of our first class topic, Roots and Visions.

Originally this was a reading intended for Imagining Communities, and it makes sense; it is just as insightful to understand what people think is not a community as it is to understand what people think is one. It’s also important to consider the potential that technology has for splitting us apart. Heck, we’re already struggling with that issue, and the Internet is still so young. But considering the time period in which this story was written, where radio broadcast and planes were just born and the polio virus was just discovered, one can also suggest that The Machine Stops is a very early prediction of what technology was going to look like, what it was going to be capable of, and how we were going to interact with it. And while Licklider and Engelbart had great and machinestops copyvirtuous visions for technology to serve as a communicative network, Forster had an altogether…bleaker…vision for the future of technology. He essentially predicted that we would continue to innovate until technology could serve our every need and desire at will, until we began to serve the technology that we created with our own hands.

Of course, there are conjectures that seem a bit rash and unreasonable. I cannot see a future in which we would no longer be amazed by the feats of nature to the point of avoiding sunlight, where it is common courtesy never to share physical contact with others, and where infants over a specific strength quota are “eliminated” because they would not be able to deal with the lack of physical activity needed that we’ve become accustomed to. And sure, it’s possible that I have some naive hope that humanity will be able to keep its head straight and question its innovative choices. But the general gist of the story is what has translated through time, and sadly, it may be coming true. We are becoming increasingly chained to our technology, unable to tear our eyes away from screens or rely on our own knowledge and cognitive skills. As Fang mentioned in our last class, many people no longer have the skills necessary to navigate themselves to geographical destinations. And if that’s not a little bit scary, I’m not sure what is.

However, we have the ability to prevent a future that looks like the one in The Machine Stops. It requires a long, hard look at what gives us our humanity, and aiming not to let technology take that away from us. What responsibilities, as a society, do you think we are obligated to uphold as we continue inventing, developing, and building higher-level technologies?