Sunday, 7 December 2014

What if the Machine Stops?

I first became familiar with the Internet back in 1996, thanks to a forward-looking ICG supporter who took the trouble to treat me to an hour-long demonstration of its potential, and Caroline and I purchased our first fit-for-purpose computer (all 1.5 Gb of it) a year later.

Realising the inevitability of it becoming the primary means of mass communication within a matter of years, I was reminded at the time of a short story that I read at school called The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, written as a nod to H.G. Wells, in which the whole of mankind became dependent upon a solitary machine into which everybody connected and through which all social interaction took place.

Recently I found myself revisiting the book through Wikipedia, which gives the following account of its plot, which I quote at length: "The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas'.

"Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitised, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptured him, and he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son's concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

"As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, there are two important developments. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and threatened with Homelessness. The Mending Apparatus – the system charged with repairing defects that appear in the Machine proper – has also failed by this time, but concerns about this are dismissed in the context of the supposed omnipotence of the Machine itself.

"During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti's. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and tells her cryptically, "The Machine stops." Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. But the situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost. Finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing 'civilisation' down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti's ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realise that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated."

Considering Forster wrote the story in 1909 it would appear to have been remarkably prophetic. We are not required to live under the ground (yet!), but apart from that the similarities with modern life and our dependence upon the World Wide Web are really quite staggering.

Just how would we cope if one day we were all to log into the Internet and nothing happened?

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