“Big Brother” is watching you in a very “Orwellian” way. Has been for years. People who have never heard of George Orwell know of the term “Big Brother.” In many ways his dark vision of what the year 1984 would look like is prophetic. For example, his novel 1984 takes place in a never-ending war while technology is aiding an over-reaching government. I read that in the New York Times yesterday.
Orwell was right. He was dead on. Spooky.
EM Forster is best known for his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. Less well-known is a 12,000-word science fiction piece, an allegory about technology titled, ”The Machine Stops” written in 1909.
Forster’s gloomy tale takes place in a future where all the world’s people have become hermits, content with no longer physically touching others, opting instead to live in solitary with the aid of The Machine. “There are no musical instruments and yet…this room is throbbing with melodious sounds,” he writes. The protagonist Vashti lives in a small climate controlled room, illuminated by neither lamp nor window. She has thousands of friends. She even lectures on “Music during the Australian Period.” It all takes place through The Machine. The catalyst is when her son wants to see her in person instead of through the “blue plate.” People don’t travel above ground anymore. The atmosphere is barren and brown. And Vashti doesn’t care for “air-ships.”
Basically he predicted central air, the Internet, video conferencing, television, radio, global warming and commercial air travel.
Forster was right. He was dead on. Spooky.
“The Machine Stops” was penned a hundred years ago. From a historical perspective, the first radio was not installed in the White House until 1922, yet a Victorian like Forster imagined modernity amazingly close.
I first read this short story ten years ago: before I became a telecommuter, before MySpace, before Google was a verb. Now I have days where I feel like Vashti, isolated in my pajamas revering The Machine. “The Machine, feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being,” wrote Forster.
But the story is also a poignant criticism of technological advancement. The current struggle between “old media” and “new media” is one of reporting verses the digesting news. One hundred years ago a lecturer in Forster’s tale pronounces, ”Beware of first-hand ideas! 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 the disturbing element – direct observation.” It’s a rundown of blogging verses journalism.
It’s not just that Forster foresaw the Internet, but he guessed rightly how it would be used. In this fable of the future what values most are ideas – they are the new commodity. Talking to her son Kuno about his desire to see her in person through The Machine is private, until Vashti turns off her isolation switch. “The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Had she any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas?” He’s describing online communities. He’s describing Facebook. He’s describing Twitter.
“We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now,” Forster wrote. “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 paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. “ Of course, as I write this my “machine” chimes with the siren call of new emails, IMs and tweets tempting me to distraction. To quote Vashti as she tried to comfort herself while on the air-ship, ”O Machine! O Machine!”
This piece originally appeared on True/Slant.