The short story “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster begins with a character, Vashti, alone in a hexagonal room with the Machine. The Machine is responsible for people’s communication needs, entertainment, and practical requirements like getting the bed out. Forster describes the room being like a “cell”, which conjures up images of jails and being imprisoned. To what ends would technology make you dependent on it? Technology in the Machine’s world made the people so reliant on it that they literally died once it stopped.
Vashti, a mother, tries to communicate with her son Kuno. However, she seems to be more interested in getting back to the Machine than having a meaningful dialogue with Kuno. She says, “’Be quick!’ She called, her irritation returning. ‘Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.’” This is not the only thing that hinders their connection. Kuno wants his mother to come visit him, however she replies, “’But I can see you!’ she exclaimed. ‘What more do you want?’” Vashti is incapable of valuing seeing someone in the flesh as opposed to seeing them via the Machine.
Vashti got on an Air Ship to visit her son. She almost fell, however the flight attendant tried to steady her. She thought the action was “barbaric”, because people did not touch each other anymore. Vashti said, “’How dare you!’ exclaimed the passenger. ‘You forget yourself!’” The flight attendant just wanted to help, however even simple help was seen as hostile. The Machine had isolated people so much, that human contact was seen as foreign and was unwelcomed. This line is telling, “The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let her fall.” In this world it is a bigger offence to touch someone than it is to let them fall and hurt themselves. Technology has distanced people both physically and psychologically.
In this world the physical world outside the Machine is regarded as being unnecessary and uncivilized. Kuno tells his mother that he wants to visit the world outside of his room, and she replies, “’Don’t. Don’t talk of these terrible things. You make me miserable. You are throwing civilization away.’” Because of the Machine, nature and open spaces became obsolete. Kuno went to the outside in a way that was not permitted and he was going to get in trouble. Kuno does not like nor trust the Machine. He says, ‘”Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives in the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now.’” The Machine used to serve the humans, but now the humans are servants of the Machine. The humans are now more limited by their technology, they are reliant on it and they have less freedom to physically move around.
After a while, going to the surface of the earth was not permitted. At the same time, first hand ideas were not seen as being valuable. Here is an interesting line, “’Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. ‘First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element – direct observation.‘” Direct observation is seen as a bad thing, and the further that one could get away from it, the better. At this point the mechanical, the Machine, was seen as the only proper thing there was for humans.
The world is really reliant on the Machine at this point. However, the Machine was starting to have some issues. Kuno tells his mother that the Machine is stopping, however Vashti had no idea what that really meant, she could not imagine a world without the Machine. Vashti tells her friend about the Machine stopping, and her friend replies, “’The Machine is stopping?’ her friend replied. ‘What does that mean? The phrase conveys nothing to me.’” The issues began with music, then they gradually got more serious such as there being mold on fruit. At first people complained about the issues, but after a while they got used to them. Here it says, “Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine.” Even though the Machine was having issues, the humans were so reliant on it that they had to get used to the new problems, there was simply no other choice.
Then the Machine disconnected everyone, then there was silence. Here it says, “She had never known silence, and the coming of it nearly killed her – it did kill many thousands of people outright.” People were so used to hearing the hum of the Machine, that not hearing it literally killed people. Then something happened that had not happened for a very long time. People finally got out of their cells and interacted with each other. Here it says, “People were crawling about, people were screaming, whimpering, gasping for breath, touching each other, vanishing in the dark, and ever and anon being pushed off the platform on to the live rail.” When the people got scared, they finally found their humanity. Kuno says, ‘”Quicker,” he gasped, ‘I am dying – but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.’” At the end, they got to embrace each other and found the connection that had been missing. They did not need the Machine to communicate with each other anymore.
“The Machine Stops” tells a tale of a dependence on technology that leads to death. There are many instances of dependency on the Machine, such as it providing the bedding, food, and communication to all people. Because all of the people relied so much on the Machine to get everything done, when it broke down they could not survive anymore and everything literally came crashing down.