The Machine rules – you have been warned
Will we value human contact more after the lockdown? A 111-year-old story by EM Forster is proving extraordinarily prophetic about social isolation and our relationship with technology.
The call from her son is a ghastly intrusion. Vashti is living happily in her room in the hive, far below the surface of the Earth. Everything she needs, from music to food, comes at the touch of a button.
She has thousands of friends, to whom she can talk remotely. But Kuno wants her to leave her room and visit him so that they can have human contact. The idea repels her.
This is the opening of The Machine Stops, a short story by EM Forster, which has just been rediscovered. Written in 1909, it is uncannily prescient about how we live today – particularly under the lockdown – and alarming in its prophecy about where we might go from here.
Forster imagines a world in which you need a respirator to walk outside. But so used are people to living in confined spaces that they have no wish to do so. “I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark,” Vashti declares.
In this fictional world, social distancing has become permanent: “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned.” Persuaded to travel on an airship, Vashti is disgusted when an attendant “barbarically” reaches out to stop her falling over.
This way of life is made possible by the Machine – a nightmare extension of the internet of things, ready to pin you down and take your temperature the moment you mention feeling ill. Created to help humans, it has now taken control of their lives, telling them where they can live and whether they can have children. It can also kill or exile potential troublemakers.
Kuno has had enough of this. Humanity, he reminds his mother, “is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong”. But for her and many others, the Machine has become a religion.
In the story, the Machine collapses and people return to the natural world. Whether the end of the lockdown will bring a reaction against technology remains to be seen – but a YouGov survey has found that 70% of people think Zoom and Skype will cease to play a major role.
There could also be a drop in demand for digital assistants such as Alexa. According to one expert, the robotics industry is facing a crisis: “We need to redesign technology in a more human-centric way.”
Will we value human contact more after the lockdown?
Some say, of course. We have all missed being with friends and loved ones, and discovered that talking to them on Zoom or Skype is no substitute. Forster explains in his story that “the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people”. Even if we see loved ones at a social distance, it is frustrating not to be able to hug or kiss them.
Others argue that, thanks to the lockdown, we have found that we need other people less than we thought, and being isolated is less stressful than having to deal with them. We have come to value time on our own as a chance to think more deeply about things. It seems like a waste to make a long journey to meet a friend, or go to a party where we might get stuck talking to someone who bores us.
- Would you take advice from a robot?
- Should there be laws about the use of robots?
- Design an airship.
- On two sides of a piece of paper, write a story about a world in which people have rejected all forms of modern technology.
Some People Say...
“Progress is made by the improvement of people, not the improvement of machines.”Adrian Tchaikovsky (born 1972), British author
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- A rapidly growing area of technology is Emotional AI (artificial intelligence). This aims to increase trust in computers by improving the way in which they interact with humans. It involves them reading facial expressions, tracking voice levels, and scanning eye movement. A system already exists for cars which can tell whether the driver is sleepy, angry, or not paying attention.
- What do we not know?
- How accurate people’s ideas about life after the pandemic will prove to be. The YouGov poll for Sky News found that 59% think that the world will be significantly different – and the majority believe that this will be a good thing. More than a third – 37% – expect overseas holidays to become a thing of the past; 33% think that the climate crisis will be the most important issue.
- EM Forster
- Edwin Morgan Forster (1879-1970) was a British novelist who stressed the need for human affection. His most famous books include A Room with a View and Howard’s End.
- Knowing in advance. As in the word “science”, it comes from the Latin verb “scire”, meaning to know.
- In the early 20th Century, huge hydrogen-filled balloons driven by propellers became a viable form of transport, carrying thousands of people each year. They were discredited in the 1930s after several went up in flames, causing many deaths.
- Internet of things
- The 5G system is expected to transform the internet, allowing multiple devices to connect with each other. For example, a driverless car will be able to pick up traffic reports and change its route for a faster one.
- Focused on. For example, egocentric people are only interested in themselves.
- Subtle variations. It comes from a French verb meaning to show the kind of differences of colour you see in a cloud.