The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops is a satirical warning against overindulgence in technology at the expense of physical experience, complex human interaction, and self-reliance.

Perhaps confusingly at first, the technology-addicted and meek residents of The Machine Stops seem to praise “ideas” above all else. Today, we regard ideas as generally virtuous things, the products of active, independent and creative thinking. In Foster’s text, ideas seem to refer more to pieces of information – factoids, opinions, and complaints from others that help shape citizens’ perceptions and feelings for them — hardly the products of critical thinking.

In Foster’s alternate future, these “ideas” are considered beneficial while the products of direct physical and sensory experience are disregarded. It seems that these direct experiences cannot inform what precisely to think or feel, requiring rather the individual to interpret and read one’s own feelings, a task that must be considered quite laborious by the citizens of Foster’s world.

Indeed, the popular lecturer implies that “first-hand ideas” or direct observation must be avoided in favor of championing the opinions/perspectives of others. Such a philosophy clearly minimizes the role of self-reliance and personal judgements and advocates conformity and acceptance of the status quo.

I found the text both amusing and disturbing, as many of the descriptions of a potentially interactionless human life seem familiar and consistent with our collective present day existence — which is a remarkable feat as it has been over 100 years since the text was written. The “ideas” of Fosters text exist today in the form of our Twitter tweets, our Facebook status messages, our YouTube comments, our reality television and our celebrity gossip magazines — while correspondingly, interacting in person continues to cede ground to the brevity and convenience of email, IM, and video chat. We run on treadmills and suffer from obesity epidemics because physical exercise seems repulsive, inconvenient and difficult for us. In Foster’s text, Vashanti complains that “there is no time” and that experiences taking more than 10 minutes are “a disastrous waste of time” — similarly, we complain today that there’s just no time to exercise.

The final lesson of Foster’s text is, of course, the destruction of civilization — as the decreasingly competent citizens are unable to maintain the Machine that provides their daily needs for them. The lesson is familiar but particularly well-illustrated: that it is both a disservice and dangerous to forget the strength (as well as the joy) that can be gained from direct, physical observation and experience in the shadow of technology’s supreme convenience.