The Machine Stops
Gabriela Schutz, DISconnect

Gabriela Schutz  DISconnect  2016  clay  46 x 18.5 x 12.5cm   Photograph by Noa Zeni

NJ Stallard  I Want To See You Not Through The Machine

You sit inside a small room. It doesn’t matter what colour the walls are painted. You educate yourself daily from the comfort of your armchair, or lie back in your marble imitation bathtub. You know thousands of people. You love the machine. A bell rings. You open your laptop and a face appears. It wobbles a little bit, like a blue jelly. It’s your son. He’s in Lake Titicaca or Santiago or Delaware – somewhere on the other side of the world. He urgently needs to tell you something and wants you to come and visit.

You are irritated. This wasn’t the hands-free motherhood you signed up for. One of the greatest freedoms of the machine is its ability to connect while slowly wearing away at your relationships, like the erosion of a cliff and the houses falling into the sea, one by one.


In 1909, a 30 year old EM Forster sat down at his desk and wrote The Machine Stops, his only work of science fiction. Set in the far future, the story describes a human society which lives below the earth’s surface and is run by the ‘Machine’. Each individual lives in his own hexagonal room, which the Machine provides with an automated bathtub, an armchair and ambient lighting. The humans rarely go outside or see each other, and instead share lectures from their armchairs and stay in touch via a blue light able to connect to all the other hexagonal rooms.

To read the story today is to confront an uncanny version of our own ‘hyper-connected’ world. Readers have described the story as ‘chilling’ and ‘spooky’ due to the accuracy of Forster’s dystopian vision of the future. Like an Edwardian rip-off of Black Mirror, he depicts a world in which the more we become dependent on the machine, the more we are alienated from each other.

The value of Forster’s story is akin to a $20 psychic or a trend-forecaster or a mortgage: its value borrows from the future as much as it proves it. Forster’s contemporaries were able to pull off similar prophetic tricks. HG Wells gave us the atomic bomb in The World Set Free. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein demonstrated the phenomena of ‘competitive exclusion.’

For Forster, one of the uncanniest moments is his description of a video call. The story opens with Vashti, a mother, relaxing in her hexagonal room – she loves the Machine. Her day is interrupted when an electric bell rings. A faint blue light appears and then she sees the image of her son, Kuno, from the other side of the world. Vashti is irritated when Kuno asks to see her in person and expresses doubts about the Machine:

‘I want you to come and see me.’
Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.
‘But I can see you!’ she exclaimed. ‘What more do you want?’
‘I want to see you not through the Machine’, said Kuno. ‘I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.’
‘Oh, hush!’ said his mother, vaguely shocked. ‘You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.’
‘Why not?’
‘One mustn’t.’
‘You talk as if a god had made the Machine’, cried the other. ‘I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see some thing like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come.’

Videophone technology was not an alien concept in 1909. Alexander Graham Bell drew up notes for an ‘electrical radiophone’ in 1891, after rumours were circulated by leading cartoonists that Bell had already invented a combination of a videophone and television. The idea remained popular in the public imagination. Three decades after Forster’s story, video communication was used by postmen of the German Reich Postzentralamt in Nazi Germany.

But what 30-year-old Forster foresaw wasn’t only the medium, but the doubts. The rest of The Machine Stops can be read as a battle between Kuno’s dissident ideas and desire to return to the natural world and Vashti’s faith in technology to enhance the future. ‘It’s against the spirit of our age!’ Vashti says when Kuno reveals his plan to escape the Machine, akin to a social media detox or move to Virginia to live off-grid. Kuno’s ideas foreground our common fear – that to connect via the Internet is ultimately to lose something. His doubts are the paradox of connection; we are able to stay in touch, but pay the price through isolation and alienation.

Who knows where this paradox came from or whether to believe it. Who knows whether to believe in echo chambers, either. What is worth knowing, however, is who you are, or who you’d like to be – Vashti or Kuno? Are you happy to sit in a room where you can connect to a thousand friends? Or do you long to see your mother face to face? Do you find yourself avoiding or growing resentful of direct experience? Or are you worried the world is becoming increasingly the same?

When Vashti eventually travels to see Kuno via air-ship, she questions the need to travel at all: ‘what was the good of going to Pekin when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Pekin?’

Fast forward 100 years after Forster’s story and it’s 2009. Skype is four years old and has 521 million users, growing by an average of 10 million per month.

To distract from news of the company’s privacy breach in China, where it was used by the government to spy on citizens (Skype would later be described as ‘privacy’s biggest enemy’ after Snowden leaks revealed links to the NSA) and an ongoing lawsuit between its new owners and founders, Skype launches its full video screen.

‘Whether it’s saying hello to your daughter at college or reading a book to your child while you’re away on business, video calling lets you have the conversations that make a difference and it really feels almost as good as being there’ says Mike Bartlett, director of product strategy of Skype, during the launch of the full screen service. Videophone technology had previously focused on the business sector; now it wanted to conquer families, using ‘as good as being there’ as its mantra.

A few years earlier, a father in Utah requested regular video calls with his son during a custody battle. The judge was unfamiliar with the technology: ‘Is it anything like the CNN satellite feed from Iraq’ the judge asked. ‘Because that’s crap, I’m not ordering that.’ The father set up a pair of video screens in court, via NetMeeting. He won the case.

The first ‘videophone visitation’ in a US prison also took place in 2009. Initially used as an add-on service for friends and family who struggle to travel to prison during visiting hours, video has now replaced face-to-face visits in a growing number of facilities. Last year, reports emphasised how cruel the technology is and also how unreliable – the video screen often cuts out, at a rate of $12.99 per 20 minute call.

The service is provided by Securus Technologies, ‘the largest inmate communications provider’ according to the company website, and currently serves over 1.2 million inmates across America. The technology is compatible for Apple and Android. A Securus-created promotional video on YouTube lists the social gatherings and family events that inmates are able to connect to – game night, bedtime stories, sweet sixteen. If you don’t have the bandwidth, they suggest logging on from a public library or local church.

Vashti or Kuno? As good as being there? Sometimes a video call can feel like a vitamin boost for a fading relationship. We use it to speak to the dying. We use it to make love. But it is frightening for a government to decide to quietly replace human contact with a video. That for people under duress it is the equivalent to eye contact, to the smell of another person, to touch.

Since the Utah case, the ‘Skypedad’ is now a common phenomenon. In 2015, the UK Children’s Committee produced a report in response to new immigration rules requiring a UK citizen to earn a minimum of £18,600 per annum for their partners to reside in the UK. 15,000 children were separated from their parents by the rules and the report states that the majority of the children, who stayed in touch with missing parents via Skype, suffered anxiety, depression and emotional and behavioural problems.

Another paradox of connection. Children connect, but children lose. For every heartwarming tale of connectivity, there is a horror story. Also in 2009: brides in Gaza use Skype to marry their loved ones. In 2017, a Chinese teenager decapitates his mother, then sends a video to his friends of his mother’s head in a bucket. In the final scene of The Machine Stops, Forster puts the flourishing touch to the metaphor he has built throughout the text. The hexagonal rooms are increasingly referred to as cells, like the cell of a bee, and we come to believe that it is humankind, not the Machine, that has imprisoned itself.

When the Machine stops, the world begins to fall apart. Communication between the cells breaks, and then the cells themselves. Vashti stays inside her cell until the very last moment and when she leaves, Forster writes: ‘It was thus that she opened her prison and escaped — escaped in the spirit: at least so it seems to me, here my meditation closes. That she escapes in the body — I cannot perceive that.’

Forster’s story offers a dystopian vision of the future but, like most dystopias, it carries a utopia nestled in its belly. In the darkness outside her cell, Vashti finds Kuno and they embrace. Mother and son are reunited; Kuno was right all along, and the city breaks ‘like a honeycomb.’

Vashti asks: ‘Is there any hope, Kuno?’

He replies: ‘None for us’.

NJ Stallard is a writer, editor, critic and poet. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, Broadly, Tank magazine, PN Review, Ambit and others.