Monday, September 28, 2009

Thoughts on The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

I thoroughly enjoyed the short story The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster. This tale tells the story about a future world where everyone lives a life secluded in private cells, all communications are mediated through a machine, all human needs are satisfied through this same machine, and first-hand experience of anything and everything is frowned down upon. Similar to the world depicted in Orwell's classic 1984, humans in this world live like slaves though most choose not to recognize this reality.

The main sentiment Forster echoes in this short story is the fear that through technology we may loose our humanity (or in other word, technology may ultimately dehumanize our society). In The Machine Stops, the machine, rather than man, has become the measure for all things. Human beings have been relegated to lives without any direct contact with nature or one another. Original thought and experience are looked down upon, since they are not confined to the conventions upon which the machine is built.

Before I delve any further into Forster's story, it is important for me to define what I think he means by technology. In one of my classes at ITP someone posited that we (as in humans) considered technology to be anything that was developed after we passed our early teenage years. Though this explanation is practical when talking to a younger person about devices such as computers and cellphones, it is not nearly broad enough. Technology ultimately refers to the making of things - that is why written language is a technology and so is religion, democracy, the wheel, man-made fire, books, bicycles, and of course iPhones.

One very interesting, and prescient element, about this story is how humans choose to imprison themselves by this machine of their own making. This contrasts with many more modern sci-fi stories - e.g. terminator and the matrix - where the machines gain consciousness and rise up against humans. This idea of humans choosing to imprison themselves is fascinating, especially when you view the many layers of technology through which we already mediate our experience of the world.

It brings to my mind how even the technology of language, especially when complemented by writing, often functions as lens through which humans experience the world rather than a set of tools to describe our experiences. As pointed out in Ong's reading from last week, the birth of written language gave rise to much fear (as has the rise of computers in our modern age). In the end it was ironic how the people who were best able to verbalize their fearful emotions about the new technology of written language, embraced written language in their attempts to make cases against it.

The many conventions that we have created in language and that govern our experience of the world were mostly developed in response to one person's (or many people's) experience from a long time ago. The problem is that these conventions often remain in place long after the context in which they were created has vanished. Worst yet, these conventions are often held as truths that supersede a person's conflicting direct experience of the world.

In the world created by Forster, technology is in many ways a dead relic from the past that keeps us from experiencing directly the world in which we are living right now. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig offers another interesting perspective on technology, and our discontents with it: the source of our discontent with technology in Western society is caused by the dualistic thought that dominates our society. "The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That's impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is-a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both." (p. 284).

As such, the problem with the technological progress in Western society, and the feeling of estrangement caused by it, could be ascribed to our focus on rational and considerations and subject-object dualism (the machine-side of man) and disregard for emotional considerations and a holistic understandings, which cannot be verified analytically.

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