For most people, the latest national lockdown means uncertainty: precarious jobs and incomes, concerns about the safety of loved ones, and – for many parents – the difficulty of combining work with childcare.
It also sends us back to a peculiarly confined world unimaginable one year ago – one in which we have come to rely heavily on the internet for work, shopping, leisure and communication with our family and friends. A world where contact with others could have lethal consequences and where venturing outside our homes has become, in some cases, against the law and subject to serious penalties.
How can literature guide us in this strange new world? EM Forster’s short story The Machine Stops (1909) presents an uncannily similar world to our own.
It is set in an unspecified future, where Earth has become inhospitable. Human beings live deep beneath the surface in cramped hexagonal chambers. Each person lives alone, yet on the face of it, few are unhappy.
A vast, global machine connects everyone through video communication – a little like Zoom or WhatsApp which have become so important during the lockdown. Each day passes from one virtual meeting or lecture to another, the passage of time indicated only by the dimming of artificial light. People can also mute themselves if they wish (they seem to be untroubled by the “you are still muted” problem).
An Alexa-like monitor supplies everything they might require at the push of a button:
There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button … (t)here was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
The narrative follows the encounter of Vashti and Kuno, a mother and son who live on opposite sides of the world, and their uncomfortable attempt to meet in person at Kuno’s request. Kuno is worried about their helpless reliance on this machine. Some have even come to worship it, lovingly poring the pages of the one book still in circulation, the Book of the Machine, which provides an instantaneous answer to any question (sound familiar?)
For many, like Vashti, leaving home is a terrifying experience. Compared to the machine’s soothing comforts, sunlight appals. Nature is misshapen. Skin-to-skin contact is shocking and sinister. Vashti swallows mood-numbing medication, (a “tabloid”) to cope with the stress of direct experience. Then one day, Kuno asks: what if the machine stops?
Bored and disenchanted, Kuno decides to find an exit. In a gesture of romantic if doomed defiance – anticipating that of Bernard Marx and Winston Smith in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four – he briefly makes it outside to the surface of the Earth, with its still-beautiful forests, mountains, sunsets, seas – and people. This direct encounter with nature electrifies him.
It is not easy. In a move not unlike dragging yourself out of the house to start a new lockdown exercise regime, he first clambers out of his cosy room but is soon overcome with exhaustion. But he keeps going. Slowly, he climbs up level after level of identical pods, never encountering another person nor meeting any opposition from the machine (for who would want to leave?)
Finally, he reaches a disused lift shaft to the surface. Outside, he collapses into a grassy hollow, blinded by sunlight for the first time. He discovers there are others out there, the “Homeless”, people who want to think, feel and find meaning in their lives by their own design, without surrendering their freedom to the machine.
Sensing an escapee, the tentacles of the machine grab Kuno and pull him back under. But he is transformed. He persuades Vashti to leave her pod and travel around the world to meet him, in person at last, to tell her all about it. Later, when the machine unexpectedly breaks down, plunging the world into chaos, Kuno and Vashti reunite one last time. If there is hope, Kuno says, it lies in leaving the machine behind.
The Machine Stops is a reminder of the value of finding a point of escape and enjoyment of the natural world during the tough months ahead. For Kuno, life under the machine has “robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation”.
As we look ahead to a time after Covid-19, The Machine Stops asks us to think about how we recover the qualities that make us human. It also asks us to think about the political consequences of long-term reliance on a handful of unaccountable internet platforms, without leaving our homes or interacting with people who might differ in their outlooks to us.
When we cede control in exchange for convenience, cosy echo chambers and comfortingly familiar illusions, bad things follow.
After the pandemic
Let us not overstate all the similarities. Forster’s is a world without work, whereas our machines seem to have us working all hours. Everyone has adequate shelter and food. The problem lies less with the machine than the masses, willingly distracted by an artificial shadowplay of disinformation and instant gratification.
But these strange and unsettling visions ask of us one thing: what kind of world might we want to live in after the Covid-19 era?
How might we eventually overcome the (understandable) fear of touch? How might we cherish and protect our endangered natural world? How, despite the growing ubiquity of AI and automation, might we bring under control the internet monopolies that attempt to meet our every need and desire and restore the civic, communal and embodied life that preceded it?
One thing is clear: only us human beings, with our messy emotions and complexity, can do that dreaming and that rebuilding together, democratically.
Dan Taylor is a Lecturer in Social and Political Thought at The Open University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.