In his 1909 novella The Machine Stops, EM Forster asked his readers to imagine a subterranean world where people live in isolation and rarely leave their homes. Each person is assigned a lightly furnished apartment, “hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee,” with “buttons and switches everywhere.” From there they are fed, clothed, medicated, entertained, titillated and professionally occupied. Travel outside requires permission from a technocratic elite. But none of this bothers Vashti, a “swaddled lump of flesh... with a face as white as fungus.” She is content to experience every aspect of her life virtually, summoned and dismissed through a system of gadgets and gizmos, linked to a master “Machine.” However, her son Kuno finds it all very enfeebling. “You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” he scoffs. “Men made it, do not forget that.”
Kuno wants to meet people in person and visit the Earth’s surface. These desires trouble Vashti because tactility is shunned and “the clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned.” Instead, people interact from their rooms using “glowing plates.” As for going outside, everything you need can be delivered through a swift, “pneumatic post.” None of this works for Kuno. He is determined to venture outside, even without a permit or a respirator. “You mustn’t say anything against the machine,” Vashti chides. Indeed, there are steep penalties for having ideas and desires that are “contrary to the spirit of the age.”
One can easily draw comparisons between our current predicament and the dystopia conjured by Forster. Indeed, the echo of Amazon, Uber, Netflix and the all-conquering Zoom is uncanny. But more than technology, Forster is probing the logical ramifications of a society obsessed with keeping people safe. In doing so, he gives us a literary lens through which we can wrestle with the logic of our own locked-down world. In a debate rightly dominated by epidemiology, The Machine Stops is nevertheless essential reading.
That’s because political as well as medical reality has greatly shifted over the last two months. In America, liberals now talk about protecting life regardless of its quality, while conservatives wave signs saying “My body, my choice.” Plans for winding down social distancing point to a future even more dominated by big data, macro-surveillance and micro-compliance. Indeed, governments all over Europe are demonstrating a disquieting enthusiasm for controlling personal decision making. Seventy-five years on from the end of the Second World War, most of us can be stopped in the street by a police officer demanding to know where we are going. Though purportedly temporary, it is a bitter and biting irony, and one being fully taken advantage of by the Orbáns, Putins and Janšas of the world.
As with the locked-down society of The Machine Stops, all this has been done in the name of safety. We are told to “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” But in doing so, we are in fact jeopardising the very thing we think of as life. By improvising a world more like Forster’s (one in which we bring things to people rather than people to things) we are substituting what he called the “imponderable bloom” of real human contact for “something ‘good enough.’” By greatly prioritising our desire to be protected over our need to be connected, we have saved lives, but also unleashed a pandemic of social death.
Meanwhile, doctors and nurses toil into physical and emotional oblivion. They are dedicated and worthy of our utmost respect. Nevertheless, they grind in a machine that has temporarily reduced all forms of public life to its service. This is an unpleasant, counter-intuitive way to think about public healthcare. Or perhaps, it is simply against the spirit of the age to talk against the machine. Either way, we must with Forster ask whether the things we end up losing might be as valuable as the things we are trying to safeguard.
Unlike Forster’s dystopia, modern Britain isn’t an egalitarian society. While the middle classes joke on social media about drinking in their pyjamas, millions are left to smoulder in the Grenfell-like flats that dot council estates such as the one I grew up on. Flatten the curve, we tell each other. But we have no idea what kind of curves we are creating on those estates—domestic abuse, suicide, the need for months of remedial schooling, addiction, obesity, prolonged trauma. Not for all, obviously. And none of these issues are exclusive to council estates. But it seems we simply don’t care to measure these things right now. I suspect we soon shall.
Ultimately, Forster points to how our current predicament is as cultural as it is medical. His characters don’t rely on a “machine.” They are instead held hostage by a flawed ideology of benevolence, trapped in an ethic that fears death more than it loves living. The result for them is a cloistered existence of pale imitations, bland ideas and authoritarian technocracy. How we exit our own lockdown logic is not simply a matter of tests and beds and curves. We must also recalibrate our desire for protection as it relates to our need for connection. Forster argues powerfully that we cannot fake the latter in order to ensure the former. He gives us a choice: feed the machine and live life on the leash. Or stop the machine—live a freer life in which death is a greater risk. Perhaps it’s a false choice. But our own decisions must certainly walk the same tensions—between freedom and control, life and leash, "imponderable bloom" and imponderable doom.