The Machine Never Stops (1909), an Eerily Prescient Cautionary Tale

“The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, published in 1909, is a remarkably prescient story illustrating a dystopian future in which humanity has retreated underground.

“The Machine Stops” is quite atypical of E.M. Forster’s body of work. The British novelist’s most well-known works like A Passage to India (1924), Howard’s End (1910) and A Room with a View (1908) explores class differences and social conventions. His stories typically are grounded in then-contemporary British society.

Familiar Fears

The short story, published in the November 1909 edition of The Oxford and Cambridge Review, reflects Forster’s fears about technology taking over and interfering with human connections. Though the technology of his time may seem primitive today, it also had a similar level of rapid advancement offered people hope as well as anxiety.

The world was on the latter stages of the Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the Technological Revolution, which began in the late 19th century. When the Second Industrial Revolution wrapped up in the early 20th century, the world was a much different place thanks to significant advancements in manufacturing and production methods.

Widespread adoption of electrical power transformed industries and everyday life. Thanks to the telephone and transportation breakthroughs, humans had never been so connected to people living very far away.

The Story

In this world, humans live isolated in cell-like rooms serviced by an all-encompassing and omnipotent technological entity, known simply as The Machine. They’re dependent on The Machine for everything from food to entertainment to communication, and even air.

The protagonist is Vashti, a lecturer who’s content with life within this system, valuing The Machine over direct human experiences. Her son, Kuno, lives on the other side of the planet and expresses interest in seeing the surface world, going against societal norms.

Forster’s story explores themes of technological dependence, isolation, and the loss of individuality. When Kuno ventures to the Earth’s surface, it changes The Machine’s dynamics.

Modern Parallels

“The Machine Stops” is full of eerie parallels to modern technology and societal trends. In more than a few ways, the story echoes aspects of 21st century life and anxieties.

Global Communication

In the story, people communicate and form relations through a global network, rarely meeting in person. There’s even technology akin to video conferencing enabling people to see and speak to each other through devices. The way they’re educated is pretty much e-learning.

There’s even IoT-like technology. Living cells automatically adjust to meet inhabitants’ needs, similar to smart home technology of today.

Virtual Reality and Artificial Worlds

Humans resort to artificial means to experience the world on the Earth’s surface. In the story, VR-like technology offers immersive experiences with the inevitable result: the diminished need for direct interaction and external stimuli.

Technological Dependence

In Forster’s dystopian future, humans are hopelessly addicted to technology for the most basic needs. Modern technology would be unimaginable in 1909. Today, however, many consider a life without smartphones, computers, and the Internet unfathomable.

Isolation and Distrust

In “The Machine Stops,” the importance of physical interactions and community have been all but eliminated.

Characters prefer virtual experiences, distrusting their own senses in interpretating the real world. In 2024, who doesn’t find it increasingly difficult to determine whether something they see online is real or AI generated?

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This story is in the public domain. Below is “The Machine” by E.M. Forster as first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909: