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The Machine Stops (newyorker.com)
79 points by mooreds 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

I read the original "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster way back in 1909, a few weeks back, following a link from this very website. It's worth a read!


EDIT: Looks like that link is a little overloaded right now... This one works: https://www.ele.uri.edu/faculty/vetter/Other-stuff/The-Machi...

I clicked the New Yorker link, hoping it would be the Forster classic. I was a little bit disappointed. Thanks for finding these links.

The original short story is breathtaking for both its foresight and salience. It belongs with those titans of dystopia, 1984 and Brave New World. In some ways, it is perhaps even more relevant to today's world, given the rise of all encompassing distributed computing juggernauts like Google and Facebook. These systems have gotten so big and so complex, it seems beyond the capability of any individual to rein them in.

I used to have a acquaintance who was a construction worker. Nice enough guy but limited by his lack of education and from time to time something would happen that would make it clear that he'd have a better time in life if he'd venture past the high school diploma and family vocation.

One time he was working in an old house and found a very old mimeographed copy of that story hidden in the walls. He took this to suggest that the story or the author were somehow subversive or secret and became really motivated to read it. It is the only thing I'd ever known him to read, much less seen him at it with my own eyes.

I think for him that was like an unlikely collection of perfect circumstances because he loved the story and his experiences around it. I suspect in his mind he had been exposed to some sort of forbidden knowledge and that pleased him greatly.

There's a good free audiobook version on librivox.org

I for one am slightly underwhelmed by the irony of seeing "audiobook" in this particular context.

Audiobooks are useful for people who are blind, people who are severely dyslexic, or people with NVD (non-verbal learning disorder), who are capable of processing sound fine, but might have difficulty processing text.

I fail to see how it's ironic, given that the original story was about a button-pressing utopia. The utopia wasn't so simplistic and purile as people having things read to them, or watching movies instead of reading, but instead, people refused to do proper research, trusting written accounts from people several times removed from the original texts, like some obscene all-encompassing version of 'telephone'. People who were, ultimately, afraid of curiosity.

> immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing. I am confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people

Why is there this prejudice that virtual life is dehumanizing? Talking through the social network apps is social life.

Whether it is quality talk or not, dehumanizing or not, I don't see much difference with the good old analogical talking - namely it depends on what are you talking about and with whom.

The big difference is the loss of non verbal communication such as body language, pauses, etc. I agree with the author that there’s an important element of presence in your current surroundings that is lost with the proliferation of smartphones.

Yes, but there's also an important element of presence in environments you wouldn't have had access in your life without the technology.

The loss of non verbal communication was also a thing in epistolary communication, a common practice for all social classes (even those who couldn't read or write would manage to get letters or postcards written for them); and that was considered a cultivated social activity, not at all dehumanizing either.


It’s amazing most people have no clue that they are mapping their mood state onto their own interpretation of someone’s text messages. We evolved to read non-verbal communication.

Key and Peele have a great skit on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naleynXS7yo

Different does not mean "non-social" or "dehumanizing." Obviously communication involving new technologies will be different from previous modes. Why does that mean it is strictly worse? Some things are lost, but other things are gained by the change.

> “Cinemas and motor cars were blamed for a flagging interest among young people in present-day politics by ex-Provost JK Rutherford… [He] said he had been told by people in different political parties that it was almost impossible to get an audience for political meetings. There were, of course, many distractions such as the cinema…”

> Young People and Politics, Kirkintilloch Herald, 1938

Whether it's 'dehumanizing' or not, overstimulation can certainly undermine presence in oneself. Just relaxing, allowing yourself to be at home in your surroundings, thinking through your environment, other people, yourself and life. I spend more than an hour walking through the centre of a beautiful city every day. I tend to listen to podcasts, but I often finding it far more enjoyable to just absorb the street and the sky, and let my thoughts drift naturally.

Of course there is nothing dehumanizing per se in the use of a certain type of communication medium. A text message from a loved one that is far away and that one misses dearly is much more meaningful than small talk about the weather with a stranger we are face-to-face with while waiting for the elevator.

Life is not so simple though. What terrifies me about naive techno-optimists is how they shrug their shoulders and bypass incredibly complex issues, for which entire scientific fields, philosophy, works of literature and millennia of thought and experience exist, with some super-simplistic tech analogy. As if it all boils down to superficial things such as delight, profit, user experience, "quality of interaction", information exchange, "retina display", touch-this-or-that, etc etc etc.

It doesn't. The medium is not just some inert thing, not just a tool. New technologies that create new mediums tend to profoundly change society in ways that were not envisioned by the inventors of said technologies. We can talk about how the printing press led to Protestantism, or how TV changed family structures, political messages and even styles of war.

A social network app comes with a lot of things attached, not least among them a company seeking rapid growth by selling ads. To sell more ads, they do two main things: they try to know more about their users so that they can target the ads more precisely and they try to change the user behavior so that they spend more time interacting with the app. The well-being or own interest of the user are not factors in that equation. Entire dimensions of freedom are disappearing with this new type of interaction: the freedom to be alone, the freedom to set your own social norms (with whom do you feel comfortable swearing or telling offensive jokes), the freedom to have an intimate conversation without worrying about the possible existence of a precise log of this conversation god knows where and under the control of whom, the freedom to express a political opinion in public without worrying about what a potential employer might think about that one decade from now. The freedom for kids to spend time with no adult supervision, learning how to be autonomous and discovering their own identity! Or to have a place to retreat from bullies, instead of being exposed to them 24/7.

Yes, it is dehumanizing to have our communication channels and mediums being gradually and inexorably replaced by new ones where a powerful third-party is always listening, always present, always making small tweaks to subtly guide us to behaviors that they would prefer we adopted. Always setting the rules of our private interactions, of our most intimate things. Maybe they think this is all quite invisible but it is not. More and more, even the technically naive can feel their presence, and it has a chilling effect on culture and society.

I love technology, but I love it for what it is. Technology is neither good nor bad, people do good or bad things. Technology is a power amplifier, and some technology that is so powerful that allows for things so good that one could only dream of before, normally also allows for things so bad that one could only have nightmares about before. Case in point: going to the moon vs. intercontinental ballistic missiles. And side-effects we are not intelligent enough to foresee, because we are not intelligent enough to fully understand such levels of complexity. So we have to remain eternally vigilant, distrust simple solutions and slogans and try to educate ourselves and others, instead of embarking in childish, simplistic optimism. This is all very serious business. Ask the inventor of the web what he thinks about how things turned out.

Alluded to in the article is the importance of spending some time in silence.

For those that agree with the idea that long stretches of silence can be important for meaningful internal dialogue and mental health:

One amazing life hack that I have found to work almost anywhere in the world (e.g. when travelling - or not): search ‘adoration times <city/town/location>’ and find some welcoming empty space to sit in silence ... and no one will question you.

> and no one will question you.

Nobody questions going for a run. GReat way to find some alone quiet time no matter where you are, what you're doing, or who you're with.

One of my runs ended with me slowly backing up from two loose rottweilers that thought I was tresspassing their sidewalk. Amazing how fast the mind starts racing on how to kill in near-death situations.

After that, I realized running can be a privledge in many neighboorhoods (women runners take on a whole different level of risk as well unfortunately...)

> For those that agree with the idea that long stretches of silence can be important for meaningful internal dialogue and mental health

Thanks for putting a name to this. I now know why I love getting out to the wilderness.

If you have not read the 1909 story The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster referenced here, it's worth doing so. It's in the public domain.

It's more than worth it. It's a story that should be required reading for the modern age.

"A few years ago [early 2010s?], I was invited to join a panel discussion about information and communication in the twenty-first century. One of the panelists, an Internet pioneer, said proudly that his young daughter surfed the Web twelve hours a day..."

Contrast with "A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley"[0], admittedly written several years later and about phones specifically rather than the internet in general, which opens "The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them."

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18309305

Huh, odd. The date is February 11, 2019, but if I'm not mistaken, the author (Oliver Sacks) died in 2015


It's mentioned at the end of the article.

> Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, was the author of many books, including “Musicophilia,” “Gratitude,” and “The River of Consciousness.” A final collection of his essays, “Everything in Its Place,” will be published in April.

Caused me a moment of confusion also.

To me, the author's response is mostly to change of scale. Social intimacy and human connection still exist, just in less populated areas. It's unrealistic to expect a busy city to stay the same over the course of a lifetime.

Also relevant: https://xkcd.com/1601/.

Very strange, I posted this link three hours ago, both are listed, this one an hour later on page one.

Now strangely amused. This search shows the original time diff, but this thread shows the article posted 2 hours earlier.

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