Brief takes: Three false utopias that entrap humanity in gilded prisons of technology:


The Machine Stops

by Ken Sanes

An early work of post-apocalyptic fiction that shows humanity trapped by technology is a long short story by E. M. Forster, titled The Machine Stops, which was published before the First World War, in 1909. It describes a future in which civilization has moved below the Earth. Humanity lives in a honeycomb of rooms inside a vast subterranean machine that caters to every human need. When the inhabitants want food, food is provided by the machine. When they want to sleep, a bed is made to appear, apparently from behind a wall or floor, also by the machine.
As a result, people live most of their lives in their individual cells, communicating with each other on something that looks a lot like contemporary video screens. They no longer use technology to go out and seek what they desire; with the machine, what they desire is brought to them.

 The machine is also described as providing its inhabitants with simulations. In place of authentic objects, it provides artificial fruit and fake marble bathtubs, for people who have grown content both with imperfect substitutes and with a pale copy of normal life.

As in any well-functioning totalitarian society, the inhabitants of this automated prison believe they live this way by choice, having long since developed an aversion both to the surface of the earth and to direct experiences, unmediated by the machine. The only exception is one dissident, who thinks only of escape, and who manages to find his way to the surface, before the machine sends out extensions of itself, to bring him back down.

But, contrary to what one might see in more traditional science fiction, nothing this character does has any effect on the outcome of the story. The humanity that is portrayed in The Machine Stops is too helpless to actually change the course of events.

At the end, as the title foretells, the machine simply stops operating. The lights go out, the incessant flow of consumer goods stops arriving in people's rooms, and a decadent humanity suddenly has a real experience: of its own mass death and the destruction of its civilization, which can't survive without the ministrations of the machine. In a single note of optimism, that is as Spartan as the life described in the story, the author suggests that this society has to die so a more vigorous society can be reestablished on the earth's surface.

 Readers who have looked at other essays on this web site will recognize The Machine Stops as an early forerunner of a host of later science fiction stories in novels, short stories, movies and television. All have the same basic plot and theme. Whether it is The Machine Stops or the movie, Logan's Run, or episodes in the various Star Treks, or the two stories described next, in each case, an infantilized, dependent humanity has to be forced out of its gilded cage. Also, as in The Machine Stops, there are typically one or a handful of characters who challenge their imprisonment.

Incidentally, in 1966 a British TV program called Out of the Unknown aired a dramatization of The Machine Stops. Despite the fact that it is a low budget production with limited special effects, it does an exceptional job conveying a sense of what it is like to live inside a machine that does everything for you and traps you in a technological prison.

From The Machine Stops
to The City and the Stars

In Arthur C. Clarke's classic novel, The City and the Stars,* published in the 1950s, we see the same idea described in the contemporary vocabulary of science fiction. A humanity of the distant future lives in an enclosed city run by another machine, which is now referred to as the Central Computer. Unlike Forster's more primitive technology, the Central Computer has mastered the secrets of existence, and materializes everything out of its memory banks, including consumer items, the human inhabitants, and the physical form of the city, itself.

Here, once again, technology has done too good a job, and a dependent humanity is trapped in a prison of its own construction, having developed a phobia to the world outside the city. And here too they enjoy substitutes for life, enjoying lifelike fantasies induced by the computer, that create the illusion they are on adventures and having genuine experiences.

Clarke names the city Diaspar, as if to say that when humanity surrenders its will to technology, and loses itself in an artificial world of its own creation, it is in a kind of Diaspora, a state of exile, from the world and from itself.
Here too, the hero escapes. But in this story he discovers the larger world and the truth about his society, so he is able to free the inhabitants of the city.

Demolition Man:

A man from the past is unfrozen into a world of unbridled niceness, in which political correctness has run amok, and everyone is monitored by machines to make sure they don't offend in word or deed. Beneath the city is a dilapidated labyrinth-world of sewers -- the refuse of society who refuse to be nice and refuse to be controlled.

As subtext, Demolition Man is a Jungian parable about the dangers of one-sidedness in the self. The part that is denied goes underground into the unconscious and must be released and reunited with the part in control, for the self to become whole.

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Here are some other pages on this site that are
relevant to The Machine Stops and these other stories:

The Automated Environment

The Truman Show

Faking It: 1992 Boston Globe

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Email / What's Being Said About Transparency
1996-2011 Ken Sanes