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.
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