How do you feel when you accidentally leave your mobile phone at home for the day when you go out to work? Annoyed? Frustrated? A little anxious? How about if it stopped working forever? If we find these devices addictive today imagine their mesmeric power in ten years from now? Fifty years? One-hundred years? E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, recently recommended to me by Heidegger scholar Johannes Niederhauser, begins from just such a premise.
Set at an unspecified date in the far future, in Forster’s book The Machine in question is in its essence a vast global communication network into which all of humanity is integrated, and so serves perfectly as a metaphor for today’s cyberspace. The original podcasters, residents of the The Machine live underground in hives of self-contained, self-serving hexagonal pods where they spend their days dreaming up lecture ideas on the most esoteric subjects to present to the applause of audiences all over the world. With incredible prescience for a book written in 1909, in The Machine these residents communicate with each other through a device which is almost exactly like an iPad: an opaque disc — or ‘plate’ — through which a likeness of your conversation partner appears. However, much like with our own interactions through the pixilated, laggy experience of FaceTime or livestreaming, these viewing ‘plates’ cannot transmit ‘nuances of expression’, only a ‘general idea of people’. Consequently, and similarly to today, this loss of the undefinable Geist of genuine interaction, the ‘imponderable bloom’ of ‘the actual essence of intercourse’, as Forster puts it, this ‘good enough’, has ‘long ago been accepted’.
After short breaks away from The Machine to sleep or ‘isolate themselves’, as with today’s Twitter Feed or requests for TripAdvisor reviews, participants are deluged by status updates. After one such brief period of detachment, during which one of the main protagonists of the book — Vashti — isolates herself from her audience in order to have a brief (PlateTime?) chat with her son — whom she cannot bear to meet in person — upon her return to the collective, ‘all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately?’
Unsurprisingly, in such a rarefied and ascetic environment face-to-face communication has suffered. Direct speech is considered coarse, the unmediated gaze a violation. As in our current epoch, the internet’s flattening of the diurnal rhythm to an ‘always-on’ perfectly present now echoes the sentiment in The Machine that instant global communication has also caused time to cease to have any meaning: ‘Dawn, midday, twilight, the zodiacal path, touched neither men’s lives not their hearts’.
There are also hints of accelerationism here. Vashti’s son — Kuno — one of the few to question the society in which he lives, at one point states, ‘The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.’
Ultimately, Kuno’s rebellion against The Machine is based in his feeling — exacerbated by his mother’s reluctance to meet with him in person — that no matter the level of electronic connectivity we appear to have there is still some insurmountable gap that cannot be bridged except through actually being together in the flesh: ‘“You know that we have lost the sense of space.”’, says Kuno, ‘ We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof.’ Here, Kuno’s sentiment perfectly prefigures the reason why Johannes and I initially undertook our discussion and what lead him to recommend The Machine Stops to me; which was to explore Heidegger’s statement in the Thing, that, ‘the frantic abolition of distance brings no nearness’.
There was also a second reason why Johannes recommended Forster’s book to me; which was to guard against the dangers of insular circularity: doing podcasts to go on podcasts to go on podcasts. Johannes was keen to emphasise that podcasts, vlogging and blogging should not just be ‘academic’ exercises, much as the inhabitants of The Machine had succumbed to, but that the fruits of philosophy must have practical benefits for everyday life. Indeed, the answer to the conundrum of both Forster’s Machine and Heidegger’s ‘frantic abolition of distance’ was suggested by Johannes’s engagement with Cicero’s concept of ‘idleness with dignity’: the simple but often forgotten notion that in our hectic lives we must have time for being out in the world, spending time on our own, with our friends and our families without the demands of work or The Machine surrounding us.
So, how will we react if our Machine stops? Will we collapse into anarchy and chaos, as the residents of Forster’s Machine ultimately do when the inevitable comes? Or will we throw open the curtains now while we still have the chance, turn away from our screens, blink; look at each, and talk.