What happens when the Machine stops?
by Ken Myers
“Are modern men and women so thoroughly adapted to their technological society that they cannot step back from it? Is our acculturation irreversible and inescapable? Many flee the sensory overload of urban life. Some hike into wilderness areas, escaping from all forms of technological communication and immersing themselves in unspoiled surroundings. Some have even attempted to escape from the present by living in and using the artifacts of a physical space reconstructed or preserved from another moment in history. By living in a Stone Age village or a Victorian house, they separate themselves from the world of perceptions they were born into and challenge unexamined assumptions about the ‘natural’ textures, tastes, sounds, and appearances of daily life.
“By the early years of the twentieth century, city dwellers realized that a fundamental rupture had separated them from nature, putting in its place an artificial environment of skyscrapers and of subways that ran day and night on electricity. In 1909, E. M. Forster imagined the ultimate result of substitutions for direct experience in ‘The Machine Stops.’ In this short story, all people live in identical single rooms under the ground. These rooms cater to every desire. At the touch of a button, water, synthetic food, music, or communication is effortlessly and instantaneously available. In this world, the exchange of ideas is far more important than direct experience, and its denizens live alone. They dislike seeing one another in person, and they avoid physical intimacy. Instead, they continually exchange messages over the wires or speak to one another on screens. The sounds and the images are slightly imperfect, but that has long since ceased to bother anyone. ‘The Machine,’ a vast interlinked system powered by electricity, regulates all exchanges of information and filters direct experience. It also restricts direct contact with the surface, where few have ever been and where almost no one desires to go. Indeed, few people want to travel, since everywhere is like anywhere else. Not only is all experience mediated through the machine; the world inside it has become completely naturalized. The inhabitants of this future society disparage immediate experience or physical sensations; they prefer replications of events and refinements of ideas. They value secondhand knowledge more highly than firsthand, and the credibility of an idea increases the more it is refined through reinterpretations. Over several generations, lacking interest in the physical world, the citizens gradually have forgotten how their vast infrastructure works. When it begins to break down, they are unable to make repairs, and they begin to perish en masse. Only a hitherto unsuspected remnant of humanity survives. They have maintained a far less technological existence on the surface. . . .
“‘The Machine Stops’ may now seem a fable about a world in which all people have become isolated nerds addicted to the Internet, but its fundamental theme was not new even in 1909. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle and others worried that machines would rob people of an organic relationship with nature. But concern intensified in the twentieth century. What are the psychological effects of living within a technological society that wraps humanity in a cocoon of machines and conveniences? In Max Frisch’s 1957 novel Homo Faber, a diary entry by the engineer narrator records a conversation with his ex-wife: ‘Discussion with Hanna — about technology (according to Hanna) as the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it. The technologist’s mania for putting the Creation to a use, because he can’t tolerate it as a partner, can’t do anything with it; technology as the knack of eliminating the world as resistance, for example, of diluting it by speed, so that we don’t have to experience it. (I don’t know what Hanna means by this.) The technologist’s worldlessness.’ The passage communicates both Hanna’s critique and her former husband’s failure to understand her. She is an expert on ancient Greek society, and the contrast between classical and modern civilization informs her observations. He has worked in Latin America and Mexico, installing electric power stations, which help to ‘eliminate the world as resistance.’ Electric light eliminates the night, air conditioning eliminates climate, and electric devices replace physical labor (such as pumping water or grinding wheat into flour). As Hanna complains, the result of these and many other technologies is that no one directly experiences the world.
“Like Hanna, philosophers have tended to emphasize not particular machines but rather whole systems that foster technocratic sensibilities. Martin Heidegger argued that in the modern world technology provides a pre-theoretical ‘horizoning of experience.’ As technological rationality becomes dominant, people begin to perceive all of nature as a ‘standing reserve’ of raw materials awaiting use. The transformation of this standing reserve for our comforts becomes ‘natural.’ A child born since 1950 finds it ‘natural’ to use electric lights, to watch television, to ride in an automobile, and to use satellite-based communications. That child’s grandparents regarded such things as remarkable innovations that had disrupted the ‘normal.’ In contrast, the child unquestioningly accepts these technical mediations of experience as the pre-theoretical ‘horizon’ of perception.
“Some recent philosophers of technology argue that ‘as devices replaced practices, disenchantment set in.’ As the technological domain encroaches on or mediates all experience, it overtakes and delegitimizes both traditional society and older perceptions of the world. In place of the familiar cycles of everyday life in a more direct relationship with nature, ‘technological character is concentrated in its liberating powers to be anything, that is, to be new, to never repeat itself.’ But this is only an apparent liberation that comes at a cost. The penetration of technology into all aspects of being means that ‘our new character is grounded in human-technology symbiosis,’ and that ‘prior to reflection, technology transforms character.’ The transformation imposes itself on each child, redefining every generation’s social construction of ‘normal experience.’”
These paragraphs are taken from Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (MIT Press, 2006), by cultural historian David E. Nye. In the pages subsequent to the passage quoted above, Nye goes on to discuss Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago Press, 1984). The quotes in the preceding paragraph are taken from Technology and the Good Life (University of Chicago Press, 2000) a collection of essays prompted by Borgmann’s work. The authors quoted are Lawrence Haworth and Carl Mitchem. Albert Borgmann was a guest on Volume 40 of the Journal discussing his 1999 book, Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 1999). On Volume 63, he talked with Ken Myers about a later book: Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Brazos Press, 2003).
On this page, you may read an excerpt from David E. Nye’s America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (MIT PRess, 2003).