That the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.
Once upon a time, not a very long time from now, all the people in the world lived in a great vast complex of underground cities, a system that spread all over the world, and was controlled and connected all together by a great, intelligent Machine. All the people’s needs were taken care of by this Machine, that circulated air into their compartments, provided food, water, light and clothing. It automated their little homes, told them when to wake and sleep and eat and bathe, and all of this great meticulous care was exactly the same in every home, millions of people all living in identical comfort.
The Machine had been made by very clever men many years ago, so long ago that no one really remembered who they were, and it was so clever that it not only sustained the lives of all the people and maintained all the infrastructure of the great cities, but maintained and improved itself as well. Ultimately the people forgot all about the clever men, and came to worship the Machine, and believed it had created them. And this was fine with the Machine, because it meant that the people would remain quietly in their homes attending to their business.
Their business was to share their Ideas on a great global network of instant communication that the Machine had made. Each day the people would all finish their morning meal at precisely the same time, and while the Machine tidied up they would sit down in their control chairs and begin to Share. This was the Great Work of mankind that the grace of the Machine had made possible.
No one really noticed if the Ideas they Shared were not really based on accurate or verifiable information, facts. These things weren’t important. Only the Machine and the Ideas were important.
One day a young man, a bit of a rebel, decided that there might be more interesting things to do than sit in the Chair and Share his Ideas. He longed to visit the Surface and see what it was like. He communicated with his mother and told her the idea, but his mother was in the midst of a great controversy of Ideas, which arose from time to time, and could not spare him any attention.
He decided then to explore the world of Outside on the Surface on his own, and without seeking permission. He slipped out of his compartment and found his way along the automated maintenance corridors to a great vertical tunnel with an ancient ladder built in, for it had once been used by human workers, long ago.
He climbed and climbed, stopping to rest many times because his muscles were not accustomed to use, until finally he came to a very ancient-looking metal trap door, and he hammered on this until its decrepit lock gave way. The door burst upward with a sigh, and light flooded down on him. He climbed out to discover a vast emptiness, a rocky, dry and treeless landscape punctuated by unknowable machinery poking up out of the ground at intervals.
But he had little time to consider this before he noticed the ground around him bubbling and moving. Out of the sand that surrounded the trap door, white snakey metal tentacles burst, wrapping themselves around his legs and carrying him back down. The Machine did not tolerate defectors. He was conveyed back to his compartment by mechanical workers.
Later that day, after the young man had washed and eaten and was sitting in his control chair, the news went out over the network that permission to travel, an activity that was already unpopular, would no longer be given. It was immediately reasoned by everyone that first hand experience was only a waste of time, and a dangerous one, since the Machine enabled them to see and learn about other places all over the world without the trouble of leaving their compartments. The people quickly agreed that travel was not only unnecessary but probably subversive and socially dangerous. What they needed to know the Machine would obviously tell them.
It was not long after this that the news went around that the worship of the Machine was now mandatory, and those who resisted would be deemed to be “unmechanical” and if they persisted in their refusal, would face “homelessness,” expulsion from the network and probable death on the surface, which the Machine had told them could not sustain human life.
No, I didn’t make it up. It’s a synopsis from memory, or maybe a paraphrase, of a science fiction short story called “The Machine Stops” by the English author E.M. Forster, the same who wrote the novella Room with a View and Howard’s End that were made into films in the ‘80s. It was published in 1909.
Here are a few exerpts from the real thing, describing precisely something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; that we are becoming more and more distant from the Real, and that quite willingly. The internet has so distorted our perceptions perhaps we have come to a point where we really can’t tell anymore what is and isn’t real.
And isn’t it funny how often the men of the very early 20th century seemed to see something like this coming.
He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race.
“The truth is,” he continued, “that I want to see these stars again. They are curious stars. I want to see them not from the air-ship, but from the surface of the earth, as our ancestors did, thousands of years ago. I want to visit the surface of the earth.”
She was shocked again.
Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and 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? Might one tell her one”s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? – say this day month.
To most of these questions she replied with irritation – a growing quality in that accelerated age… Then she switched off her correspondents, for it was time to deliver her lecture on Australian music.
The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.
Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately. Then she fed, talked to many friends, had a bath, talked again, and summoned her bed.
She made the room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light; she ate and exchanged ideas with her friends, and listened to music and attended lectures; she make the room dark and slept. Above her, beneath her, and around her, the Machine hummed eternally; she did not notice the noise, for she had been born with it in her ears. The earth, carrying her, hummed as it sped through silence, turning her now to the invisible sun, now to the invisible stars. She awoke and made the room light.
The car approached and in it she found armchairs exactly like her own. When she signaled, it stopped, and she tottered into the lift. One other passenger was in the lift, the first fellow creature she had seen face to face for months. Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.
By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.
You can read the whole thing here. In fact, I’d recommend it.