A pocket watch stopping

The Machine Stops – A Parable to Modern Society’s Collapse

“No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbor, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished.”

   ― E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops


One aspect of modern civilization we don’t give much thought to is how precarious it is. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, was a highly disruptive event and almost destabilized the world economy. Yet, had it instead transpired a century ago, it would have hardly registered as a cause of concern. People might not have even noticed it.

As our activities grow increasingly complex, so do the institutions, mechanisms, and technologies that support them. But, like a house of cards, the more you stack up, the more the structure risks toppling over at the slightest breeze.

The Machine Stops is a novella written by E.M Forster. It narrates about a global omnipotent Machine that humanity has come to worship and rely upon, and how, once it stops, results in the collapse of their civilization. What I found particularly fascinating was, despite being written over a century, the book described technologies very similar to ones that define our modern society such as instant messaging, the internet, and automation.

The story centers around Kuno, and his mother Vashti who both live on the opposite side of the world. Vashti, like most of humanity, lives a secluded existence, spending all her time confined to her room, relying on the Machine to meet all her bodily, social, and spiritual needs.

“At the beginning of the story, Vashti has not left her room in decades. Much like today’s world, she has access to communication with others, art, literature, entertainment, and necessities of life without needing to venture out. It is notable that the room is “in touch with all that she cared for in the world,” but Vashti is not. Her isolation highlights the disconnect between humans and the rest of the world. There is a gap between people and the things that they love; their lives, like Vashti’s room, are literally empty.”

Meanwhile, Kuno is a deviant by his society’s standard, hating the “sanitized, mechanical world” they reside in. After much persuasion, Kuno manages to make his mother agree to leave her room and visit him.

When she meets him, he confides to her of his visit to the world outside the Machine. That there are humans who exist outside of ‘civilization’ that they know of. Vashti is uncomfortable with her son’s insights – a direct challenge to the orthodox worldview. Calling him mad, she returns to her part of the world.

Then after, years pass and people eventually forgot that the Machine was created by humans. They began to worship it, treat it as their god and shun the world outside of it. Yet, at the same time, the Machine began to fail. Defects began to emerge and the quality of life that the Machine enabled began to deteriorate. Yet, so subservient had mankind became by then that apart from a few initial verbal protests, they did little to remedy the situation. Blind in the cult of the Machine, they sang it praise up until one day, it stopped. And then there was silence.

“It was worse than solitude. She closed the door again and sat down to wait for the end. The disintegration went on, accompanied by horrible cracks and rumbling. The valves that restrained the Medical Apparatus must have weakened, for it ruptured and hung hideously from the ceiling. The floor heaved and fell and flung her from the chair. A tube oozed towards her serpent fashion. And at last, the final horror approached — light began to ebb, and she knew that civilization’s long day was closing.”

Generations had grown accustomed to the steady hum of the Machine and the silence now filled them with dread. For a brief moment, there was panic but it was gone too as billions died trapped below the surface, suffocated and starved. The Machine deemed mankind’s salvation became its tomb.

If history is witness to one immutable fact, it is that nothing lasts forever. Throughout the ages, countless civilizations had risen and fallen. And our current civilization driven by continuous growth and individualism will be no exception.

Many people think that a civilization collapse is a sudden, unexpected event. However, the signs of rot are often already apparent decades before. Yet, just as the people in Forster’s story came to blissfully ignore the imperfections emerging within the Machine, before a collapse, real societies, too, choose to let things be rather than confront the uncomfortable truth.

Today, we are faced with environmental degradation, rising inequalities, and a severe mental health crisis. Yet, unlike the civilizations of the past, modern society is the first to have the wisdom to know problems exist and the means to remedy them.  We are at the crossroad: seek to address the issues and avert catastrophe or let business run as usual and risk the eventual collapse.


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