The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster depicts a future age in which technology is able to supply all our needs. People live in individual underground compartments, all their needs are supplied by the all-encompassing machine at the push of a button. Direct person to person contact is unheard of, having been replaced by electronic means and that permit one to see and speak to any one of his or her thousands of contacts at will.
Wars, conflicts, and crime have ceased, weather on the surface of the planet is of no consequence, thus there is no news. New ideas are to be feared, but events of history and nature are discussed endlessly and third or fourth hand ideas about those events are deemed to be the most trustworthy. The population never changes. Births and deaths are by permission of the machine; permission to die is only given when there is a birth. A mother’s responsibility ends when a child is born.
One person finds a way to get outside the machine to the surface of the earth. Before he is dragged back below ground by the repair mechanism of the machine, he realizes there still are a few people living out there. His longing for freedom is unfulfilled and eventually the all powerful, self repairing machine breaks down and everyone living in their individual cell of underground paradise dies.
A chilling forecast of where our society is headed? Perhaps. The story was written in 1908 and is a short novella with three chapters.
There is a lot of hand-wringing in our day about the influence and effects of technology. After reading this book I began to wonder if we might have things backwards. Is technology dehumanizing us? Or are we willingly surrendering our birthright of being fully human? Is our desire for convenience and security just a camouflage for the repugnance we feel at the inconvenience of having to interact with other people?
What about those of us who call ourselves Christians? We all give verbal support to the goal of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. At the same time, some of us are repelled by cities because of all the people. We would prefer to live in an isolated rural setting and be as self-sufficient as possible. Which of these conflicting ideas is the true expression of our heart’s deepest desire? What does that say about our faith?
The Jews of Jesus’ day despised the Samaritans, to the point of considering anything touched by a Samaritan to be defiled. Jesus used all sort of creative ways to try and jar people out of that rut.
For those of us who are members, or who attend, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the Sunday School lesson for the coming Sunday looks helpful. It is based on Hebrews 13 and has a lot to say about hospitality, including to strangers. It says: “The love of Christ will move us to enlarge our circle of friends.”
The best way to avoid becoming dehumanized is by frequent face to face contact with other humans. Technology offers us a way to maintain an appearance of a wide circle of friends without really having to listen to them. It is that unwillingness to listen to others, the desire to avoid admitting there might be anything valid about their point of view, that is dehumanizing. Technology is the enabler, but not the real problem.