Earlier this week, I was standing at a bus stop in busy downtown Berkeley, waiting to ride home after work. An email came in on my smart phone from one of my students who had a question regarding an essay he was writing about E.M. Forster’s speculative 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops.”
I looked up from my phone and briefly locked eyes with a gaunt, ragged-looking man who was walking past. He had all the markers of the hardcore homeless who, sadly, are all too familiar in Berkeley: matted hair, torn clothing, dirt covering him from head to toe. Given his appearance, I assumed he was likely drug-addicted or schizophrenic, or both.
An extended gaze exchanged with someone like this rarely goes well; I looked back down at my phone to consider my student’s email.
Suddenly, a grimy palm was thrust between me and the phone, inches from my face. A faint scent of decaying garbage.
I recoiled, and there the man was, almost shoulder to shoulder with me as I leaned against a brick wall. The wild eyes seeing me, or not. He was muttering. I waited.
“Can I tell you something?” he finally asked in a faint voice.
He muttered again, almost as if praying. What I could hear sounded like gibberish. I waited.
Then, with a violent motion, he chopped his hand against my phone and sent it clattering to the sidewalk.
“Turn it off!” he shouted, and then continued in unintelligible fashion, only now more loudly and inches from my face.
“OK, OK,” I said as calmly as I could, then bent to pick up my phone and started walking up the street away from the bus stop. Away from him.
“You will be executed!” he offered as benediction and then stalked off.
I circled back to the bus stop, wondering how many of the people there had watched and heard this exchange. It was hard to tell: none of them looked at me. Most of them were looking at their phones.
Kuno Comes to Berkeley
In “The Machine Stops,” Forster’s narrator tells of a futuristic world in which the people are willingly in the grip of an all-controlling Machine that was created by humankind generations before. Each person now lives alone underground in windowless rooms that are honeycombed together “like the cell[s] of a bee.” Physical touch between people is considered repellent, in-person meetings rare. People are entirely disconnected from Nature and from each other, communicating via screens, delivering empty lectures, having things brought to them by the Machine, their minds and muscles atrophying. When the main character, Vashti, is first introduced to us, it is not as a woman but as a “swaddled lump of flesh…with a face as white as a fungus.”
My students frequently make connections to movies like Wall-E and The Matrix, and it’s also an easy leap to see the way Forster imagined us all a century later Skyping and Facebooking and You Tubing and ordering packages from Amazon by drone, as in this description of Vashti’s small room:
“Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
The only one in the story who resists The Machine and its dictates is Vashti’s son, Kuno. He begs his mother to journey across the earth to see him so he can speak to her and see her face-to-face and “not through the wearisome Machine.” He thinks and asks questions. He longs to visit the forbidden surface of the Earth and to exercise his body and to look at the sky and wonder at the stars, all of which he does before The Machine violently tugs him back beneath the ground. Kuno is the only one who foresees The Machine society’s cataclysmic end.
Kuno is the voice of reason in the story, the only one to resist the absurdity and tyranny of The Machine. Kuno’s is Forster’s voice, and ours.
And for this, Kuno and his like–the rational, the physical, the emotional, the sensual, the non-mechanical people, the ones who can see the truth–are outcasts in the society of The Machine, flung to the surface of the Earth to die, and assigned the status most feared by Vashti and her “friends”:
I boarded the bus for home and looked down at my phone, its screen streaked with oil from the man’s hand, from mine. I wondered if I had dared not to avert my eyes from him to look at my phone but instead had held his gaze and smiled or given a friendly nod whether his response would have been different. Or perhaps he would have raved at me regardless.
How many people must shun this man, minute by minute, every single day of his life? Imagine the cumulative effect of that loneliness and that rejection by one’s fellow human beings.
In his own way, whatever the biochemistry of his brain was doing to thwart his efforts, the man was looking to make contact, and I had instead responded in a way that was perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable in polite society (“perfectly mechanical,” Vashti would say), and instead had turned to my phone. I had, as the characters in the story do, “isolated” myself.
His enraged madman’s response to me was, in the end, perfectly rational. It’s a less-polite version of the same lament so many of us regularly have about others and, if we’re being honest, about ourselves, even as we can’t resist the pull of the flashing notifications, the desire to see what the web, Forster’s evolved Machine, has delivered to us.
Indeed, the man’s screaming was a crazed echo of another of Forster’s creations, Margaret Schlegel of Howard’s End who wants to implore the rigid, unemotional Henry Wilcox with one of Forster’s most famous entreaties, one that rings down the decades, louder and more urgently now than ever, if we’ll stop long enough to hear it: