“She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.”
E. M. Forster wrote The Machine Stops back in 1909, a long short story and a short novella (it’s just over 12,000 words). It’s a true dystopian tale, set in an unknown future where mankind has moved underground, into a warren of cells and space powered by a massive machine. I always imagined this world to be a giant beehive deep in the earth’s crust, a dim, artificially lit maze of narrow passages and tiny rooms, constantly reverberating with the deep hum of the machine’s enormous engines. I remember, when I first read it, a claustrophobic restlessness at the thought of never seeing the sun again.
Forster wrote the story around the same time as cars were first being introduced to the world, long before computers or the concept of artificial intelligence had permeated our lives (though Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein a century earlier, probably one of the first examples of artificial intelligence in fiction).
The story is remarkable because of Forster’s imagination. His machine afforded every possible comfort to a population that no longer believed in human contact, from instant messaging to cooking at the touch of a button and being able to access any cultural event ever recorded. Forster didn’t examine political or ruling structures of this society, but then, the story wasn’t about power—it was about the increasing dependency on technology and the resulting isolation of the human race.
“The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms.”
I pulled out my copy of The Machine Stops last night after I went to see a play. It was the first time in over a month that I had actually stepped out of the house for something other than work or errands. In between projects and housework, I’ve been glued to my computer, trawling social media sites in an effort to increase my online visibility and promote my book. When I wasn’t promoting my book or myself, I was on Skype or liaising with clients via cell phone, IM or email. At the end of the day, I’d be too tired to do anything other than read or watch TV.
For two of these four weeks, I had been home alone as my husband was away on business and for several days at a stretch, the only person I physically saw was my housekeeper who comes in for a couple of hours in the day to clean. At the most, I spoke to the general store owner where I would hurriedly shop for bread and milk.
So when we got to the theater, surrounded by hundreds of people waiting to get in, I was briefly disoriented. For the past month, I was under the illusion that I was in touch, ‘interacting’, ‘speaking’ to clients, mailing friends, talking to my mother on the phone….
I had gone to see a popular satirical play by the immensely talented Anwar Maqsood, Sawa 14 August (August 14¼). We had arrived less than ten minutes before the curtain rose to a crowded auditorium, and Mr. Maqsood himself started the program with a brief introduction to the play.
If you know anything about Pakistan’s entertainment industry, Anwar Maqsood’s name will be familiar to you. He may be recognized across the border (in India) as Bilal Maqsood’s (lead singer for The Strings, a popular music band) father, but he’s a highly renowned political satirist who’s been writing for Pakistan Television for decades. His control and mastery over Urdu makes his work particularly effective.
As the lights dimmed and the first actors came on stage, I felt a ripple in the audience when the first crisp lines were projected through the hall. The actors had exceptional comic timing and when the first laugh came, it came with perfect synchronicity. The dark hall filled with the sound of shared delight and I suddenly felt like we were all co-conspirators, even though we were strangers.
Sawa 14 August is a hilariously sarcastic play with moments of deep poignancy. Over its two-hour duration, the walls of the small theatre shook as I and a hundred-odd people clapped, laughed, cried and stood for the national anthem as though we had rehearsed it all. We were as much a part of the play as the actors on stage. There were no intervals, no commercials, no distractions. Our phones were all off, because Mr. Maqsood’s humour is profound and intellectual and you have to concentrate to get the joke. The only technology that existed that evening were the lights, air-conditioning and sound system.
Afterwards, we extended the experience by discussing the best lines and superlative acting with the people in the seats next to us, though we had never met them before. We walked out of the theater in laughter and some tears, and we smiled at random people because we had shared something remarkable.
This wasn’t an experience I could get from sitting in front of my computer. I couldn’t relive the exhilaration of Mr. Maqsood’s words just by watching it on TV either.
“…she had studied the civilization that had immediately preceded her own—the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people.”
I realized it was a relief to get away from my computer. To be in a room where no phones were ringing, no machines were beeping and no one was tapping away on their smart phones. For a few hours last night, it didn’t matter what century we had been born into, or how advanced our technology was. It brought up my month of isolation into sharp contrast and I thought of the little story I had read all those years ago, and the grim prophecy it conveyed.
I think if Forster re-wrote the book today, all he would need to do is change the title from ‘The Machine Stops’ to ‘The Machines Stop’ for it to be applicable.
Natasha Ahmed is the author of ‘Butterfly Season‘, a romance novella about a Pakistani woman who dares to go against her culture and traditions. Butterfly Season is available on Amazon, Smashwords and on Indireads.