Predictions from 1909
This essay is about a work of science-fiction, of which many features have come to pass. I re-read it this week, as it seemed that even more might be, and not necessarily to our advantage, in the world of Covid-19, and I wanted to confirm or deny my memory. In any case, science-fiction is a great background for technology strategising, helping to get beyond limited thinking based on incrementalism.
I took my English Literature ’O’ Level in 1974 and three works from the syllabus have stayed with me since: Macbeth, Lord of the Flies (which I had read a couple of years earlier) and one that no-one’s ever heard of: a science-fiction short story, The Machine Stops, by E.M Forster. That’s right, E.M. Forster, better known for acute observation of middle-class Edwardian manners (A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard’s End…). Apparently, he wrote it to demonstrate how easy it was to generate science-fiction akin to H.G. Wells. Indeed, it bears a certain resemblance to The Time Machine, except for an inversion: in Forster’s dystopian far-future, the effete leisured class live underground, while the rough outlaws live on the surface.
Forster’s ‘civilised’ tribe live in a world of pure ideas, only loosely connected, if at all, with sensory perception. I think what I found shocking was the protagonist flying over the Himalayas, glancing out and immediately shutting the blind, with the dismissive thought “no ideas here”. Having shuttled back and forth between England, Australia and America for much of my life until then, at a time when few did, I was appalled. I used to strain to remain awake, whenever it was even half-light, in order to take in everything, and speculate (and later research) on the physical make-up of the land and the people it supported. In fact, I still do!
Air travel was by fleets of airships, so Forster backed the wrong aeronautical horse, so to speak. Although, he explicitly stated that civilisation had given up the dream of beating the sun in Westward travel, as we have, having attained it in a limited fashion with Concorde, for not quite three decades. For the same reason, partly: the availability of real-time electronic communication.
The civilised world is run by ‘the Machine’; a kind of internet, with mechanical appendages; imagine the Internet of Things is an established reality. FaceTime has been invented, and so has Zoom: people’s time is mostly spent in isolation in their identical cells, giving or receiving webinars, on abstruse but useless topics. Alexa will pick up on any expression of discomfort and diagnostic kit and treatments will be lowered from the ceiling, in the manner of oxygen masks in planes. People never travel to things, but things to people, as if by Amazon. “And of course 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. Those funny old days, when men went for change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!”. Not all predictions were correct in 2020; Google was just a big book, which everyone had, principally as a manual for getting the machine to satisfy all reasonable wants.
The natural atmosphere was supposed to be not capable of supporting human life and a respirator was needed at all times, in the unusual event that anyone had—how shall we say—a reasonable excuse to leave the home. I re-read the story partly to determine why that was, imagining disease. Actually, the supposition was either false or greatly exaggerated; what was the case was that the atmosphere stimulated the senses in a way that overwhelmed those used, and possibly adapted, to the sterile air produced by the machine. Notwithstanding the lack of a pandemic, it was certainly the case that humans physically repelled each other and social distancing was the norm.
The denouement has an increasing level of seemingly random and, at first, minor breakdowns in the operation of the machine. In my mind, these were because the machine’s designers could not anticipate all changes in its external environment.
There is, however, a ‘mending apparatus’ which automatically patches the machine. But when that starts to malfunction… The moral is that society should not, by becoming completely dependent on its own creations, become detached from understanding the nuts and bolts of technology. That is something your favourite consultants will never do!
Back to the story. It is clear that the Chinese had taken over the world at some earlier time. Perhaps when, as now, they concerned themselves with acquiring and applying the whole gamut of technical skills.