Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The Web in 1909: E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

Posted on | January 15, 2011 | No Comments

I first made my first estimation that the World Wide Web was useful in 1996 when I found this version of E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops.” I was teaching at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and I had recently finished my PhD dissertation on Symbolic Economies and the Politics of Global Cyberspaces. It used dystopian/utopian writings, including nonfiction and cyberpunk novels, to examine the role of technology and money in modern society. I referred to Forster’s story in a chapter entitled “The Last Vehicle” about the politics of speed and the derealization of space in the telecinematic engines of networked virtual realities.

The Victorian InternetThe story was written in 1909 by E.M. Forster, the celebrated author of A Passage to India and A Room with a View. He reacted strongly to the technological euphoria of H.G. Wells and The Time Machine with a response entitled, “The Machine Stops“, a harrowing short story of a civilization connected only by the wires of a collective machine intelligence. All the characters in his narrative lived in little hexagonal cells beneath the earth and were connected only by an electronic network.

The story centers around a woman, Vashti, and her son, who live far away from each other in separate cave-like rooms beneath the surface of the earth. One day before presenting an important lecture over the system, she is interrupted by her son, whom she has not seen in person since birth. She considers him bothersome, because he has no interesting ideas to offer except heresies about the machine. “The Machine proceeds–but not to our goals,” he warns. His concerns are met only with disgust by his mother.

His sad triumph is achieved when one day the machine breaks down.

…there came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication system broke down, all over the world, and the world as they understood it, ended.

As Vashti and her son meet for the last time he tragically laments:

I am dying,–but we touch, we talk, not through the machine.

It is not overly surprising that Forster should take some time to write about the new networks. It was the time of the “Victorian Internet.” The skies of any major city during that time were black with the telephone and telegraph cables of competing companies looking to win a competitive share of the new market. During that year, Theodore Vail, the new chairman of American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), was lobbying hard for the government intervention that he thought would bring order and security to the very competitive market.

It was also an extraordinary time in that intersubjective relations in a telephonic environment was a historically unique phenomenon. Moreover, the disembodiment of voice communications and the immediate nature of communicating over long distances were startling issues for the Victorian era. The name “phony” actually came from the distrust people placed on the early phone calls.

Distances that had only recently been transformed by steam-based rail and ship travel after thousands of years of horse and wind-powered travel were suddenly challenged again by the near instantaneous communications of the telephone and telegraph.

Unlike H.G. Wells, who wrote of an underclass living below the surface supporting an upper class living high above (much like the later Metropolis) Forster saw the human population living below in support of the Machine. Despite these new technological developments in Forster’s time and the fascinating narrative he produced, one is left wondering whether he could really have foreseen the break with movement in the age of networked television and smartphones.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Originally from New York, he started his academic career Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand before returning to New York to teach at Marist College and spending most of his career at New York University. He has also spent time at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. When not in the Republic of Korea, he lives in Austin, Texas.


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