cannot you see […] that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. […] The Machine develops – but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries and if it could work without us, it would let us die.’
What a brilliant little novella, it’s importance should not be understated. Forsters premonition of a future society is perhaps one of the closest to our own modern interconnected internet culture that could have possibly been imagined in 1909, it seems to be a precursor for Huxley, Orwell, Vonnegut and many others. Rather than writing a normal review I want to briefly a compare section of this book to a small piece of work from the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler.
The story, like so many early SF books, is essentially concerned with the looming dangers of modern technology. Kuro, in the quote above, is expressing is his realisation that the Machine which controls all the aspects of their daily lives is no longer at the service of those who use it, it was created in order to help mankind, yet it has now imprisoned mankind within its own system; it relies on the power which mankind generates to carry on its own evolution. Man has become technologically sedated by being given anything it could possibly need at the touch of a button. Here the parallels with films such as The Matrix are undeniable, but there are also parallels with the more traditional philosophical thinking of Marx, Heidegger, and in particular of Bernard Stiegler. There is an almost direct comparison between Forster’s quote above to a quote from Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy, titled ‘Proletarianization as loss of knowledge’. Stiegler argues:
‘The proletarian […] is a disindividuated worker, a laborer whose knowledge has passed into the machine in such a way that it is no longer the worker who is individuated through bearing tools and putting them into practice. Rather, the laborer serves the machine-tool, and it is the latter that has become the technical individual – in the sense that it is within the machine-tool, and within the technical system to which it belongs, that an individuation is produced.’
For Stiegler, the proletarian, which was understood in a Marxist sense as being ‘a bearer of tools and a practitioner of instruments’ has lost his knowledge of how to properly ‘use’ or utilise these tools. Instead of being the one using the tool to manipulate the world, a la Heidegger’s Dasein, the proletarian has, himself, become a tool, ‘a tool and an instrument in the service of the tool bearing machine’. This role-reversal, Stiegler argues, is what is leading to the malaise that is affecting society today on a large scale and I believe this malaise was almost exactly predicted by Forster.
Vashti is essentially the prototypical disindividuated worker, and Kuro is the one who is trying to individuate himself through understanding his culture’s reliance on the Machine. His statement that ‘The Machine develops – but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal’ is in essence a realisation of his own proletarianization at the hands of the Machine (or indeed the machine-tool Stiegler describes). Stiegler himself argues that ‘Proletarianization is that which excludes this participation of the producer from the evolution of the conditions of production’, in other words it is the machine that evolves, yet we are becoming more and more dissociated, unaware, and uncertain, of the direction in which it is evolving. The worker is no longer in control of technical evolution; he no longer decides how and why to use the Machine. Instead, it is the machine-tool that has become individuated; it is the Machine who has gained the ‘savoir-faire’ (knowledge of how to do’) which used to belong to the worker. The proletarian worker has, in turn, become merely a part of the ongoing technical evolutionary process.
As Stiegler states ‘In other words proletarianization is a process of losing knowledge’, and this is shown throughout the dialogue between Vashti and Kuro: Vashti has become scared of the knowledge that Kuro has discovered by putting himself outside of the reach of the Machine, the world outside the Machine is now a dangerous and fearful place, one that is becoming increasingly off limits to anyone under the Machines control. Yet again the parallels to modern society are evident, the more reliance we place on technology, the more we lose our knowledge, and thus lose our savoir-vivre, our way of living.
What is interesting about this comparison is that we can see that Forster has essentially predicted a lot of the societal changes that are fundamental to Stiegler’s reworking of proletarianization almost one hundred years earlier. Forster’s The Machine Stops is a small book but is so prophetic and so densely packed with ideas that I would argue it is definitely valuable reading for anyone living in our modern, internet reliant, era.