It is now a familiar story. A civilization that measures itself by its technological achievements is confronted with the limits of its power. A new threat, a sudden shock, has shown its tools to be wanting, yet it is now more dependent on them than ever before. While the few in a position to wrest back a semblance of control busy themselves preparing new models and methods, the nonessential masses hurl themselves at luminescent screens, like so many moths to the flame.
It is precisely at such moments of technological dependency that one might consider interrogating one’s relationship with technology more broadly. Yes, “this too shall pass,” because technology always holds the key to our salvation. The question is whether it also played a role in our original sin.
In 1909, following a watershed era of technological progress, but preceding the industrialized massacres of the Somme and Verdun, E.M. Forster imagined, in “The Machine Stops,” a future society in which the entirety of lived experience is administered by a kind of mechanical demiurge. The story is the perfect allegory for the moment, owing not least to its account of a society-wide sudden stop and its eerily prescient description of isolated lives experienced wholly through screens.