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.
The denizens (for they are not citizens) of Forster’s world wile away their days in single-occupancy hexagonal underground rooms, where all of their basic needs are made available on demand. “The Machine…feeds us and clothes us and houses us,” they exclaim, “through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being.” As such, one’s only duty is to abide by the “spirit of the age.” Whereas in the past that may have entailed sacrifices, always to ensure “that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally,” most inhabitants now lead lives of leisure, “eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas.”
Yet despite all of their comforts and free time, they are a harried leisure class, because they have absorbed the values of the Machine itself. They are obsessed with efficiency, an impulse that they discharge by trying to render order (“ideas”) from the unmanageable glut of information that the machine spits out. One character, Vashti, is a fully initiated member of the cult of efficiency. She does not bother trying to acquire a bed to fit her smaller stature more comfortably, for she accepts that “to have an alternative size would have involved vast alterations in the Machine.” Nor does she have any interest in traveling, because she generates “no ideas in an air-ship.” To her mind, any habit that “was unproductive of ideas…had no connexion with the habits that really mattered.” Everyone simply accepts that although the machine’s video feeds do not convey the nuances of one’s facial expressions, they’re “good enough for all practical purposes.”
Chief among Vashti’s distractions is her son, Kuno, a Cassandra-like figure who dares to point out that, “The Machine develops—but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds—but not to our goal.” When the mechanical system eventually begins to break down (starting with the music-streaming service, then the beds), the people have no choice but to take further recourse in the Machine. Complaints are lodged with the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, but the Mending Apparatus itself turns out to be broken. Rather than protest further, the people pray and pine for the Machine’s quick recovery. By that “latter day,” Forster explains, they “had become so subservient that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine.”
The longed-for recovery does not come. The Central Committee announces various reforms, but even those reflect the hegemonic logic of the Machine, not any kind of authentic political will. The society’s purported leaders, Forster writes:
were no more the cause of the [reforms] than were the kings of the imperialistic period the cause of war. Rather did they yield to some invincible pressure, which came no one knew whither, and which, when gratified, was succeeded by some new pressure equally invincible. To such a state of affairs it is convenient to give the name of progress. No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbor, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished. They had left full directions, it is true, and their successors had each of them mastered a portion of those directions. But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had overreached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean progress of the machine.
Forster’s concern, here, is with the confusion of means and ends, a theme that would reappear in his other works from the same period. In his 1911 story “The Celestial Omnibus,” an archetypical snob suffers divine retribution for treating classical literature—specifically his own vellum-bound library—as a status symbol, rather than as an abiding source of truth in itself. The story is a riff on Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1843 allegory “The Celestial Railroad” (itself a farcical version of the seventeenth-century English novelist John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress), an even earlier critique of technological society and the cult of efficiency
Hawthorne offers the account of a nineteenth-century American everyman who, upon learning that a new rail line has been extended to the Celestial City, a well-known pilgrimage site, decides to “gratify a liberal curiosity by making a trip thither.” Unlike the pilgrims of old, the narrator finds that his baggage is stowed for him; he need only put up his feet and enjoy the ride, accompanied by one “Mr. Smooth-it-away.” Of course, by availing himself of more efficient means, he has defeated the entire purpose of the pilgrimage, which lies in the struggle of the journey, not in the destination. But the bill for that mistake does not come due until the end, when his train arrives not in the Celestial City but in Hell.
An apt metaphor for a world that runs on fossil fuels, Hawthorne’s railroad, like Forster’s Machine, speaks to the dangerous tendency of technology to create its own momentum. In the mid-twentieth century, thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, and members of the Frankfurt School would take up this idea in earnest. And once again, an examination of ends and means served as the point of departure.
In Heidegger’s view, technology is “no mere means” but rather its own realm of existence, one that legislates the perspective with which we experience the world. While we use technology to exert our will over nature, our technologies exert their own will back on us, nudging us toward those modes of production and ways of thinking that are most conducive to the available technologies themselves.
Ellul saw things much the same but went even further, arguing that every dimension of modern life had been subordinated to “technique,” meaning the rational pursuit of efficiency for its own sake. “Technique,” he writes in The Technological Society, “transforms everything it touches into a machine,” and has become “the main preoccupation of our time; in every field men seek to find the most efficient method.”
To be sure, this sweeping claim goes too far: If anything, the main preoccupation of modern business executives, bureaucrats, and researchers is not efficiency but profits, power, and funding, respectively. Nonetheless, as a seemingly objective and unobjectionable goal, improved efficiency tends to be the justification offered for most policy decisions, especially when they involve applications of new technology.
But is that justification so unimpeachable? At issue in Hawthorne and Forster, Heidegger and Ellul, is not whether efficiency is valuable per se, but rather the extent to which it has been valorized in the culture. The benefits of improved efficiency over time—usually presented in the form of economic growth and everything that entails—are well known, and have been enumerated at length in the hagiographies of “progress” that appear every year. But the skeptic might ask what efficiency has done for us lately.
After all, the universalization of highly efficient, technologically intensive “just-in-time” supply chains has now resulted in critical shortages of basic goods and medical equipment. The frictionless flow of “ideas” has produced a glut of disinformation and propaganda without improving public understanding of current events. And there is a growing awareness that the COVID-19 pandemic may be merely a harbinger for catastrophes that are yet to come, following decades of growth fueled by the most efficient energy sources available.
Thank goodness, at least, for Netflix (and Twitter, and TikTok, and the rest). Never before has it been easier to zone out to high-quality entertainment on demand. We have at our fingertips the means to ease anxiety and cure boredom ad infinitum. Never mind that angst and ennui may be what is most appropriate for the moment. Such emotions could provoke a reconsideration of the way we live now. Yet as Nolen Gertz has suggested, we regard these feelings not as important elements of the human experience but rather as problems to be solved, precisely because we now have the means to alleviate them.
Will our means continue to dictate our ends? Will we continue to define progress as present gains accrued rather than as future costs averted? Past critics raised these questions during periods of relative peace and prosperity, in the calms between historical storms. Now that the machine has paused, we could do worse than to reprise that tradition of thought.