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E.M. Forster’s 1909 classic “The Machine Stops,” describes a future where humanity lives underground, separated from the natural world, eliminating all impediments to the growth and final hegemony of “The Machine.” Everyone lives in private rooms, and physical interaction is made obsolete by video-calling courtesy of The Machine. All bodily needs — food, clothing, medical assistance — are taken care of by, you guessed it, The Machine.
The Machine is an allegory — a symbol — of a system grown so complex that no single person can understand it, let alone control it. There is a human government, a Central Committee, ostensibly responsible for managing The Machine. But the Central Committee is nothing more than a marionette whose strings are jerked by the all-powerful Machine.
Humanity is obsessed with “ideas,” vague concepts no longer in the service of human flourishing; rather, the intellectuals of the day equate The Machine’s progress with human progress. In short, humanity is “strangled in the garments they have woven.”
The Machine’s repair apparatus breaks, the underground world cracks open, and a flood of air suffocates a population that has evolved to no longer draw strength from the oxygen of natural air.
Forester’s story is full of remarkable prescience, not least of which is a video calling system 90 years before Skype. But beyond technologies in particular, Forester portends a world where human management is replaced by programmed intermediaries — algorithms — who steer the world with millions of invisible commands. This is a world we can all recognize because we live in it.
Tim Maughan’s story in OneZero: “The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand,” describes the complexity that overwhelms us all. “I am here to tell you that the reason so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that ...
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