Class Discussion: “The Machine Stops”

We are continuing our  class discussion of “The Machine Stops” online this week. Just a reminder that you should make your at least one comment (just hit “reply,” either to my original post or to another comment on it) by Sunday (2/22).

Then go back/read through all comments and extend the conversation by making at least two more comments (of course, more are always welcome!) in response by Tuesday 2/24. 

The goal is to have some good virtual discussions here to help you think critically about this short story. Therefore, your comments need not be very long: for example, you can provide a quote/citation and a few sentences of explanation of how/why it functions in the context of some larger issue/question (or you can raise questions, complicate issues, extend discussions, analyze a character, or setting, etc.) &/or discuss central conflicts/values/themes.

The goal in all cases is to provide specific examples from the text (quotes/citation) with discussion/analysis and some connection to a larger point.

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48 thoughts on “Class Discussion: “The Machine Stops”

  1. As we have seen in the machine stops the machine itself is worshiped by vashti as a religion. It even has its own bible called the book of the machine. However as the story goes on I feel like the machine eventually evolves and becomes bigger then it’s own religion. The machine in my opinion eventually becomes god itself. By this I mean that it just becomes something much bigger then what it was. I see this on page 19 in the second paragraph and the line that leads to believe this is ” The word “religion” was sedulously avoided, and in theory the machine was still the creation and implement of man.” Even though she is reiterating that it was made by man I just feel like the faith she has in it keeps growing and growing and avoiding that it is connected to religion shows that it is something greater then the concept of religion. The end the machine basically played god and took everyone’s life who lived in the air ships down with it.

    • After her son came back from the surface, there was a 2 year time skip and it talks about how they brought back the idea of religion. People were very quick to accept religion again. Your point about how religion plays a major part is really shown i think in how easily it became accepted by all.

    • I find it funny how Vashti and people like her who praise the machine are blind to just make the machine such a divine entity when its their fear of the unknown that has crippled them to be this manner, the fear of anything else in their life but the machine because the machine is all they know it is what they were born with and it is what it has always been for them.

      • I agree for example on pg 22 on the second to last paragraph. Once the machine started to stop working the people sent out complaints to get things fixed, but when the committee goes out to tell everyone that the mending apparatus was in need of repair. The lecturer says
        “of course we shall not press our complaints now. The Mending Apparatus has treated us so well in the past that we all sympathize with it, and will wait patiently for its recovery. In its own good time it will resume its duties. Meanwhile let usdo without our beds, our tabloids, our other little wants. Such, I feel sure, would be the wish of the Machine.”
        this shows that they have come to believe and praise the machine in that they do not have to do anything and that the machine will fix its self with in time. which is why it ultimately failed on them there was no one to fix it. The knowledge of fixing the machine was gone, their idea of the tenth-hand had failed them because now they had no one to fix the machine even if they wanted to fix it. all the knowledge was spread out among the people, the same people that now believed that the machine was their god and it would always be there.

    • I feel that it has been generations since the creation of the Machine. That being said, as more and more humans are born into this society, they would begin to believe that it is some sort of god or religious symbol because it “provides” for them and (mostly) decides the fate of humanity.

    • Exactly! The machine plays the same role that some say religion plays. For example, remember when Kuno tells his mom “remember it was man who created it” the same argument has been made for religion. Religion has such a powerful hold on billions of people worldwide, but the stories were written by men. It’s a great comparison between the two ideas.

  2. We discussed how important the book was and how Vashti reverently held it. On page 24, as the power finally went out, she starts twirling around in a frenzy and slapping the buttons until her hands bled. It is an interesting take on what we see when our beliefs come crashing down around us. The narration also switches back to that of another person watching, it almost makes me think that the story is being told by the machine in a way, since technology is the only thing in the room. Maybe the narrator is a subroutine of the machine.

    • Interesting point of view, from the beginning it isn’t really stated who the narrator is. The only “being” that would be able to see Vashti in her cell and describe her as a lump of flesh would be the Machine, assuming it is omnipresent.

    • Hmmm could be, or maybe there’s a ghost in the room that likes to write.. But seriously, I’ve never thought of it that way. It makes me think of how the world would be if we actually could see god with our own eyes and see him dying or something..

    • That is an interesting theory to take on with this story, it may even open up another conflict which would be the lack of privacy. I’m not much of a history buff, seeing as this story was published in 1909, but maybe even back then there was a problem with personal privacy as it is today all because of technology.

    • Very interesting point, Just the first paragraph of the story where the room is described may hints it

      “at the moment that my meditation opens” (P. 1)

      Whose Meditation? It describes the heap of flesh in the seat but…. what is it that is seeing her that has the ability to meditate?

    • I mean, i don’t really have proof for it, but i remember Professor Belli really emphasized how it changed perspectives in the beginning. Then it happens again at the end. At this point, there is no real evidence but its a cool idea i think.

      • Perspective is important, but I don’t think it is being used to show us the pov of the machine. Instead, I believe pov is used to put us in the situation. Making the reader feel like they are in the environment really drives home the message of being independent. There is a divide between religion and science, basically a battle. The author draws a parallel between the machine and religion to emphasize whatever you believe in, you should not rely on anything other than yourself to determine your quality of life.

        • I don’t think the change in perspective is used to put the reader in the situation. The reasoning behind my idea is the line “That she escapes in the body – I cannot perceive that.” on pg. 24. A machine wouldn’t be able to understand that happening.

          • I understand where you’re coming from, but i agree with what professor Belli said in class about avoiding any type of personification of the machine as there is absolutely no evidence of it being sentient. Additionally, the using perspective to put you in the situation goes all the way back to the first paragraph of the story where the narrator directly addresses the reader. Although it would be extremely interesting if the machine was the narrator, as it would blend really well with the religious symbolism, the section of the story where you took the quote from is after the machine had failed. It couldn’t possibly narrate if it no longer exists. I will, however, say this, at the end Kuno says, “Oh, to-morrow — some fool will start the Machine again, to-morrow.” Using that quote you could argue that the story is being told as a flashback, but again there is no evidence for it being a flash back or evidence of the machine having sentience. Taking into account the religious symbols of the story, maybe it’s just a question about whether or not you have faith, just like religion.

          • I think my logic comes from ideas from the Dune universe or even some of the programs of the matrix. Things can live on though the main system is destroyed. These are all hypotheticals mind you.

          • From a scientific standpoint, this conversation reminds me of an essay (I think it was) I found on the internet a while back:

            It is believed that it is impossible for machines to have any kind of self-awareness or more to the fact that machines can never evolve beyond their simple programming.

            If something is written in its programming, it will simply move forward with the directions that was embedded into it. Nothing more, nothing less.

            I don’t know, this is just what came to mind after I read this.

  3. Something that I found intriguing from this short story written in 1909, over a hundred years ago, is the way it eerily predicted many technological advances that we take for granted today. We can purchase things online and have them delivered to us, order food from our smartphones while we sit in our ‘cells’ and wait for it to arrive. We can be in contact with several thousand people just like Vashti did (p.1) through our social media, Facebook, Twitter, etc. without haveing to go anywhere. We can watch lectures online, like TED talks and science videos on Youtube and feel enlightened with trivial knowledge and find new ‘ideas’. We can talk to people halfway around the world using Skype, and FaceTime with others through this glowing square plate we hold in our hands called iPhone.

    Admittedly, all these technologies are featured not only in The Machine Stops, but also in many other Science Fiction media as well. This makes me wonder how much of our current advancements have been inspired by fictional depictions of years past, and what technologies we see in our fiction today can we expect to see actually developed in years to come.

    • Yeah it’s really weird how certain things come to fruition based on fictional ideas. But in the end, isn’t that where all things come from. All these technologies and ideas all stem from one place…our imagination. Our mind is the greatest tool of all, and is the link between our hands and the things we create with them. I remember seeing 2001 A Space Odyseey as a kid and then watching the Apple Keynote when they released the iPad. I was like damn, those things really look like the touch pads in 2001. That’s why nothing is too crazy in sci-fi.

  4. In our class discussion about ‘The Machine Stops’ I remember someone mentioning how the machine is a norm in the world of the story, how there is such a dependency of using the machine that it has become a ritual habit. On page 5, top half of the page, “Above her, beneath her, and around her, the machine hummed eternally; she did not notice the noise, for she had been born with it in her ears.” The use of the machine is almost instinctive and there’s no questioning upon it. The people living on this post-apocalyptic world are dependent on the machine for this is what surrounds their daily lives. Conformity is such a big factor in this story. On page 2, the 12th paragraph, “You talk as if god had made the Machine,….Men made it, do not forget that.” If men created the machine the machine then they abolish its influence on the world as well but no one has done a thing as they are too comfortable on the dependency of the machine, the conflict of conformity comes into play.

  5. This world is scary to me. In this world having a unique idea is considered wrong. “let your ideas be second hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element — direct observation” (pg. 18). Just typing this gave me goosebumps. I am one for freedom of speech. Most of the time new ideas come of it. But when you are told, your ideas should just be regurgitated nonsense, that defeats the purpose of thinking. It has reached a point where something beautiful like a mountain like Mt. Fiji cannot give you “ideas.”

    • Good observation. I remember reading those lines and thinking how odd it was that in a society that considered itself culturally and intellectually advanced, having new and innovative ideas was put down. Not only that, people were encouraged to repeat the same old knowledge instead of learning by themselves through observation, relying on just hand-me-down, word-of-mouth knowledge through the many “lectures”.

    • I clearly remember mentioning this on my post about The Machine Stops. Have you guys considered that the internet itself is a vast network in which we garner and reuse information on a daily basis? Pretty much the same way the ‘society of the machine’ operates, but with a lot less dogma and restriction. Take for example, a news report. First there might be a contact of the news agency on a story. Then the agency sends a reporter to research and deliver a story, that story then gets sent to the agency offices for editing, etc. etc.

      There are numerous intermediaries between us and direct interaction with events of our world. Most of the information we receive and learn is second hand. The concept of refining ideas through the sharing of said ideas isn’t what is appalling. Rather, the brainwashing used to narrow a person’s view of the world through a religion is what is most ‘scary’ to me.

  6. -Karl Jagdipsingh

    So first off I looked up ” pneumatic post” cause I thought of “posting to a wall” in the term she used it. On page 3 I kinda realize one of the aspects of fear that may have caused society to avoid the surface

    “Men carried swords about with them, to kill animals and other men.” (p.3)

    So Kuno was describing stars and the ideas that they give him, at first he was describing how he saw a man with a belt but in that belt he saw the shape of a sword. Kuno’s mother reacted with slight fear for the thought. Is it possible this could be a reflection of why humans now fear social interaction and the surface.

    • Rather than their fear stemming from the fear of death by other humans. The ‘machine society’ fears the unknown, as well as a direct experience with it. Remember that pretty much the entire population has no real knowledge of the outside world, from direct experience. All they’ve known is the safety within the machine. After so many generations have learned and accepted the machine as their world, anything that contradicts it is viewed negatively. As for social interaction, that could be attributed to their aversion of direct experience. In this case a face to face interaction with one another.

  7. It’s really weird too how the people in this world esp. Vashti are described as like a blob of flesh and having little to no physical strength. It’s kind of how aliens are viewed in today’s day and age. Aliens have huge heads but very tiny bodies with very little physical strength. They rely on their tech to do all the work.Just goes to show how forward thinking this story was as it came out more than 100 years ago. I mean think about it, the story talks about flying airships and the first plane was invented just 6 years prior by the Wright brothers. Amazing foresight.

    • After last weeks class, i did a google search for The Machine Stops analysis, and almost every link mentions how this story is often used in the argument concerning technological determinism. It really was ahead of its time!

    • The scariest thing about blobs of flesh in the future is that human evolution is now heading this way. just look at obesity rates and our obsession with technology and convenience. It’s so easy to survive that our evolutionary adaptations are shifting towards something completely different. once again science fiction predicts the future

      • In terms of obesity, perhaps future (far in the future) generations will value immense size as an attractive trait. If we take the African lions for example, the manes of male lions are the product of female lions preferring male lions with a large mane. A lion’s mane serves no other practical purpose. [courtesy of national geographic]

        Rather than watch humanity devolve into ‘blobs’ as you said, I’m more of the mind that either there would be a catastrophe that forces humanity into action. Or that technology would advance to such an extent that artificially remodeling one’s own body would be commonplace.

    • Funny thing that you mentioned aliens. I recall hearing in a documentary that our concept of the typical Grey alien is that of ourselves but with our human features distorted as we hypothetically continue to evolve with the influence of technology: big heads for increased brainpower, large eyes because it’s the sense we depend on the most, and thin, weak bodies since we have computers and machinery doing all the hard work for us.

      That being said, although at the beginning Vashti is described as a blob of flesh, I doubt that all of humanity has de-evolved into obese forms that can barely move, after all she did actually get up and walk to the elevators, and from the elevators to the airship when she went to visit Kuno. And Kuno himself was able to train his body to be strong enough to make the journey to the surface on his own. I guess the Machine feeds them with the nutrients needed enough to keep them alive and not become overly obese. The “blob of flesh” description is probably a metaphor for her just slumping in her chair without having to really move.

      What is actually mentioned though, on p. 5 is; “think of her as without teeth or hair”. Also, on p. 14 when Vashti is listening to Kuno tell his story, she thinks: “the very hair that disfigured his lip showed that he was reverting to some savage type”. That makes me think that the Machine probably shaves them and keeps them hairless for hygiene. Since Kuno was threatened with homelessness his facial hair was starting to grow back.

      Maybe I’m seeing too much into it, but the descriptions given make me think that the characters are all skinny, slumpy, pale and bald/hairless. Kinda like Lord Voldemorrt for the Harry potter movies.

  8. The machine stops is sort of like a reminder of todays society
    think about it
    We are so focused into technology
    technology might one day be as dominate as god when the newwest iphone comes out people come from all walks of the earth lol just to get it …The lines are endless. It becomes a point where we start to devalue nature. I believe in the story Vashti, saw a couple of great things but thought nothing of it. Imagine standing on top of the empire state building and all your going to do is look at your phone. This story reminds me of this passage i read where there was this house that did everything and talked and in the end the people were incarcerated. The message of that book was stating that yeah technology may have power but nature will probably continue to run its course. At a slow rate society is kind of building it self towards the society in the machine stops.I guess we are not far from andys trying to live among us also lol

    • The problem I find with your line of thinking is that it does not take into account the many other facets of our society. Our means of communication is not our means of continuing our life processes; sure it makes it easier to get things done, but in the end it isn’t necessary to live. The Machine Stops seems to me as a hyperbole of an over reliance on technology. Where the ‘citizens of the machine’ relied completely on the faculties of the machine, our race does not consolidate our means of survival on one tool alone.

      Think of it another way. Back in the late eighteen hundreds, horse drawn carriages were being phased out in favor of the automobile. Or the invention and subsequent widespread use of the telegraph and telephone. It is my belief that your view on how the latest communication devices such as the iphone, is the same view of those who saw the automobile or telephone as a threat. Eventually tomorrow’s technology becomes today’s standard.

  9. This story gets more interesting every time I read it. The first time i read it I though Kuno wanted to challenge the machine and in by rebellion against it, but the same time for some reason I though Kuno CURIOSITY and/or way of thinking played a role too. I got this off page 2 last paragraph when he’s conversing with his mother. “Do you not know four big star that form an oblong, and three stars close together in the middle of the oblong, and hanging from the stars, three other stars?” The spaceship that they travel in plays a symbol of knowledge due to all the things they see while traveling on it, might be the only place where there’s human communication still going.

  10. I’d like to pose a couple of questions to the class:
    – On page 7 paragraph 1, there is mention of a man who dropped his ‘book of the machine’. What do you guys think this scene symbolizes? If anything at all.

    -On page 8 paragraph 1, what do you think the significance of the previous civilization’s of the world trying to “keep pace with the sun” is?

    – What do you think the cause of the Machine’s demise is? What do you think the world would have continued to be like had it not failed.

    – Do you think Vashti was able to ‘open her eyes’ at the end?

    • That scene with the man dropping the book stuck out for me as a way of showing just where their priorities were. They treated the book reverently, yet when it came down to needing to reach for it and holding up the line, they all walked over it. Only a few minutes earlier, Vashti was using hers for comfort, but when inconvenienced, it became nothing more than something in the way.

      The page 8 reference, it could mean that they were just trying to work and get things done as fast as possible, like trying to get it done before it got dark? I am not wording this right.

      Its an interesting question regarding the fall of the machine. The mending apparatus would fix it, and i would think there is more than one since its a world wide structure. It would seem redundant not to be able to fix itself since it was capable of fixing the damage caused by Kuno.

    • The dropped book symbolizes this societies inability to do anything on their own. The book is important to this society, so much so that it was held reverently, yet when it falls no one can pick it up? The scene serves as another religious parallel. Think about prayer in the christian mythology, people beg their god to help them succeed in life, but they do not raise a finger to help themselves achieve their personal goals. This scene serves to further emphasize the theme of dependence by showing a comparison to the way people rely on religion to do everything for them.

    • Interesting questions, the first also caught my attention in my opinion I believe that the man who dropped his “book” realize something wasn’t making sense in the book. He too question what he was reading and maybe realize that they were all trap in this bee like system just like Kuno did.

    • My opinion on the last on is that Vashti will not open her eyes at the end she too far into the “system’ or the belief that everything revolves around the machine. The machine has got into her mind to FEAR everything around her even being around her son.

    • I believe that when the man drops his book on page 7 it shows how this civilization has come to rely so much on technology to help that it no longer is survival of the fittest but the survival of the weakest. we also see proof of this on pg 11 second to last paragraph. where the children are examined to see if they strength and if they did they were destroyed. which is the exact opposite of what is needed to survive in the real world. For example we know that in order to survive in our world we need to have mental and physical strength. but those that have been either smart and creative or smart, creative and lazy have created things that help us do things differently and we now start to lose some of this strength that we have needed to survive. At a point we might end up like the people in these hives isolated from the world because we wont need to go any where because possible at one point we might as Vashti says on pg 5 become “the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead
      of for bringing things to people.”

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