The Machine Stops

By Brett Hutchins
Brett Hutchins

I didn’t excel at school. I wouldn’t say I failed either, but I came perilously close. However, when I did excel it wasn’t in art, or PE, or DT, (I’m now a DT teacher) but English. My success was sporadic and always because of my love of reading science fiction. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and E.M Forster became my playground. They were my peers. Honestly, I preferred their world. I read a lot and for my efforts my uncle called me Boffin.

Lock down has irrevocably changed the nature of everyone’s playground and retreating into a fantasy world isn’t a viable solution. I say irrevocably but, in all seriousness, I hope this is not the case. However, I am assured by my medical friends that Covid-19 is here to stay.

To cope with the seemingly perpetual mental anguish I, like many, turned to running. I have been a runner for decades but not to the extent I am now. I’m averaging 40 plus miles a week. My work colleagues hailed my achievements and gave me the title ‘a machine’.

Recently I confided in a fellow runner stating my objections.

“I see a machine as a strong powerful thing. In a way wilful as it keeps on going until switch off or breakdown. Runners are wilful and strong. We silence our inner monkey to go out and run “she said.

I can’t deny her argument is pretty solid.

The definition of machine is ‘a piece of equipment with several moving parts that uses power to do a particular type of work’

Again, I can’t argue with her except for one, small, thing.

Yes, we have several moving parts and yes, we utilise the glycogen stores to power us round. There is abundant research that builds on existing knowledge in the fields of social studies mainly concerned with the integration of the machinic concept within society. Annually since 1991 The Turing Test, named after the British mathematician Alan Turing, sets out to see if a machine can fool a person into thinking it is a human. Even in popular culture (Star Trek) we see characters such as Data. Is Data sentient? Is he just a machine? Does he resemble humans based on his actions and interaction with the other characters? Data is a machine and an artificial lifeform, he has many human-like characteristics and learns them by observing humans and their actions, as well as manners and traditions. During an interview with the robot Sonny in iRobot, Detective Spooner, played by Will Smith says

‘Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life.’

In E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops the machine is the object of worship to such an extent that people forget that it was humans who created the machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own with disastrous outcomes and it is here, I feel, we need to be mindful of the machine label. If machines are ‘An imitation of life’ then we must surely on at least a basic level determines what makes ‘life’.

There is currently no consensus regarding the definition of ‘life’. One popular definition is: ‘organisms share several key characteristics or functions: order, sensitivity or response to the environment, reproduction, adaptation, growth and development, homeostasis, energy processing, and evolution.’ However, in my opinion this (although accurate in many ways) seems lacking. Critically, unlike machines, we have feelings, we are vulnerable, we show and often hide, emotion.

In my opinion, if we place our peers on pedestals and label them machines then we are potentially doing them a huge disservice.

Lockdown has changed not only the physical but mental playground for many people. Yes, many runners have achieved back garden marathons and solo runs accumulating mile upon mile. However, for many the inevitable and much publicised negative effects on mental health have been hidden behind their runs. The adulation received via the Strava kudos, the Facebook thumbs up and liked tweets, unlike Covid-19, have an incredibly short lifespan.

I’m no machine. Like many I am merely trying to get through lockdown and for now I think I am succeeding but there have been times, over the last few isolating months, when ‘success’ seemed unfathomable. Please, don’t call me a machine. Instead ask me simply ‘How are you?’.

“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other. “I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but not everything.”

E.M. Forster