The Machine Stops…
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Forster’s “The Machine Stops” is the way its had two distinct popular lives: circa 1909/original publication and its re-release or collation in 1965 or 1966. This is not to dismiss its message about mythologizing technology or, in hyperbolic, dystopian form, the relation between information, industrial degradation, and pacification of the masses. Rather it is to note that the re-coding of similar elements and tropes highlights an odd continuity of concerns or, perhaps a bit less optimistic, the shallow limits of our typical tech-interface-affect vocabulary.
Just for the sake of time, this blog post is going to a) note how some of his tropes historically align 1910/1960, then b) pause and take stock of his significant lack of detail, and finally, on a completely other note, c) add a few words about our down-sampled sound file.
cellular spiritual life of lectures and ‘second-hand’ learning:
- late 19th century mysticism and gramophone crazes (a la Kittler),
- predictions of cinematic telephony esp. give scale of Nickelodeon cinema or stereoscopic optical space (a la Crary)
- TV, esp. early cable promises of full interactivity,
- McLuhan-global, immersive, cool empathy
- shrinking scales and popular proliferations: brownies camera, porta-packs and video, the notion of ‘live’ feedback or closed circuit cable programming
the toxic atmosphere and/or tunnel dwelling:
- Ozone crazes of the 1890s/1910s
- fresh-air buffer zones (mosquito/malarial breaks) as class/race segregation device
- anything from Dr. Strangelove and/or actual civil defense planning
- and so, on . . .
Clearly this isn’t exhaustive, we could talk Zeppelin history or really dig into the institutionalization of knowledge during the second half of the 19th century. But maybe the problem with digging into his oversized tropes is that we could show their allegorical reiterations forever. Beyond the airship, there’s no specific machines; everything is machinic or, at the end, nothing is. And perhaps, what I find slippery in these sort of dystopian tales is that the polarization of perspectives– personal interaction/personal environment vs. totalizing machine/committee/fascism– rarely presents the third space of cumulative effects, scales of economy, and the way materials/media/logistics might be de-constructed through tectonic description. This is, of course, my analytical, architectural side typing; the side of me that thinks an amazing metaphysical debate could be had entirely in terms of the pneumatic mail system of Paris or the 1860s invention of air-conditioning. Clearly those systems flashed past us in Forster’s rush to talk of mending, deadly machine worms. Why not show the radically different (and, actually all encompassing) reality born of the pocket-watch instead of inventing an amorphous ‘Machine’?
Speaking of concrete details that, nonetheless, invite ‘cool’ investment from listeners…
Our idea was to tie awareness of an audible space and situation to everyday processes, layering from absence of audio/consciousness to overload and then back down. I won’t ‘spoil’ the experience by describing internal sounds, but, technically speaking, just note that this is a much-shrunken mp3 . Its focus is on the L side of stereo, so the spatial effects are muted.