A Story About Computer Failure Came Before The First Robot Conquest Story

This year is the 100th anniversary of the first story about the Internet going wrong. E.M. Forster (better known for A Passage To India) wrote "The Machine Stops" in 1909, and you can read it online.

In "The Machine Stops," almost everybody lives underground, and we're given hints that the surface of the Earth is no longer habitable. And all of your needs are met by the Machine, which is a kind of master computer that supplies beds, baths, foods, and other comforts and staples — so you never have to leave your little cell. And most significantly for those of us who do most of our socializing via the Internet, everybody uses the Machine to communicate.

At one point, our main character, Vashanti, puts herself in isolation mode for three minutes, so she can talk (basically via webcam) with her son Kuno, who's on the other side of the world. When she goes out of isolation, her room is filled with all of the tons of messages and communications that she's missed over the past three minutes. It really is like Forster is describing turning your IM and Twitter clients back on and being bombarded:

There were buttons and switches everywhere - buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

Vashti's next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one"s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? - say this day month.

Eventually, Vashti and people like her outlaw visiting the surface of the Earth altogether, and as the years pass they begin to worship the Machine which supplies all their needs. And then Kuno warns Vashti that "the Machine stops." Vashti shrugs it off, until more and more things start going wrong — the computer produces mouldy artificial fruit and stinking bathwater, and then it stops providing beds upon request. By the time Vashti realizes that the Machine really is failing once and for all, it's way too late to save herself, or the other humans who are living underground and depending on the Machine for everything.

It's well worth reading "The Machine Stops," not least to contemplate how you'd manage if the Internet suddenly crashed. But it's also fascinating to realize that the first story of computer failure, 100 years ago, predated the first story of robot revolution, Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by a dozen years. For some reason, you'd think that we'd have come up with computers turning against us first, and simple computer failure later.

"The Machine Stops" has been adapted into an episode of the British TV series Out Of The Unknown, a 2004 stage play (also broadcast on the radio a couple years ago), and apparently now a short film (see image, up top.)

Top image from the Freise Brothers, makers of a short film based on "The Machine Stops." [The Machine Stops at NCSA Web Archive]