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The Machine Stops

Published Jul 03, 2020 – By Martin MacConnol


If you’ve read EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops”, you will know what a clever writer he was. In 1909 he predicted a world where people are instant messaging and wholly dependent on a ‘Machine’ for all their needs. They live in isolation, and all communication is basically run through the Machine. The Machine becomes the centre of their lives. Something to be worshipped. Something they can’t control or fix. And then it stops. 

I had a taste of that ‘stopping’ experience this week. Now on the other side of it, I don’t know whether Virgin Media deserves blame or praise. But my internet connection for the last four days was patchy and slow for much of the time. Sometimes it was non-existent. I’m back to some sort of normality again now.  

What surprised me was how unwell the digital breakdown made me feel. Of course, we can now go out and about in the real world, but for many of us, our work interface with the world is still through a machine screen.  

When that didn’t function a sense of powerlessness and isolation grew in me. And without my family around (for various complicated reasons this week) I found it tough. By turns I felt angry, miserable and listless. 

July 4 looms and new freedoms (but not for Leicester) beckon. In an ideal world I would have been at the middle weekend of Wimbledon. That’s not going to happen, but at the very least I hope the pressure cooker of being dependent on the Machine is going to start to exponentially ease. 

Because I resent our dependence on this Machine. At work, we now see Covid-19 as another accelerant away from the wonderful (and wonderfully tactile) world of print. People are now used to doing more through the Machine and the economic impacts of Covid-19 make cutting print and distribution an obvious quick fix for cash-strapped clients in the short term. We saw the same happen post-Lehmans in 2008. 

Just like then, as an agency we are geared up for it, indeed almost looking forward to it: our offering is ever more digital – and multimedia is fun and lucrative. But if print does become more and more niche as a result of the Machine’s takeover that will be a loss: not just a sensory one, but a results one too. Because print really does deliver as those who continue to invest in it will find out. 

But my resentment of the Machine is deeper than work-related issues. I dislike the increasing need to worry about, tend and worship a load of cabling and microchips, just to be able to get through my day. With flexible working here to stay that tech anxiety is not going to disappear. It’s given me a new Dreyfus-like twitch to deal with (you remember Dreyfus, Clouseau’s boss in the Pink Panther?)… the persistent niggle now of what will happen to my conversation, my work, my presentation if The Machine Stops?

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