Machine Stops

The Machine Stops – Exactly how doomed are we?

March 2010


“Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his own image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled by the garments he had woven.”
“Truly the garment had seemed heavenly at first, shot with colors of colours of culture, sewn with the threads of self-denial. And heavenly it had been so long as man could shed it at will and live by the essence that is his sould, and the essence, equally divine, that is his body.”

“The Machine Stops”, is a dystopian short story published in 1909 ago by EM Forster (free here) laying out a future where a segment of human society becomes terminally dependent on machines. Humanity loses both its capacity, and will, for a life free of technological augmentation.  The highest form of existence is sitting alone in a self-contained, underground room connected to the rest of humanity only through the machine. Ideas and thoughts are valued over first hand experiences of the real world.

Tempting, as it is, to generalise and join the hordes of well intentioned late adopters in claiming that the internet is incrementally isolating us, it might be worthwhile taking a look at what is actually happening around us.

In the same way that transport enabled us to engage more with unseen worlds, online communities are enabling us to engage with people located around us. Location-based applications are just beginning to make their way into our mental frameworks.


A hint of the near future of human engagement was evident at SXSW Interactive this year, where location based applications such as Foursquare and Gowalla began to reach critical mass adoption. With a location enabled mobile device individuals began “checking-in” at various venues, notifying friends and, often, strangers of their location. Up to 200 people were checked in at some locations.

On top of these platforms, strangers are beginning to be connected by matched attributes such as “I’m interested in mobile tech”. was an application built by a two man team in 48hrs on which did exactly this.

In the same way that we have somehow miraculously become both comfortable speaking to complete strangers and desensitised to exhibitionism on, we will soon be more comfortable with these applications introducing us to relevant but complete strangers that happen to be sharing a venue.

This may well be the “threads of self-denial” referred to be EM Forster, but until technology advances to the point that virtual engagement becomes indistinguishable from physical engagement, we have an opportunity to take advantage of a new era of location-based serendipity.

Do you see potential, or do you think location-based apps are overhyped?

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  • rosshill

    You'll find that Dodgeball (by the Foursquare founders, acquired by Google) actually had this feature – it would introduce you to friends of friends if you checked into the same bar by sms.

  • ppeach

    Hmmm, interesting. I suppose now with a network of users to make it work it won't be long. Passive location updating on iPhone OS 4 will no doubt help push this.