Machines, Money, and Meaning

“And every sand becomes a Gem reflected in the beam divine”
-William Blake

In 1909, E. M. Forster published a series of short stories in his book The Eternal Moment. The first story is entitled “The Machine Stops.” This chilling masterpiece concerns the role of technology in our lives. Written over 100 years ago, when technology was in its infancy, it is more relevant today than it was then. With an uncanny prescience, Forster wrote about instant messaging and video conferencing before they were even imagined as possible realities.

"New Technology" by Flickr user Byron Stormweather
Title: new technology | Author: Byron Stormweather | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC 2.0

The story describes a world in which all bodily and spiritual needs are met by the omnipotent, global Machine. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. As time passes, there are two important developments. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as ‘unmechanical’ and threatened with Homelessness. In the end, the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing ‘civilization’ down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti’s ruined cell. Before they perish, they realize that our connections to the natural world and to each other are what truly matter.

This short story powerfully reminded me of the importance of experiencing, remembering, and connecting. The story also raised questions about the primary focus of our lives: is it finding meaning, or is it acquiring more and more money and machines? What drives our behavior?

Experiencing. I’m always struck by people who drive through Europe with their face in a map instead of looking out the window and actually experiencing the beauty firsthand. Or, better yet, hiking through it. Even more troubling is watching parents who are so immersed in their e-mail or text conversations that their children have to go to extraordinary measures to get their attention. It seems that being fully present in the moment is becoming an increasingly rare experience. We have become so distracted by all the busyness in our lives that we miss the fullness of experiences always waiting to touch us.

Remembering. How easy it is to forget. We often forget that humans created religions instead of the other way around. We forget events that remind us of the heinous capability humans have for destroying each other as well as the amazing potential we have to love each other. In the pursuit of more money and better machines, we forget what gives us the most meaning in life. As Forster suggested in his story, as the Machine becomes the object of worship, it ipso facto becomes our religion. If we define religion as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power or the pursuit of something to which we ascribe supreme importance, one could say that the addiction to technology and consumerism have become the new religions.

Connecting. Machines have distorted the meaning of connectedness. We now think of being connected when our computers are able to send information back and forth or when we have an electronically sound and fast interface. For me, connectedness means being connected to ourselves, to others, to our environment, and to a higher energy. When I’m connected to myself I’m aware of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations passing through my head, heart, and body. When I’m connected to others, I’m experiencing the closeness and intimacy of another living, breathing human being. I’m face-to-face, eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart present with that person and experiencing THIS, HERE, NOW. When I’m connected to my environment, I have a heightened sense of what I’m seeing, hearing, touching, or tasting. I have opened up and am more sensitive to what’s right in front of me. When I’m connected to a higher energy, I am experiencing a weightlessness, a tingling, and a spaciousness that takes me beyond the confines of my body. I am feeling alive and vibrant and not bound by convention and constraint. I am much more at One.

Yes, I have those moments, but I am also easily distracted by money madness and machine addiction. The day-to-day realities and stressors of living in an ever-changing world keep grabbing my attention and pulling me away from what’s most important. I become numb, closed, and habituated. I don’t experience whatever possibilities may be unfolding right in front of my nose. I forget what gives me the most meaning in life and salivate for the latest technology. I lose connection with myself and others and suffer withdrawal symptoms when the internet is down for 5 minutes. As a lucky 71-year-old without the pressures of needing to make more money, I still hungrily pursue opportunities to add to my wealth.

I wonder what Forster would say today if he were alive to see that his science fiction fantasies have actually become a nonfiction reality. And I wonder what prescient vision he might have for the next 100 years. Hopefully he would predict that meaning will replace money and machines as the predominant focus in our lives.

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