The Shallowness of Social Media and Online Learning in a 100-Year-Old Book: A brief look at the novella by E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops

With the ever-growing expansion of social media influencers and internet gurus who are constantly offering to teach us from their vast experience or depths of accumulated knowledge, I can’t help but think of a novella written by E.M. Forster’s, The Machine Stops.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

I read it for the first time about nine years ago, but I have stumbled upon it again recently and was even more shocked by how accurately it predicted the world we live in now. 

And this is not a small achievement, considering that the novella was written in 1909. 

Everyone is a Teacher

The onset of the Pandemic has seen the incredible rise in online teachers. They were suddenly everywhere, they kept rising up, offering their services, for free or otherwise. The offers range from full-on live courses to booklets, webinars, infographics, guides and email courses. 

Writing on a subject doesn’t seem to be enough anymore, you have to teach it, you have to present yourself as an expert.

There are courses on how to create courses and how to become an expert in a subject matter within days.

It is simple. Find out what people are interested in, make it your niche. Read up on it, market it, and you are good to go. You don’t have to have any significant real-life experiences on the subject, you just need to know a little bit more than your audience. If that.

I took some of these courses, the allure of free is hard to avoid, and, honestly, I even enjoyed some, but to what purpose, to what end?

Yes, I like learning new things, I am attracted by the new shiny objects just as much as any other renaissance soul out there, but the quality has worsened over the years (this is not just the pandemic outcome) and what worries me is that I hardly even noticed. 

I kept on taking the webinars. I kept on signing up for email lists offering me free email courses or free downloads. It was like the Pinterest of learning, the allure of promises without any substantial content. 

The Machine Stops

Photo by Moritz Kindler on Unsplash

In the “The Machine Stops” people are controlled by…well.. the Machine. They live underground. The Machine provides them with everything they need, provided they stay compliant with the rules of the Machine. They live in their rooms, they meet occasionally in person but they see each other through the machine wherever in the world they are.

(It still gets me that video calls/instant messaging were predicted as something regular over 100 years ago!)

People pass their time mainly by listening to lectures and discussing ideas and concepts which are largely irrelevant to their confined lives.

As an example of irrelevance, our main character prepares lectures on Australian Opera. Everyone can pick a topic and prepare a lecture. People then listen to lectures from the comfort of their rooms. Then they discuss it as if it was the most important thing in the world. 

I was feeling thoroughly unproductive during the Covid19 lockdown. It seemed like the whole world was doing something important in their homes. Learning a new language, a new skill, cooking, crafting, coding or coming up with witty things to post online.  

I picked up the novella I had already read, but this time the message really stood out. Consider this excerpt:

“As for Vashti, her life went peacefully forward until the final disaster. She made her room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light. She lectured and attended lectures. She exchanged ideas with her innumerable friends and believed she was growing more spiritual.”

Forster, E. M.. The Machine Stops (p. 28). IAP. Kindle Edition.

The creepy world of E.M. Forster became even creepier by the fact that, at that very moment, I and the many of my fellow humans were actually living it. 

Takeaways

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

I asked myself about the significance of it all. What is the point? What do we do with the influx of information, of influencers, of following trends, of watching yet another youtube how to video?

Are we just trying to pass our time until the final disaster?

Or are we living? 

E.M. Forster’s magnificent ability to see the future aside, I hope that my innumerable online friends and I refuse to be Vashti. 

I certainly hope that some of us have actually lived and learned the real lessons from what we are trying to convey to others. And that some of us share personal essays and let others into our own experiences. That we connect on that level. With purpose and quality.

9 Comments

  1. This is certainly scary as we are most definitely living this life now. We were told to stay inside for two weeks, then a month, then several months, and now six months later we are starting to venture out again but we’re told if we aren’t properly covered up we can get sick and pass it on. At some point, we have to decide if this is worth losing our jobs, homes, businesses, education etc. A 5-year-old child is not going to learn online. I am going to read this for sure.

    1. Author

      Absolutely worth a read if anything for the unbelievable vision some people have!

  2. It’s quite overwhelming, isn’t it? Sometimes the most valuable thing to do is tune out all the coaches and lecturers and spend time in reflection – which is what it sounds like you’ve been able to do in this piece!

  3. Life imitating art! I’ll have to look out for a copy of that book, sounds like it will be an interesting read.

  4. This sounds really interesting. I love books that touch on topics like this – the way that our lives COULD turn out down the road. Have you read the Arc of a Scythe Series? It’s about life if we developed the technology to overcome death and how the world would adjust to compensate for the growing population.

    1. Author

      Oh, thank you for the recommendation, that sounds interesting! Just downloaded the Kindle sample.

  5. I need to read this novel because I think it will really make a resonance with me, deepening my own thinking

  6. It sounds interesting for sure and you are right that there are many people teaching things they have no actual experience in or are not actually living.
    However, we‘re all bloggers and so by default taking part in it all. It seems that despite the drawbacks, there are still enough benefits for us to participate in social media and the online world. Just as long as it stays balanced with weeding out the bad teachers, spending plenty of time outside in the fresh air and having authentic real life interactions!

  7. I am definitely ordering this book for myself! I find it so odd and kind of scary just how this book sounds like all of our lives right now. Not going out or seeing people, the influx of online learning. I think it is great, but that human contact and interaction is so lost that way too. I have to wonder when it will end and life will resume as somewhat normal? Still not entirely sure that will actually happen though.

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