E M FORSTER’S The Machine Stops is a dystopian short story in which he might have imagined a world where humanity might exist in permanent lockdown. Living deep underground in cells, in isolation, finding the company of others repellent, with human needs provided by “the machine” we can read into this story many lessons for today. Life itself in the story has become one long Zoom meeting. Friendship, learning, “travel”, and every aspect of existence are all controlled by and mediated through the Machine. Medication is provided, bathing, indeed everything that is a substitute for human living. Why meet someone face to face when they may be seen on a screen? Why attend a concert when the machine can provide the music? People are aware of the real air and ground above them but it has few attractions away from the comforts of the artificial. A few see the surface as something with the potential for true freedom, relationships , and where hope is found in an older way of living. They discover a way out and explore the surface of the earth. They see how life has been diminished by the Machine, but how dependent the vast majority have become on it.
The title of Foster’s novella might suggest that the “life support” of a diminished human race living in its subterranean cells stops abruptly. The machine however first starts to break down. Communication, the taste of food, the smells hidden by disinfectant, all that the machine provides (or disguises) slowly starts to fail. At first people grudgingly get used to things and pretend it was always so. An atheistic culture soon starts to pray again -not to the ancient gods – but to the machine itself. Does it not sustain them? Does it not promise them that suffering and pain are no more? Its manual becomes the bible for the fearful, who fearing the end, not only of the machine but of themselves. Minds are focussed when the euthanasia function of the machine fails and humanity must once again face death as a reality rather than choice. The end comes when the machine stops. Those who have been to the surface know life exits there, and true humanity will survive and there is at the end a touching moment when a mother and son are symbols of the machine giving way to affection and the naturalness of touch.
The pandemic of the spring of 2020 caused everything to stop, but in so many ways revealed a machine already broken. When our society stopped it masked a simple truth: for a long while it had been breaking down. One factor in the difficulty of starting society up again is how those in power might not have appreciated what is being revealed. A world of work where the slightest error or misjudgement calls for someone to blame combined with a creaking infrastructure, especially in transportation, will gladly stay at home. The many challenges in every area of life that politicians knew needed addressing have now come at once. The changes made by the coalition government are now revealed as more than a fixed term parliament. The Libdem policy of removing politicians from health care (done with obvious good intentions) led to some concluding that the last election was pointless when Public Health England and advisers were running the show. Public health, human relationships between classes and generations, house prices, jobs, secularisation and tensions within institutions and organisations, all would become and remain part of a bigger story. Some will have entered the world imagined by Foster long ago, and recent weeks have made their joy complete. It is interesting how technology is often blamed for causing tension, but like the pandemic it reveals more than we might suppose. We now know that the internet and technology have been invaluable in past weeks, for some a lifeline, for others a virtual world when the real one was closed. Many though now long for what is real. They have seen both the role and place of the means of communication. Increasingly people say to me they long to return to the office, they long for travel, they long for food they haven’t had to cook in the company of friends. I have seen families arriving for funerals who are unsure of where they might sit and how close, and afterwards when the curtain has closed, hugging and becoming close again. In the midst of death life simply being alive puts things in perspective.
For the Church much has been revealed and in a fundamental sense its challenges and the potential for change is no different to any other institution. It has seen centralisation as a way forward given the forces it faces. A secular society will expect a certain language to be spoken if it is to be listened to. Few thought that clergy might be best able to fulfil a useful role in their communities but as is now being stated when track and trace was thought up, no one thought the best place for it in the GPs surgery. As we move to a period of reassurance in order to lure people from their homes a centralised system of care cannot imagine trusting staff on the ground whether or not a face covering is appropriate. When anything becomes too centralised it takes on the characteristics of a machine. Would your child, in hospital, appreciate a nurse in a face covering when the mask is only worn to “give a signal”? The further away decision making and responsibility is taken away from the local the less people matter.
As some criticise the police and they bravely confront the extremities of thousands of protestors at this time most need applauding. To move families from parks was surely not why any entered the force. Those “on the ground” did their best as their superiors got some things right and some things wrong. The sensitive nature of so many staff have made recent months endurable but so many have said to me that the absence of managers is notable.
Above all we have as individuals been revealed during the spring of 2020, and our stories will be different. Many who thought they pulled the levers found they didn’t work. Those who kept working might have found that the absence of constant meetings, advice and emails didn’t make much difference. Companies which have run with fewer staff are finding they can cope with the fewer people who have simply worked a bit harder.
I can only write from my experience, but the one refrain I have heard constantly is the desire for change. In the shops, undertakers, schools, hospitals, delivery services, and all those involved in what we call “key” those on the ground knew their roles. Those at the top know their roles. In between something has broken down. Mending it will be complex and a vital area consideration will be to look at risk and trust. A culture of risk aversion and lack of trust, with a secular agenda to see people as a part of communities of identity can go two ways. It will triumph or past weeks will see its ending. Much needs a reboot.
In The Machine Stops it is a return to the land and fresh air where things begin again. If any ask where was the Church in recent weeks it may have seemed hidden but as its critics will not allow it has been vital. We are all human and make mistakes, and we all have much to learn. Our renewal will come from our foundations, a new awareness of what we are about and for, and I hope a new appreciation of the local and personal. Perhaps the closing of the church doors will in the long run be seen as a positive. I suspect church buildings will now be cherished more, not less and so many would have quietly got on with serving Christ as they put into practice his teaching:
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
David Ackerman (Rev)