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E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’: humans, technology and dialogue


The article explores E.M. Forster’s story The Machine Stops (1909) as an example of dystopian literature and its possible associations with the use of technology and with today’s cyber culture. Dystopian societies are often characterized by dehumanization and Forster’s novel raises questions about how we live in time and space; and how we establish relationships with the Other and with the world through technology. We suggest that the fear of technology depicted in dystopian literature indicates a fear that machines are mimicking the roles that humans already play in relational encounters. Our relationship with machines frequently suggests a classical “I-it” situation. However, a genuine dialogue is where there is no master and where communication and understanding are achieved through the encounter and through openness to difference and to change. The article examines the ways machines and automata are imagined and become part of lived human existence, in the light of Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception and otherness. The problem seems to be how everyday technological interfaces can change the way we first perceive the world and the possibility that with certain types of mediation there is a loss of connection with the Other. It is argued that understanding dialogical conditions could help turn the relationship with technology into something more humane. Literature such as Forster’s is considered as an example of such a dialogical condition, suggesting ways of dealing with human dilemmas by exploring the field of possibilities.

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  1. Reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, first published in 1864 (2004).


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Correspondence to Ana Cristina Zimmermann.

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W. John Morgan—Honorary Professor at School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, UK

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Zimmermann, A.C., Morgan, W.J. E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’: humans, technology and dialogue. AI & Soc 34, 37–45 (2019).

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  • Dystopian literature
  • Technology
  • Dialogue
  • Phenomenology