Why is this interesting? - The E.M. Forster Edition

On the imagined future, our on-demand present, and adaptation

Marcus writes the wonderful flow state newsletter, featuring amazing music to work to; very relevant to our daily WFH routines. He’s back for a follow-on WITI and we are happy to have him back at this table. - Colin (CJN) 

Marcus here. In 1909, E.M. Forster published a short story called “The Machine Stops.” He imagined a future in which the surface of the earth has become uninhabitable, and humans live underground, everyone in her own room.

Here’s the main character, Vashti, in her room after ending a Facetime-like call with her son:

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

Why is this interesting?

Many of us are now working from home way more than usual. At the end of some of WFH days, I realized I’d spent the whole day in a Forster Room. In addition to the many buttons for work:

  • There were buttons to call for food: Seamless, Prime Now

  • There were buttons to call for music: Spotify, Soundcloud

  • There were buttons to call for clothing: Amazon, Depop

  • There were buttons that produced entertainment: YouTube, Criterion Channel, Audible, podcasts

  • There were buttons to communicate with friends: iMessage, Twitter, FaceTime

As of 2017, only 3% of American workers regularly worked from home, per Felix Salmon:

More and more companies will encourage or require employees to work from home, causing many knowledge workers to realize how little productivity they lose by doing so. The trendline above will get steeper. And it’s not only office life that will change: conferences, meetups, and other things that presume the habitability of the surface of the earth may go remote by default for good.

As an aside, workers in industries reliant on in-person interactions have been hit hard by this pandemic. Eater has a great roundup of ways you can support restaurant and food service workers, including local relief funds in many American cities.

Many of us may suddenly find ourselves in Forster rooms. In the story, Vashti doesn’t hear the loud hum of the Machine that powers her room, because the noise was present since she was born. Mulling an air-ship trip to see her son, Vashti peeks out of the exterior door of her room and is “seized with the terrors of direct experience.” In this society, “direct experience” becomes anathema, and humans worship the Machine. Vashti tunes into a beloved lecturer advocating a consensus view:

Beware of first-hand ideas!... First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by love and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element—direct observation. And in time’—his voice rose—’there will come a generation that has got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, not as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.

Stay safe out there. (MM)

Infographic of the Day: 

The highest grossing video game franchises. (CJN)

Quick Links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Marcus (MM)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).