Whose Arson Is Preferable?

“The Machine Stops” is a story by E.M. Forster published in 1909, the year of my father’s birth. Forster is not usually considered a writer of science fiction, any more than is Jane Austen, but his one attempt at the genre was truly remarkable.

In the story, humans lead completely isolated lives in underground cells. They communicate not directly but electronically. Face-to-face contact is regarded by them with fear, distaste, and even disgust. Their every wish is attended to by a giant supply mechanism of whose working they know little or nothing but upon which they are completely dependent. Then the machine begins to break down, and the subterranean inhabitants are as helpless as maggots in a fisherman’s tin.

I don’t think I need to draw the obvious analogy with our own way of life. Young people cannot envisage their existence without recourse to the antisocial media, and even I find it difficult to remember how you bought a plane ticket before the existence of the internet, or how you arranged a rendezvous before the existence of mobile telephones. Our dependence on electronic communication may not yet be quite as complete as that of humans on the machine in “The Machine Stops,” yet it is already great and growing greater. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 EST - Details)

Last week, someone in la France profonde where I live some of the time sabotaged the local pylon that distributes within a considerable radius whatever rays or waves that are necessary for the internet and mobile telephones to work. I am not so attached to electronic communication that I am a person who spends his time texting from, or looking things up or playing games on, his phone while in a restaurant with others (who are all doing the same); nevertheless, I felt pretty bereft, even almost vulnerable. Though at my age I rarely receive messages that are important even to myself, and never any that are important to the world or to humanity as a whole, I began to imagine that I was missing messages that were of vital significance, for example opportunities of a lifetime that had to be seized within a short time of receipt of the message. The fact that I could not formulate with any exactitude what such an opportunity might be, never in my life having received such a message, did not in the least allay my undercurrent of anxiety, which did not decrease during the three days or more it took for “them” (whoever they were) to restore the service.

There has been a little epidemic recently in sabotage in my obscure area of France. It has been very dry and hot, and four forest fires have been started locally in quite quick succession. The vast majority of such fires around the world are arson rather than spontaneous combustion or even accident, and it is certain that these four fires were started by a pyromaniac. They were put out with admirable promptness and efficiency by the fire services and did not extend more than a few acres, killing no one and damaging no property. But not far from me—so I feel—is someone who is plotting his next fire, which might engulf me. This person, whoever he is, has nothing personally against me; he is actuated by motiveless malignity, or by self-dramatization, or perhaps by an aesthetic appreciation of flames in themselves. As for the destroyer of the communications tower or pylon, he may of course have some ideological grudge against the conditions of modern life, or he may simply enjoy the prospect of causing inconvenience to thousands of people by a fairly simple expedient (they were angry afterwards, as if deprived of a fundamental human right, not against him but against the authorities that failed to restore communications immediately after they were broken).

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