Halt, and Catch Fire: Forster’s “The Machine Stops”, and Hyperreality and Ethics in the Digital Age

“When this instruction is run the only way to see what it is doing is with an oscilloscope. From the user’s point of view the machine halts and defies most attempts to get it restarted. Those persons with indicator lamps on the address bus will see that the processor begins to read all of the memory, sequentially, very quickly. In effect, the address bus turns into a 16 bit counter. However, the processor takes no notice of what it is reading… it just reads.“– Gerry Wheeler, describing “Halt and Catch Fire”, a machine code instruction that causes early processors to crash irrevocably, only fixable by restarting the machine.

In 1977, Gary Wheeler, writing for the now-defunct BYTE Magazine, documented a very peculiar instruction hidden deep in the architecture of the Motorola 6800 microprocessor. Even in the infancy of microprocessing, processors were analogous to staggeringly complex calculators – Motorola documented 197 valid operations that the processor could perform, and with thousands of those calculations per second acting upon 64 kilobytes of information, a staggering amount of abstract calculations gave life to what we now call the personal computer, the tool with which we extract human ends and meaning from arbitrary mathematics.

What Wheeler noticed is that, since these operations were signified with different 8 bit signifiers, theoretically there should be 256 possible operations – and yet Motorola only reported 197. That meant that there must be 59 “invalid instructions” – 59 wildcards within the system, sitting untouched and unacknowledged, waiting for someone to invoke their name in assembly language to see what they could do. So, of course, that’s what Wheeler did.

Glossing over the technical specifics, Wheeler discovered a command which caused the entire processor to come to a grinding halt, from the user’s perspective. In actuality, the command caused the processor to start upon – and never stop working on – an arbitrary function that was outside of anyone’s control. Nothing could be done, the entire situation was irreparable outside of a hard reset. Citing the potentially catastrophic nature of this previously unknown command, Gary named this command after a fictional one, an inside joke among developer communities at the time – “Halt, and Catch Fire”. 

It’s likely that, up until this point, no-one at Motorola knew about the error, or if someone did, they figured that it was purely theoretical – it wasn’t a command that would ever be documented or acknowledged as existing, as it wasn’t one of the “valid operations”; by not giving it a name, they hoped to prevent it from existing. The language of the 6800 only acknowledged progress – it could only comprehend a system of logic that was internally consistent, operating under the assumption that the system’s logic reflected the material reality of its circuits. And yet, through the efforts of one man diving into what was unnamed, he gained the perspective that revealed what could only be learned from outside: that while we presumed that we spoke of the 6800 when we utilized it’s language, there were phenomena yet unnamed – phenomena that, whether we named them or not, could cause the machine to stop.

As a society, we’re absolutely grand at engineering systems – technical or otherwise – without fulling comprehending them. And yet, our chief hubris is presuming that we do – that our understanding of the systems that we build maps perfectly to those systems, and that the systems themselves correspond to a material reality that we’re certain of, to the point where that we believe that the language we use to describe it maps perfectly to that reality, and that our language charts the entire horizons of that reality, holding onto the notion that anything we cannot name does not exist. The parable of the 6800 illustrates this discursive hubris of ours in our own world, even if the stakes at play were the frustrations of the fledgling microcomputing community at the time. It is Forster’s parable of The Machine that attempts to illuminate the potential consequences of this hubris, illustrating a world where any semblance of a material reality has been traded wholly for the hyperreal, leaving society incapable of comprehending, let alone meaningfully interacting with a world that is rapidly deteriorating – unacknowledged or not.

The Machine Stops is a story that serves unabashedly as a political parable – the opening lines of the story ask us not to experience it passively, but to imagine it (Forster, 2). Between the Machine’s ascension to deity status to the way that the language and structure of academia is used liberally by its encased society, it should come as no surprise that The Machine Stops pulls no punches when it comes to constructing its titular machine as a political and social entity just as much it is a technical one. If we’re going to use Forster’s work to investigate the hyperreal in our own reality, we first need to look at what exactly this Machine is in Forster’s.

As the story opens, we’re introduced to the Machine as mankind’s home, alongside it being mankind’s social and economic/governmental apparatus. Were it not for the story’s opening destabilization of the reader’s perspective by casting Vishka’s home inside the Machine as a type of a surreal cell, the Machine’s world could read as a type of post-scarcity socialist utopia. It’s made clear to us that the Machine not only affords mankind’s every need, but it’s every luxury as well – or at least, it attempts to. It’s important to note that the way the Machine does all this is never fully explained – to the Machine’s society, it’s just not a question that is asked. While a straightforward reading of the title and a millennial cultural priming would imply that the Machine’s economic functions are the product of some type of automation, what’s hinted to us is that somewhere down the line, there are massive human costs to enable this. The opulence of Vashti’s lifestyle, with endless on-demand food and bubble baths and electric chairs that ferry her around to endless entertainment, is contrasted with the absolute desolation of the outside world; while no cataclysmic event is ever mentioned, Vashti assures her son that “the surface of the outside world is only dust and mud”, and during her ride on the airship, we see a world where “the forests have been destroyed during the literature epoch for the purpose of making newspaper pulp”, with plains marked only by “ruined cities” and “diminished rivers”. (Forster 6, 14). Furthermore, it’s implied that not everyone in this society enjoys the same lifestyle as Vashti does – while the machine is venerated as self-sustaining and all-empowering, there seems to be an unacknowledged class of service workers, dehumanized to being seen as invisible fleshy cogs in the machine and treated with derision when they step outside of that role, as evidenced when a jilted passenger cries “You forget yourself!” when she breaks her script to extend a helping hand (Forster, 13). 

This fundamental disconnect – between the society’s veneration of the Machine’s ability to generate plenty and the realities of its inefficiencies – forms the base layer of the ‘hyperreality’ of Forster’s world. I use the term ‘hyperreality’ in the Simulacra and Simulation sense, referring to “a real without origin or reality” in Baudrillard’s terms. To compress an extremely dense text into a few sentences, Baudrillard believed that society replaced reality with a simulation of reality, with us all living in a world of symbols and signs that have nothing to do with a ‘real’ – not even a mediation of a real or a distortion of it, but a world of meaning contained entirely within itself (Baudrillard, 1). Baudrillard’s work took place decades after the publication of The Machine Stops, but Forster’s work in many ways engages with the same topics, in a way that not just explores the idea of hyperreality, but also explores why we would construct such a reality, and the ways that we do.

For Vishka’s bourgeois segment of society, the entire promise of the Machine – this perfect, all encompassing system of human life – falls apart if it can be shown to either not be able to support itself in the long run, or if it can be shown to be unethical in a way that makes that fact unavoidable. Simply hiding or obscuring these facts would not be enough in order to ensure this – as Kuno’s tale shows, there’s a constant risk of someone peeking behind the curtain and trying to spread what they learned throughout that society. However, the Machine’s society has found a way to make those risks inert, without involving any sort of centralized deception or even cynicism on the part of its constituents. Rather, meaning itself is constructed in this society in such a way where Kuno’s protests are wholly meaningless – while Kuno’s mantra of having “seen the hills of Wessex as Aelfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes” makes perfect sense to him as a statement of protest against the impotence of his society’s reality, that statement has no meaning whatsoever inside of that society. Kuno and Vishka’s society is obsessed with ‘finding’ ideas, but while Kuno can climb up a service tunnel and finally glimpse at society’s seams, Vishka can gaze upon a landscape that bears the scars of mankind’s history and be incapable of extracting any sort of meaning from it. In her society, even spatial relationships are meaningless, as her society has “annihilated” space itself, it holding only vestigial importance in a world that only exists behind screens and speakers (Forster, 22, 14, 16). The very notion of directly addressing someone else – to acknowledge them as a concrete entity rather than an abstract one – is vilified, and towards the end of the story, a shift among intellectual communities and academia causes ideas to become more worthwhile the more they become removed from a physical or experiential source – the world to them “is not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine” (Forster, 27).

The function of all of this, in the story’s terms at least, is to create a world where a system of ethics predicated in personal purity, rather than in causal relationship. The value of acts and ideas is discussed in how “mechanical” they are – for instance, Vashti talks about how the development of her soul is being retarded by her “unmechanical” adventure to visit her son (Forster, 15). However, the effects of one’s actions upon others is a non-question. In the face of a razed Earth and human suffering, the fortunate few who perpetuate this system can remain innocent in their own eyes by answering not to their fellow man or to history, but to their God of their own design. When the question is not, “how am I affecting the world” but “am I a good person”, it is “acceptable to do wrong things and still be a good person, provided you do them in innocence” (Danskin). If no-one goes outside to gaze upon the desolate landscape, if no-one really digs into how the Machine actually functions, if no-one even discusses ideas that pre-dates the ideology of the Machine, than everyone can still, in good conscience continue their mechanized lives. The deification of the Machine, and the resultant willful ignorance on the part of those who maintain it, is no accident – it’s the product of a deep collective anxiety over everyone’s culpability in numbering mankind’s days.

The Machine need not be an actual religious icon in order for it to serve as it’s society’s ultimate authority – for most of the story it remains secular, even though it’s treatment is largely the same throughout. Rather, what the Machine needs to be is an answer to society’s deepest anxieties – a preferable reality to one where the Earth has been razed, the oceans have risen, and the rivers dried up, the corpses of the previous generations all but lining their banks. The Machine’s subjects preferred a world where they only had to concern themselves with what they deemed valid, in the same way that we can live quotidian lives even when confronted with the global violence that supports them. When faced with the horrors of our world, we generate realities that absolve us from acknowledging them – we create realities where forced sweatshop labor becomes job growth in developing countries, where endless war in far-away nations becomes keeping the piece, where removing women from developing social spaces becomes ‘ethics in video games journalism’. These are the realities that we live in, but we still exist in the one we’re trying to escape – and when our machine finally stops, it will stop not in our world, but the one we left behind.

Works Cited:

Wheeler, Gerry. “Byte Magazine Volume 02 Number 12 – The Star Trek Computers : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive. Byte Magazine, Dec. 1977. Web. 09 July 2016. <https://archive.org/details/byte-magazine-1977-12&gt;. I didn’t actually dig through the magazine to find the quote proper, I pulled it from Wikipedia. Apologies if you go hunting for it

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1994. Print.

Danskin, Ian. “Why Are You So Angry? Part 5: “The Good Guy”“ Innuendo Studios. N.p., 17 July 2015. Web. 14 July 2016. <http://innuendostudios.tumblr.com/post/124325938252/part-5-of-my-series-on-angry-gamers-transcript&gt;.

Forster, Edward Morgan. The Machine Stops. N.p.: n.p., 1909 (orig). Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg. Web. 13 July 2016.

Various. “Simulacra and Simulation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 July 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation&gt;. I know citing Wikipedia is a faux pas, but I’m doing so only to reutilize a concise paraphrasing of Baudrillard’s ideas, which felt more honest than changing a few words in that paraphrasing and calling it my own.

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