The Machine Stops on First Hand Ideas

The Machine Stops is my favorite work of science fiction. Written in 1909, it’s more relevant today than ever. Thousands of years in the future, in a society in which a machine fulfills all human needs and wants, ideas are what is valuable. Vashti, the main character, is in constant search of new ideas. Another character expounds upon how information and ideas are to be shared in this fictional society:

“Beware of first-hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. “First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live 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. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine - the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the skepticism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time” - his voice rose - “there will come a generation that had 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, 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.”

This passage strikes a nerve for me. I find it increasingly easier to form my thoughts based not on our my own experiences, but on the experiences of others. Not only do I draw on others’ experiences, but I draw on their interpretations as well. I don’t do direct research myself. Instead, I read tweets that link to articles, which summarize the abstracts of scientific papers, which themselves are increasingly meta-analyses that synthesize several primary studies. Even when I do benefit from near direct observation in the form of a primary source like a video, I’ll sometimes seek out the interpretations of others before forming my own thoughts. I even know which sources to go to get my preferred interpretation. In many ways, we are much better off for increased access to the thoughts and experiences of others, but this passage illustrates the absurdity of not validating the thoughts of others with direct observation when possible.