Twitter and The Machine Stops

8 Jun

It is an old cliche that the fictional inspiration and vision of our modern interactive world stems from the typewriter of William Gibson. While to some extents this is true – after all Neuromancer inspired a fair number of technologists to go out and create their own interpretations of “Cyberspace” – perhaps the truest reflection of our modern reality is a lot older.

November this year sees the 100th anniversary of the publication of E.M. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops. Forster’s vision is of a world where “the entire population communicates through a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which they conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and knowledge with each other.”

The people of Forster’s future world have almost no real human contact and are totally immersed  in their virtual world of endlessly recycled, secondhand ideas at the expense of being able to survive in the real world when finally the Machine Stops. They have culturally evolved to a point of their own physical obsolescence.

I was reminded about this story that I first read at the tend age of 14 when I was putting together a presentation (or “deck” as some people insist on calling them, again inspired by Mr Gibson) about Twitter. 

I was putting together the quick “Two wider trend implications” bit about Twitter’s value as:

  • A real-time search/help engine
    • Raw results, unfiltered and updated immediately.
    • No waiting for Google to crawl links
    • Breaking news, live event coverage (e.g. #G20)
    • A live-feed of what the web is thinking and sentiment tracking via, Tweetscan, Tweetdeck, Twendz
    • Gmail outage: people switched to Twitter for help
    • People now ask their friends and peers for help, insight and expertise on a day-to-day basis


  • An open-source experience model
    • user experience is poor
    • Most activity is off-platform even when people are using a desktop PC
    • Huge list of APIs and Apps, large developer community
    • The core service actually needs the community in order to function effectively
    • A mainstream breakthrough for crowd creativity & open-source business trend

when I was struck by the thought that Twitter is the real embodiment of Forster’s Speaking Apparatus.

Twitter’s 140 character limit and reliance on linking to external applications, webpages, photos etc for real content value beyond simple utterances (so well parodied in McSweeney’s INTERNET-AGE WRITING SYLLABUS) makes it the perfect self-recursive media.

Indeed the prominence of ReTweeting R/T perhaps hints at this need to for Twitter to evolve before it eats itself. Harvard Business School’s recent study shows that “the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets“. For Twitter to expand the number of value exchange providers it needs to expand the value creation possibilities beyond human RSS. It needs to be integrated into the concept of Social Periphery and maintain its roots in the real world rather than allow itself to be become a virtual one. Then again I’m probably grouchy because all my friends are still on Facebook…never going to be one of the cool kids….

Anyway in the spirit of recycling ideas and sharing I’ve uploaded the presentation below. I’ve missed a couple of credits (particularly to Matt at iLevel who did the sterling work on media opportunities), but I’m sure you’ll come across the ideas in other places where you can thank them directly:

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