It was 1909 when E.M. Forster looked into the future with his short story, The Machine Stops. What’s chilling about this science fiction tale are the stark similarities to the Internet, social media, YouTube and other technologies that have empowered, seduced and disrupted the modern age.

Forster isn’t eulogized as a prophet. Instead he’s celebrated for writing classic novels including A Room With A View and A Passage to India. However, this 19th century author seems the soothsayer when describing an age where people trade first hand experience for life in front of a screen with every need satisfied by “the machine.”

In Forster’s future, everyone is confined to their rooms. With four walls, a variety of buttons and luminous screens, most of the inhabitants rarely go outside. With a touch of button or lever, the machine provides light, darkness, food, water, services and interaction with others occur on screens. Human contact happens remotely with the occasional trips into the world to travel via rail and airships. These excursions are frowned upon because of the fear of being away from the machine.

The main character is contacted by her son via a blue plate which glows with his image and dialog. He summons her to spend time with him in the real world and she’s compelled to visit him, despite the her “busy” lifestyle otherwise.

As she leaves the comfort of the machine, she describes the anxiety of people who are alone and away from their adoring audience conveyed through virtual lectures and conversations. Humans have children, but they are removed from their parents at an early age and the machine handles education, social interaction and other evolutionary benefits that no one seems to question.

She ultimately disowns her son for what she determines to be a blasphemous statement that he believes the machine will stop. Although her disbelief is shared with a religious fanaticism, she ultimately experiences his prediction as the machine starts to fail, disintegrate and ultimately stop – leaving everyone incapable of caring for themselves and dealing with their greatest fear … silence.

This dystopian narrative has an interesting parallel to several authors including H.G. Wells in the Time Machine. Digital prophet Jaron Lanier cites Karl Marx with references that point to the possibility of what societies become as technology exceeds our abilities to understand or control them.

Lanier is among the early Digeratti who coined the phrase “Virtual Reality” and since become a quirky contrarian with a warning for excessive and unscrupulous technological progress. He caught my attention in an appearance promoting his book, You are Not A Gadget and that’s where I discovered the Forster book.

It’s funny too how books shake hands with each other. While reading up on Forster, Lanier and other thinkers who espouse a form of humanism, I was reminded of a great modern film that brings to life a very similar motif.

Pixar released the animated movie ‘Wall-E’ in 2008 and features a robot who is programmed to clean up a waste covered Earth. He falls in love with another robot and travels with humans onboard the spaceship Axiom. It’s there he encounters our connected future as the Captain and other passengers are all glued to their screens. Morbidly obese and suffering severe bone loss they are obsessed with everything that comes out of the screen. As the hardened consumer, they all respond like programs themselves as the announcer says, “Try blue – it’s the new red!”

I must admit, there are plenty of reservations these days about how I spend my time. As a society, What was once a concern about how much television we watch is much more consuming in the new generation. Not only do we have the “boob tube,” but we’re all aglow with desktops, laptops, smartphones, DVDs and GPS in cars, airplanes and everywhere you. We live in an environment of screens and although my skepticism and the closet luddite in me is attracted to thinkers like Forster and critics like Lanier, you can’t ignore the data.

Lanier describes how the Internet has been around for a little more than a generation to the mainstream. Since then, he is convinced of the disruption in our society as it relates to creativity, publishing, journalism and soon to be had – education. Our machines are becoming so good, so fast and affording so many short-term economies, we’re trading our producers for consumers.

Describing his concept of technological humanism, Lanier despite his pessimism of technology considers himself an optimist.

“We simply must create a society in which people can live off their brains in which expression matters and people think of themselves as supernaturally special so as not to preclude the possibility that we might be. If we don’t do that, we’ll end up in a really dull world…or a really phony world where we’re all living the service of an imaginary computer–based God.”

He proposes a thoughtful argument that we’re like the frog in the pot who can’t tell the temperature is going up.

There’s a whole lot more to this subject and I’ll leave that to anyone who wants to join me in this quest.

Forster isn’t the only one who saw a bleak future with technology run amok (the red pill or blue one? ), but he certainly had an interesting vision that makes us consider our habits and screen time.