Future Tense

COVID-19 Isn’t the Apocalypse We Expected—or the One Some Wanted

Recent novels from Don DeLillo and Jonathan Lethem fantasized about turning off screens forever.

Covers of The Silence, The Arrest, and The Machine Stops, as well as laptops and other screens.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by scanrail/iStock/Getty Images Plus and OnstOn/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

If science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke could claim credit as the inventor of the communications satellite for writing an essay predicting something like the technology in 1945, then E.M. Forster, author of A Room With a View and A Passage to India, may have a better claim to be the inventor of the Zoom call.

His 1909 short story “The Machine Stops” was cyberpunk decades before cyber or punk, and traces of it echo in later sci-fi nightmares from George Lucas’ THX 1138 to The Matrix. Forster imagines a global society whose inhabitants have retreated from the ruined surface of the earth to honeycomblike underground dwellings where they live in isolated cells. They make rare trips from one cover of the earth to another by airship, but more often, citizens of the future speak to one another on screens—though Forster, writing a decade before the first demonstration of television technology, doesn’t use the word screen.

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Describing such a call, he writes, “the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.” It’s not only person-to-person calls that happen via screen. Vashti, one of lengthy story’s two main characters, delivers lectures to audiences around the world via the screen on such topics as “Music During the Australian Period.”

Today, it feels a bit like we’ve entered some version of Forster’s subterranean twilight world. Forster anticipates both globalization and something along the lines of the internet, describing how people like Vashti experience the fully integrated worldwide “Machine” organizing the provision of information, goods, and services to the Earth’s population: “The Machine still linked them. Under the seas, beneath the roots of the mountains, ran the wires through which they saw and heard, the enormous eyes and ears that were their heritage,” he writes. It provides background noise, literally and figuratively: “the Machine hummed eternally; [Vashti] did not notice the noise, for she had been born with it in her ears.” A constant low-level hum, which we’re so accustomed to we hardly notice, is indeed a byproduct of post-industrial society. Even in the remotest Alaskan wilderness, scientists now have trouble recording soundscapes free of human noise for more than a day or two at a time.

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As the coronavirus pandemic’s stress test has pushed corporate supply chains and government institutions to the breaking point, the story’s conclusion—suggested by the title—also feels more than a little ominous. Vashti’s son Kuno is the story’s rebellious hero: Disillusioned with life inside the machines, he risks a trip to the surface, where he discovers there are still inhabitants living. He has also come to realize that the Machine is breaking down and tries in vain to warn his mother that the complex systems upon which modern humans rely—but don’t fully understand—are increasingly on the fritz. The moment the terror and enormity of what’s happening really hits Vashti is one familiar to anyone who’s tried to give a group presentation on Zoom.

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Vashti was lecturing at the time and her earlier remarks had been punctuated with applause. As she proceeded the audience became silent, and at the conclusion there was no sound. Somewhat displeased, she called to a friend who was a specialist in sympathy. No sound.

From there, conditions quickly deteriorate until the denizens of the world are trapped without light or air, thrashing about in chaos in their underground lair—though in a slightly hopeful note, it is implied that society might be reborn again on the surface of the planet.

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Written before Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, “The Machine Stops” reflects similar fears of modern humans becoming soft, effeminate, and conformist as they are coddled by technology. For me, the story came to mind after reading two recent works by two of America’s best-known novelists, both released during the pandemic, which imagine remarkably similar scenarios of technological collapse: Don DeLillo’s The Silence and Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest. Both are nightmare scenarios that sometimes feel more like the authors’ fantasies.

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The apocalyptic scenarios in The Silence and The Arrest are similar enough that it’s easy to imagine them taking place within the same timeline, with the Lethem book beginning several years after DeLillo’s. In both novels, digital technology simply stops working.

Here’s DeLillo:

Something happened then. The images onscreen began to shake. It was not ordinary visual distortion, it had depth, it formed abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units that seemed to thrust forward and then recede. Rectangles, triangles, squares. … Then the screen went blank.

And Lethem:

Television died first. Television contracted a hemorrhagic aliment, Ebola or some other flesh-melting thing. The channels bled, signals fused, across time as well as virtual space, a live Rod Serling Playhouse 90 teleplay broadcast from 1956 sputtering into last agonized life and expiring in the middle of episodes of season two of Big Little Lies. … The Gmail, the texts and swipes and FaceTimes, the tweets ad likes, these suffered colony collapse disorder.

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If Forster imagines a future world of people who have lost the ability to survive without screens, Lethem and DeLillo imagine that same scenario from the point of view of those people—of us.

DeLillo and Lethem are not science-fiction writers, and neither is particularly interested in explaining why the machines stopped one day or how those machines worked in the first place. Neither the authors nor their characters have much concept of how the system that delivers information at the touch of a button around the planet works. They just know that they have screens. When they push certain buttons on those screens, Kurosawa films or football games appear. Like most of us, these authors are modern urban people who take the images that appear on screens for granted. Both books describe a certain number of people continuing to stare at the screens after they turn off, hoping in vain that some image will reappear.

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The Silence describes the moment the screens go off and the immediate aftermath, telling the story of two couples, one on the final moments of a trans-Atlantic flight, which somehow manages to land without electronic instruments. (The scenario is similar to another terrifying but miraculous emergency landing described in DeLillo’s 1985 masterpiece White Noise.) Another couple is interrupted in the middle of watching the Super Bowl, unsure at first if it’s merely their television that’s gone out—if the Super Bowl is still taking place, or what that even means if it can’t be watched on TV. The two couples eventually meet up at the latter’s Manhattan apartment for a night of drunken reflection and sexual confusion as—it is strongly implied but never specifically described—the world outside descends into chaos.

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The Arrest begins several years after the screens go off and takes place entirely within a community on the Maine coast that has managed to sustain itself thanks to its residents’ pre-apocalyptic interest in organic farming and a crunchy granola sort of survivalism. The community is protected from the outside world by the violent biker tribe known as the Cordon, perhaps meant by Lethem as a miniature version of our current world in which prosperous liberal society in underwritten by state violence. What’s on the other side of the Cordon is never precisely revealed, but the reports don’t sound promising. The protagonist and reader stand-in, Sandy, who privately refers to himself as Journeyman, is a former Hollywood script doctor who, after the technological apocalypse, finds work cleaning up after the town butcher—he could never kill the animals himself—and running deliveries. Journeyman’s fate is a reminder for all of us who spend our days pecking at a keyboard just how much our livelihoods and identities depend on the larger systems that keep the world machine humming.

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Both released in the grim year of 2020, though written well before lockdown, the books were well-tuned to the apocalyptic mood, but also ironically ill-suited to the actual apocalypse we find ourselves in. (In an interview with the New York Times magazine, DeLillo says that an editor had tried to insert a mention of COVID-19 in order to make the book more contemporary, but he had cut it because “there’s no reason for that.”) DeLillo and Lethem imagine a global disruption that turns all the screens off for good. Instead, we’re experiencing one that’s made us more dependent on our screens than ever. The machine hasn’t stopped—if anything, it has expanded into more areas of life as everything from corporate offices to political organizing to family reunions to dating has moved to videoconferencing. If anything, White Noise, in which a middle-class American family living in a community afflicted by an “airborne toxic event” retreats into solipsistic obsessions and an increasingly incoherent media cocoon, better anticipates life during the pandemic.

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In a telling flashback in The Arrest, to Journeyman’s days as a screenwriter, a producer says of the authors of post-apocalyptic fiction, “You people are supposed to, you know, write it to keep it from happening right? Cautionary tales …” Yet, he says, the future worlds they imagine end up “always better, not worse.”

That certainly seems fair when it comes to both The Silence and The Arrest, which often feel more wistful than nightmarish. These are fantasy novels for the age of parental screen time anxiety and How to Do Nothing. Both authors seem to feel humans would be mentally or spiritually healthier if one day all the screens just went off and there was no way to turn them back on. The villain of The Arrest is the producer from Journeyman’s past who, thanks to a mysterious nuclear-powered car, is able to keep up his espresso and internet porn habits amid the neo-Edenic, agrarian present. He’s the last man on the planet to refuse to silence his cellphone. Another way in which the complete shutdowns of The Arrest and The Silence feel like fantasies is their universality. Lethem refers, without attribution, to science-fiction author William Gibson’s famous line, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Gibson was referring to technological advancement, but the same could be said of collapse. We don’t see much of the wider world in either book, but the reader gets the impression that the world has experienced a fairly equitable apocalypse, with everywhere from Tokyo to Mogadishu turned back to year zero.

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The idea that this sort of breakdown could be a kind of fresh start for societies that have grown too complete is awfully wishful. As Syria’s experience over the past decade has shown, when middle-income societies with complex infrastructure fall apart, the damage itself is also more complex. A well that consists of a hole in the ground is relatively easy to fix for someone who knows what they’re doing. An industrial water treatment plant is another matter. Lethem’s plot contrives for have Journeyman ride out the end of the world in a Maine idyll where people are both well-off and self-sufficient—a rarity in modern life. One imagines life might get more complicated for DeLillo’s Manhattan-based protagonists a few weeks down the line.

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The fantasy of these books is not just a world without technology. It’s the rapidity of the event they seem to be pining after—a collapse rather than a slow decay. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, the American anthropologist and scholar of societal breakdown Joseph Tainter sometimes seems to exhibit some of the same ambivalence about the collapse of civilizations as Lethem and DeLillo, noting that it is the rule rather than the exception in human history. He says, “Collapse then is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity” and that it is only disastrous for “those members of a society who have neither the opportunity nor the ability to produce primary food resources.” In other words, the farmers will be fine when the collapse comes. The script doctors are out of luck.

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The mystery raised by Tainter and other recent studies of civilizational collapse is the extent to which those living through a collapse realize it. Was there a moment when, metaphorically, the Maya or Romans or Easter Islanders noticed that their screens had gone off, or was it only afterward some came to realize that there used to be a much higher “established level of sociopolitical complexity?” (In the Easter Island case, that’s a matter of some scholarly debate.)

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This sort of question increasingly seems not so academic. We see regular warnings of the risk of societal collapse due to climate change and arguments that America is approaching a tipping point between political polarization and “incipient insurgency.” And yet the tipping point never seems to come. We muddle along, perhaps only taking stock of our losses in retrospect.

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There was speculation before last year that something like COVID-19 could have caused a civilizational collapse of the more definite sort both in fictional scenarios from I Am Legend to The Stand, as well as in scientific research. A 2008 New Scientist article, which referred to Tainter’s work, asked, “Will a pandemic bring down civilisation?” It argued that the international economy’s complexity makes it more vulnerable to collapse than it was during previous global pandemics: “Over the past few decades, people who use or sell commodities from coal to aspirin have stopped keeping large stocks, because to do so is expensive. They rely instead on frequent small deliveries. Cities typically have only three days’ worth of food, and the old saying about civilisations being just three or four meals away from anarchy is taken seriously by security agencies.”

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That’s obviously not how things worked out with supply chains in the pandemic era. Yes, there were shortages of flour, meat, and toilet paper early on, but the Machine adapted surprisingly quickly. The post office may be breaking down in the U.S., but Amazon is working just fine. And there has certainly been civil unrest in response to long-standing grievances over police violence and racism, as well as the refusal of the former American president’s supporters to accept the results of the presidential election. The pandemic has widened the gap between rich and poor—both within countries and between countries, globally—and exacerbated already fraught public feuds over the role of government, science, and the media. But the most likely scenario for the moment seems to be the continuing fraying of the social contract rather than an overnight collapse into a Hobbesian war of all against all.

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Society feels less like it’s in a state of collapse, as we imagine the fall of Rome or that we’ve seen in dozens of disaster movies, than that it’s gradually ossifying—become gradually less responsible and more dysfunctional without ever truly breaking down. In technology terms, it is akin to the feeling you have when an old computer, whether through overuse or planned obsolescence, starts to slow down and certain functions stop working altogether. You get used to certain shortcuts—I’ve learned that when the cursor simply disappears on my aging work laptop I can get it back my moving the mouse to the top of the screen—and you don’t really notice how bad things have gotten until you finally break down and buy a new computer and see the difference.

Early in the last century, Forster suggested that humanity’s dependence on technology would become so debilitating that only full collapse could redeem the human spirit. What Lethem and DeLillo seem to be striving after, along similar lines, is not so much the end of the world but a reboot. As tech support might suggest, they long to try turning the Machine off and then on again.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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