Connecting with E.M. Forster

As my jetliner rears back, I look up from E.M.
Forster's Howards End to gaze at the concrete sprawl of airport
momentarily filling my window. The rows of parked airplanes and automobiles make
a fitting backdrop: In the period when Forster wrote Howards End, 1908
to 1910, he was already decrying the filthy, cluttered underside of life in the
motorized age. Although he was not alone in despising the stink of gasoline and
the frantic pace of vehicles, Forster had an unusual grasp of how technological
advance promised to change social interaction—often for the worse.

Forster also had an uncanny ability to predict exactly how technology would
develop. At the century's beginning the telephone was new and the computer not
even invented, yet Forster anticipated their modern evolution, perhaps most
explicitly with his short story "The Machine Stops." Today the
Internet and its related technologies are as ubiquitous as the automobile,
within easy reach even as I fly five miles up. They raise all sorts of questions
about relationships, community, and sexuality—the very same questions that
Forster was contemplating in these two works.

For those who have never read Howards End (or missed Emma Thompson
in the 1992 film version), it is a book about human connection. Margaret
Schlegel—the older of the two cultivated, well-to-do sisters central to the
story—becomes impassioned over the phrase "Only connect!" which
carries two meanings. One is a call to unite the opposing elements within each
person—what Margaret calls the beast and the monk, the prose and the
passion—while the other is a call to put the greatest energy into personal
relations. "Only connect!" is the book's epigraph, and whenever
Forster speaks as narrator he emphasizes the value of personal relationships.

But Forster also realizes that the quality of personal connection depends on
the .quantity—often inversely. "The more people one knows the easier
it becomes to replace them," Margaret sighs. "It's one of the curses
of London." Too many connections, in other words, devalues each one in a
kind of emotional inflation. For the Schlegel sisters, this is the constant
danger of frenetic city life; for the characters of "The Machine Stops,"
it is the inevitable by-product of remote communication technology.

Written in 1909 partly as a rejoinder to H.G. Wells's glorification of
science, "The Machine Stops" is set in the far future, when mankind
has come to depend on a worldwide Machine for food and housing, communications
and medical care. In return, humanity has abandoned the earth's surface for a
life of isolation and immobility. Each person occupies a subterranean hexagonal
cell where all bodily needs are met and where faith in the Machine is the chief
spiritual prop. People rarely leave their rooms or meet face-to-face; instead
they interact through a global web that is part of the Machine. Each cell
contains a glowing blue "optic plate" and telephone apparatus, which
carry image and sound among individuals and groups.

The story centers around Vashti, who believes in the Machine, and her grown
son Kuno, who has serious doubts. Vashti, writes Forster, "knew several
thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced
enormously." Although clumsy public gatherings no longer occur, Vashti
lectures about her specialty, "Music During the Australian Period,"
over the web, and her audience responds in the same way. Later she eats, talks
to friends, and bathes, all within her room. She finally falls asleep there, but
not before she kisses the new Bible, the Book of the Machine.

Kuno, in contrast, once made his way illegally to the surface, where he saw
distant hills, grass and ferns, the sun and the night sky. The Machine dragged
him back to its buried world, but he understands the difference between
pseudo-experience and reality. "I see something like you in this plate,"
he tells his mother, "but I do not see you. I hear something like you
through this telephone, but I do not hear you." Vashti also senses the
lack. Gazing at her son's image in the plate, she thinks he looks sad but is
unsure ". . . for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It
only gave a general idea . . . that was good enough for all practical purposes.
. . ."

The drama in the story comes as the Machine inexplicably begins to decay, at
first producing minor quirks. The symphonies Vashti plays through the Machine
develop strange sounds that become worse each time she summons the music. That
troubles her, but she comes to accept the noise as part of the composition. A
friend's meditations are interrupted by a slight jarring sound, but the friend
cannot decide whether that exists in her cell or in her head. More serious
problems ensue with food, air, and illumination, but Vashti—like almost
everybody else—clings to the conviction that the Machine will repair
itself.

When the Machine's demise is nearly complete, Vashti's faith fails with it
in a way that recalls Margaret Schlegel's speech about large numbers of people.
For all the thousands Vashti "knows," she dies nearly alone in a mob
of panicked strangers, frantically clawing upwards to the Earth's surface as the
Machine finally stops. Her sole redemption comes from a moment of true human
contact: She encounters Kuno to talk, touch, and kiss "not through the
Machine" just before they perish with the rest of the masses. Forster
leaves us amid that final failure of the race to "Only connect,"
sustained solely by the promise that the few who survive on the surface will
rebuild, without the Machine.

Long after Forster imagined this dire scene, the
technology of connectivity is here. The details differ slightly: Instead of
sound and moving images, we exchange written messages and pictures over the
Internet, which links computers globally through fiber-optic telephone lines. (I
use "Internet" here as a generic term for the major computer webs—the
Internet itself and its World Wide Web, and the commercial nets connected to it,
such as America Online. These, by the way, can also carry real-time sight and
sound, which will surely grow in use.) But the logic of network connectivity,
whether one-to-one or one-to-many, remains unchanged, and so does the loss of
personal dimensions. The images in Forster's world move and speak, but do not
convey facial nuances. Except for the limited use of still images, our
electronic messages omit physical attributes. Forster's imaginary system, and
our real one, offer unprecedented breadth of connection—there are an
estimated 10 to 30 million Internet users worldwide—but do not allow people
to touch, or to read each other directly.



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On the Internet, Forster's implied questions still beg for answers. Open a
magazine or newspaper, and you're likely to find an article asking a simple
question: Does the Internet break down isolation, or merely provide pale
simulations of friendship and love that drive out the real things? At one
extreme, a recent newspaper story announces "On-Line addiction: wire
junkies are multiplying as more people withdraw into their private worlds,"
and describes Internet users who are "ensnared in a net of fiber optic
lines . . . and loneliness." But some users tell a different story. Mary
Furlong, the founder of a group called SeniorNet, says: "I see a lot of
loneliness in the senior population and lack of mobility. . . . Going on-line
allows you to be intellectually mobile and be socially mobile"—exactly
what the optic plates of Forster's world offer its confined inhabitants. There
are even indications that the lack of physical presence can be advantageous. A
London-based group finds the Internet to be a "nonprejudicial medium,"
especially valuable for children with conditions like cerebral palsy that affect
speech.

In Forster's story, the rise of the Machine came from a belief in progress,
which had "come to mean the progress of the Machine." Today, the
relentless march of constantly updated computers and infrastructure sweeps us
along to use the new technology because it is there, even when it conflicts with
existing ways of life. A case in point is occurring in Italy, where a real
estate consortium has spent more than $2 million for an entire village, Colletta
di Castelbianco, founded in the thirteenth or fourteenth century and long since
abandoned. The developers will turn its medieval walls and arches into a "telematic"
village, creating apartments outfitted with the latest communications equipment
including high-speed access to the Internet. The idea is that businessmen can
operate on a global scale while enjoying the beauties of the rugged Ligurian
region. Even the village cafes will be linked to the Internet, with facilities
for video conferencing.

In a nation that values its cappuccino accompanied by enthusiastic
conversation, the project evokes mixed reviews. Paolo Ceccarelli, an architect
who studies the impact of computers, believes the Italian way of life is
unlikely to bring forth many devoted Internet afficionados. He is depressed by
the disconnection he sees in the Internet village. Echoing Forster's themes, he
contemplates businessmen "parking their BMWs . . . climbing the stairs to
their hermetically-sealed apartments and plugging in their portables in unison,
all blissfully unaware of each other's presence."

It's true that even in Forster's vision, traces of
emotion and relationship elude the grip of the Machine. "Human passions
still blundered up and down," Forster wrote, and it is clear that Vashti
and Kuno share a mother-son link, although Kuno has been raised in a public
nursery. Sexual love, however, has changed radically. Sitting passive and
isolated, people no longer touch each other, and their physical attractiveness
has diminished. Vashti is described as a "swaddled lump of flesh . . . five
feet high, with a face as white as a fungus." The Machine controls
procreation, sending citizens traveling for the specific purpose of propagating
the race. In this world where people do not kiss, where sex happens on
assignment, Kuno rails that the Machine "has blurred every human relation
and narrowed down love to a carnal act."

Human passions still blunder around the Internet, too, where people have
fallen in love and gone on to form complete relationships or marry. But in an
outcome that Forster did not consider, the Internet also adds the more or less
artificial experiences of cybersex to the sexual repertoire. Sex over the 'net
means incomplete involvement in different degrees, from exchanges among mutually
responsive participants to the solitary viewing of pornography. Remote sex has
its undeniable impact, and in a world dealing with the disease of AIDS, it may
stand in for unsafe actual sex. But can it stand in emotionally for genuine
sexual love? Responding to this concern, participants at a recent Vatican
conference on "Computers and Feelings" declared that cybersex is "the
end of love. It is empty loneliness." That judgment is based on a
recognition that human experience is diminished as it is filtered through
electronic channels.

Forster went further. Fearing that more technology
meant less humanity, he utterly rejected the technical achievements of his time.
In 1908, after hearing of the first successful airplane flight over a
kilometer-long circuit, he wrote in his journal, ". . . if I live to be
old, I shall see the sky as pestilential as the roads. . . . Science . . . is
enslaving [man] to machines. . . . Such a soul as mine will be crushed out."
But we have come to learn that instead of producing a monolithically "bad"
or "good" effect, a rich technology usually generates a balance sheet
of benefits and costs—many of them unpredictable, because people use
technology in unexpected ways. Thomas Mann once said, "A great truth is a
truth whose opposite is also a great truth." A significant technology also
embraces opposites; if some of its applications constrain human potential,
others enhance it.

The Internet, in fact, helps people find kindred spirits. Forster did not
foresee this development, but his story hints at it, for Vashti could either
talk to a friend through the Machine or address an audience. Now many Internet
users coalesce into groups that share concerns and emotional affinities. People
with unusual beliefs or lifestyles, with secrets they dare not tell family and
friends, seek each other out in thousands of news groups, list servers, and chat
rooms. These cater to a variety of interests, problems, and ways of life,
including a range of strong political views; divorce, grief, and loneliness; and
a spectrum of sexuality, from heterosexual to homosexual, lesbian, and bisexual
orientations, with variations. Within these groups, the private and the hidden
can be revealed and validated, anonymously if desired.

Forster himself grappled with the partial secret of his homosexuality, which
colored his life and his writing. His biographer, P. N. Furbank, concludes that
Forster knew he was homosexual by the age of 21. But while a gay lifestyle was
then acceptable in some quarters, Forster did not feel he could openly declare
his sexuality, or act on it freely. The tension remained until he tried to
release it in a way that would reaffirm him as a writer. After the success of
Howards End in 1910, he feared his creativity had dried up. Yet in 1913,
the idea for a novel about homosexual love came to him in a moment of
revelation. That seemed to show a way out of his barren time, and he wrote Maurice
enthusiastically and at great speed. When it was done in 1914, however,
Forster saw that it could not appear "until my death or England's,"
and it remained unpublished until after he died.

It is only a speculation, but a revealing one, to
imagine how Forster would have fared with access to a like-minded group on a
net, where he could have expressed what he had to suppress in the real world.
After all, as a student at Cambridge he had been elected to the exclusive
intellectual society called the "Apostles," where, among other topics,
homosexuality was discussed in a spirit of free and rational inquiry, providing
a sense of liberation that Forster later came to value greatly. On-line access
would have created the opportunity to circulate Maurice to a larger but
still select group that would accept its theme—a form of publication that
would have brought even greater fulfillment.

Yet time on-line would have been ill used for Forster the writer. Aimless
chat is the insidious seduction of the Internet; it can replace inward
contemplation and real experience. In the decade after Maurice, Forster
looked both inward and outward. His internal life became more unified as he came
to terms with his self-doubts, and his sexuality. His external life developed as
he worked for the Red Cross in Alexandria during the war, returned to England,
and left again for his second visit to India. He deepened old relationships, and
formed new ones, in all three places. All this must have been necessary, in ways
hardly discernible at the time, before Forster could break free of his
unproductive period to complete A Passage to India in 1924—a
ripening that came only through the slow refining of life-as-lived into
understanding.

Forster probably would have sensed this—just as he understood
technology's potential to both isolate and overwhelm the individual. In the
world of the Machine, each person could call or be called through his blue
plate; but each could also touch an isolation switch to stop all interchange.
While it is not always so simple, we can make individual choices about how and
when to use technology. And in allowing his future humans their privacy between
bouts of communication, Forster drew a fine metaphor for both aspects of "Only
connect!": the joining of beast with monk carried out in the mind's
solitude, the essential reaching out to others that breaks isolation—and
the combination of the two, through the internal distillation of felt
experience.



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