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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