Guest editorial: E.M. Forster and Facebook
by Tina Dupuy
Courtesy of caglecartoons.com
â€œBig Brotherâ€ is watching you in a very â€œOrwellianâ€ way. Has been for years. People who have never heard of George Orwell know of the term â€œBig Brother.â€ In many ways, his dark vision of what the year 1984 would look like is prophetic. For example, his novel 1984 takes place during a never-ending war while technology is aiding an over-reaching government. I read that in the New York Times yesterday.
Orwell was right. He was dead on. Spooky.
E.M. Forster is best known for his novels â€œHowards Endâ€ and â€œA Passage to India.â€ Not as well-known is a 12,000-word science fiction allegory about technology titled â€œThe Machine Stops,â€ written in 1909.
Forsterâ€™s gloomy tale takes place in a future where all the worldâ€™s people have become hermits, content with no longer physically touching others, opting instead to live in solitary with the aid of The Machine. â€œThere are no musical instruments and yetâ€¦this room is throbbing with melodious sounds,â€ he writes. The protagonist Vashti lives in a small, climate-controlled room, illuminated by neither lamp nor window. She has thousands of friends. She even lectures on â€œMusic during the Australian Period.â€ It all takes place through The Machine. The catalyst is when her son wants to see her in person instead of through the â€œblue plate.â€ People donâ€™t travel above ground anymore. The atmosphere is barren and brown. And Vashti doesnâ€™t care for â€œair-ships.â€
Basically he predicted central air, the Internet, video conferencing, television, radio, global warming and commercial air travel.
Forster was right. He was dead on. Spooky.
â€œThe Machine Stopsâ€ was penned a hundred years ago. From a historical perspective, the first radio was not installed in the White House until 1922, yet a Victorian like Forster imagined modernity amazingly close.
I first read this short story 10 years ago. It was before I became a telecommuter, before MySpaceâ€”before Google was a verb. Now I have days where I feel like Vashti, isolated in my pajamas revering The Machine. â€œThe Machine feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being,â€ wrote Forster.
But the story is also a poignant criticism of technological advancement. The current struggle between â€œold mediaâ€ and â€œnew mediaâ€ is one of reporting verses the digesting news. One hundred years ago a lecturer in Forsterâ€™s tale pronounces, â€Beware of first-hand ideas! First hand-ideas do not really exist â€¦ Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from the disturbing elementâ€”direct observation.â€ Itâ€™s a rundown of blogging verses journalism.
Itâ€™s not just that Forster foresaw the Internet, but he guessed rightly how it would be used. In this fable of the future, ideas are valued mostâ€”they are the new commodity. Talking to her son Kuno about his desire to see her in person is private, until Vashti turns off her isolation switch on The Machine. â€œThe room was filled with the noise of bells and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Had she any ideas lately? Might one tell her oneâ€™s own ideas?â€ Heâ€™s describing online communities. Heâ€™s describing Facebook. Heâ€™s describing Twitter.
â€œWe created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now,â€ Forster wrote. â€œIt has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. â€œ Of course, as I write this, my â€œmachineâ€ chimes with the siren call of new emails, IMs and tweets tempting me to distraction. To quote Vashti as she tried to comfort herself while on the air-ship, â€O Machine! O Machine!â€