Friday, April 28, 2006

The Machine Stops

I can do things, here, that Forster never dreamt of. But then, Forster knew things that I've never dreamt of.

It is a dangerous thing to read. In E.M. Forster's one science fiction story, "The Machine Stops," he imagines a world much like Clifford Simak's "Huddling Place," where humans communicate via technology and, having lost almost all taste and expectation of human contact, come to abhor movement out of their comfortable, isolated "nest".* Communication, for Forster's imagined world, is through the Machine, by "visiplate," something that gives the image of the person, but not, of course, the person. We who are so used to TV and video cameras might even object to Forster's representation, but still there is something in it:

"...He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people--an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by manufacturers of
artificial fruit. Something 'good enough' had long since been accepted by our race."
Now you will say we have already avoided that fate; that we have turned from artificial food more and more to organic; but that misses the point, doesn't it? Isn't the Machine precisely how we know the world now? I am listening to an operatic singer I couldn't possibly hear live, certainly not at my convenience. But do I get the nuances of expression, of the music itself? No one who has heard a live performance would think so. The "imponderable bloom" of the live act (pace Glenn Gould) is undeniable. What the Machine gives me is only a general idea, really; and one that is good enough, for all practical purposes. (Not coincidentally, in the story Vashti shows all the signs of worshipping the Machine, even as she protests that "All fear and the superstition that existed once have been destroyed by the Machine." Echoes of the future are everywhere, it seems.)

The same is true for cell phones, for TV, for telephones; and we accept it. But the same is also true for blogs, for comments, for the Internet. This is only the general idea of who I am, what I have to say, what I think is worth sharing. And is that good enough, for all practical purposes? Is that enough to affect the world?

Jesus, it is often noted by skeptics, didn't write anything down. It is true; and it is a virtue. Jesus left nothing to the intermediate medium of writing (a redundancy, of course, but we have so far come to regard writing that we overlook the original meaning of the second term; pace Derrida). Jesus preferred the imponderable bloom that is the essence of social intercourse, of human intercourse, even of human existence. There is much to be said for the dry humor of Jesus; for the barbed wit, the twinkle in his eye (I imagine it especially as he looks at Simon the Pharisee and asks his first fateful question); the anger in his voice in the Temple. Such things are barely captured on paper by the best of writers, and even then are overlooked by subsequent generations, subsequent cultures. We who come so long after the premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony can't imagine the shock those rhythmic cords had in 19th century Vienna. How much less, then, can we capture through writing what one person said to another, what one person is saying to another now?

Especially writing as flat and soundless and disembodied as that which we find on the Internet? Even the good stuff is mostly shock and awe and pyrotechnics, and oddly reminiscent of the "cousins" and the "conversations" Montag's wife has with her video screens in Fahrenheit 451. It is meant to stir rather than inform, to incite rather than provide insight, to confirm rather than confront.

Is that because we've lost the "imponderable bloom," and are seeking a simulacrum? Is it because, as George Bush once famously said, "We don't do 'nuance' in Texas"? And now, thanks to the uniter (who is not a divider) of left blogistan, we are all Texans?

*Yes, I've already realized these ideas are not entirely original; Google and the Internet are great humblers.

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