E.M. Forster and Facebook

“Big Brother” is watching you in a very “Orwellian” way. Has been for years. People who have never heard of George Orwell know of the term “Big Brother.” 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.

Cartoon by Frederick Deligne - Cagle Cartoons (click to reprint)

Cartoon by Frederick Deligne - Cagle Cartoons (click to reprint)

Orwell was right. He was dead on. Spooky.

E.M. Forster is best known for his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. Not as well-known is a 12,000-word science fiction allegory about technology titled “The Machine Stops,” written in 1909 (read it here).

Forster’s gloomy tale takes place in a future where all the world’s people have become hermits, content with no longer physically touching others, opting instead to live in solitary with the aid of The Machine. “There are no musical instruments and yet”¦this room is throbbing with melodious sounds,” 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 “Music during the Australian Period.” It all takes place through The Machine. The catalyst is when her son wants to see her in person instead of through the “blue plate.” People don’t travel above ground anymore. The atmosphere is barren and brown. And Vashti doesn’t care for “air-ships.”

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.

“The Machine Stops” 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 ten years ago. It was before I became a telecommuter, before MySpace – before Google was a verb. Now I have days where I feel like Vashti, isolated in my pajamas revering The Machine. “The 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,” wrote Forster.

But the story is also a poignant criticism of technological advancement. The current struggle between “old media” and “new media” is one of reporting verses the digesting news. One hundred years ago a lecturer in Forster’s tale pronounces, “Beware of first-hand ideas! First hand-ideas do not really exist”¦Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from the disturbing element ““ direct observation.” It’s a rundown of blogging verses journalism.

It’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 most ““ 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. “The 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 one’s own ideas?” He’s describing online communities. He’s describing Facebook. He’s describing Twitter.

“We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now,” Forster wrote. “It 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. ” Of course, as I write this, my “machine” 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, “O Machine! O Machine!”

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Info Addict

When we think about addiction, we tend to focus on things like drugs, tobacco, alcohol, even sex. We don’t often worry about addiction to information.

As all addicts know, the difference between moderation and addiction usually correlates directly with ease of access. Drinking, for example, is much easier when there’s a bottle of Jack Daniels in the kitchen cabinet. So what about the ease with which we now obtain information – some of it useful, much of it not?

facebook twitter addiction

Cartoon by Cam Cardow - Ottawa Citizen (click to reprint)

Here’s a scenario drawn from my own experience as an info-addicted baseball fan. If baseball isn’t your thing, just substitute the stock market, auctions on eBay, Facebook messages – whatever you love to hate every time you succumb to an information overdose.

As a San Francisco Giants follower, I enjoy watching games on television, which on average takes three hours. With cable-TV, there’s also a half-hour pregame show, and a half-hour of postgame analysis.

Typically, I’ll read about the game in two or three sports sections the next morning. That puts me at roughly 4.5 hours per day which, until the Internet took hold, was still manageable. Nowadays, however, baseball beat writers like Andrew Baggarly, who covers the Giants for the San Jose Mercury News, go online three hours before game time. They Tweet the starting lineup and then blog about the manager’s plans, after which dozens of fans post messages in reply.

To a lurker like me, it’s a serious waste of time, but I can’t turn it off. After the game, Baggarly writes a quick game story for the paper’s early edition, a detailed story for the late edition, a “Notebook” column which is available online, and then he writes a postgame blog for the most addicted among his followers.

As the night wears on, fans post dozens of replies to Baggarly’s notes. A few are insightful, while many are like this from “Poop” after a recent Giants’ loss: “Blah blah hate sabean (the Giants’ GM).blah blah baggs (Baggarly) is a ‘company’ guy blah blah.i hate life blahblah.”

But then there are some like “Shades of 93” who wrote: “thanks Baggs. I can’t sleep at night unless I can read the Post Game Notes. You are awesome.”

So while it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one losing sleep while compulsively hitting the refresh button to see the next post, I feel guilty, and addicted. Back in the days when baseball lineups were not readily available until a few minutes before the first pitch, I got along just fine. Of course, my Mom used to tell me that before television she got along fine listening to radio. Each generation has to adapt – to both the negatives and positives that its technology provides.

But multiply my addiction by not only millions of baseball fans, but by countless others who text, Tweet and blog their way through hour after hour in search of the latest information about, well, pretty much everything.

Jonah Lehrer, author of the book “How We Decide,” points out, “My salient fact is your irrelevant bit; your necessary detail is my triviality. Here’s the paradox of curiosity: I only want to know more about that which I already know about.”

What I resent most about my info addiction is that it doesn’t make me any smarter, even about baseball. And it doesn’t make me happier; just edgy about what I might be missing if I tune out. I also suspect that spending so much time on the digital treadmill doesn’t do Baggerly’s reporting much good either.

Another thing my mother often says is that people who work in candy stores usually eat so much candy during the first few days simply because it’s available, that they get sick and lose their taste for it. I think her point is that I’d be thinner if I ate less candy.

I’m sure I’d be better off if I spent fewer hours fussing about baseball. And I believe we’ll all be better off when, on some occasions, we confront the useless information we crave by just saying no.


Peter Funt may be reached at: www.CandidCamera.com.

©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail [email protected].

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He’s also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com.

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