Friday, June 6, 2014

Turn Off the Bubble Machine: E.M. Forster’s Virtual Reality, A Guest Blog by Malcolm McCollum

  I stole my title from a Stan Freberg routine in which he parodies the Lawrence Welk Show that used to be broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom on the Venice beach.  At the end of the show, Welk’s Bubble Machine, which produced the visible signs of his “champagne music,” goes berserk, producing such a Vesuvius of bubbles that the pier is elevated from its moorings and the Avalon is borne out into the dark Pacific, with Welk’s desperate Dakota twang fadingly crying, “Turn off-a da Bubble Machine!  Turn off-a da Bubble Machine.”
        But I have a different bubble machine in mind, as did E.M. Forster when, in 1909, he wrote his long tale, “The Machine Stops.”  This bubble machine creates bubbles, true enough, but they don’t float themselves out to sea.  Rather, they encase individuals from experience - experience of the natural world, of other individuals, of their own bodies and emotions; encase them within transparent walls of images and “ideas.”
        “The Machine Stops” envisions a world in which humans live far beneath the surface of the earth, each one sequestered in a hexagonal cell to which all necessities and approved pleasures are supplied by The Machine.  Food, air, light, water, music,
literature and human company of a sort are available to each cell’s resident at the touch of a button.  
        In one such cell we find Vashti, described as “a swaddled lump of flesh - a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus.”  Vashti receives a call
from her son, Kuno, whose cell is halfway around the world, on a device which allows her to both hear and see him, after a fashion.  Kuno asks her to visit , so that she may explain to him the harm in his desire to visit the surface of the earth.  Loath to leave her cell, Vashti responds that such a desire may hold no harm, but is “contrary to the spirit of the age.”  
        While children are separated from their mothers immediately after birth in Forster’s brave new world, some unacknowledged vestige of maternal love eventually impels
Vashti to undertake the journey to meet with Kuno.  She is transported to him within a series of sealed chambers, including an airship that inadvertently offers her repellent glimpses of the sky, the ocean, Greece and the Himalayas; to all of these, her immediate and automatic response is the same: “No ideas here.”
        Kuno reveals to her what he refused to communicate electronically: he has visited the surface of the earth without having first applied for an Egression Permit, and has, after his recapture by The Machine, been threatened with Homelessness.  This means that he will be ejected from the cell world and left on the surface of the earth, where he will perish immediately from the poison of unmodified air - or so Vashti believes, even though Kuno tells her that not only had he begun to acclimatize to the air on the surface, he had seen human creatures living there.  Repulsed and despairing, Vashti leaves her son to his fated Homelessness and returns to her cell.
        Some time later, Kuno, who has somehow been spared, again calls Vashti with a message that baffles, terrifies and enrages her: “The Machine stops,” Kuno says.
Vashti cuts her ties with the “man who was my son,” reckoning him irretrievably mad.
        But Kuno’s prediction comes to pass.  The music begins to fade and falter; the water turns ever fouler; the poetry machine emits gibberish.  Complaints from the cell-dwellers, directed to the Committee of The Mending Apparatus, multiply.  The communications apparatus breaks down, panic overtakes the cell-dwellers, and Kuno and Vashti are reunited somehow during the final chaos, which is ended when an airship crashes through the surface, exploding tier after tier of the underground world.
        This tale scarcely even meets the typical science fiction story’s minimal level of characterization - we see only two characters, Vashti and Kuno, and they are little more than types: Vashti, the conformist, Kuno, the questioning rebel.  But Forster had something else in mind than a simple, dystopian tale of the future; at the very beginning and the very end of the story, he describes it as “a meditation.”  His meditation concerns the relationships between humans and their tools - the benefits those tools provide and the costs they exact.
        The inhabitants of Forster’s subterranean paradise have available both necessities and pleasures at the touch of a button: “There were buttons and switches everywhere” in Vashti’s chamber - “buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing.  There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid.  There was the cold-bath button.  There was the button that produced literature.  And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends.  The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
        In her satisfaction, Vashti is not alone, not a member of some privileged class; in each cell throughout the entire system, the amenities are identical: “...thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over.”  In short, half of the Communist Manifesto’s great vision - to each according to his needs - has been completely realized.
        Thirty-seven years after Forster’s meditation, George Orwell was moved by an article in a popular magazine about “Pleasure Spots of the Future” to observe: “It is difficult not to feel that the unconscious aim in the most typical modern pleasure resorts is a return to the womb.  For there, too, one was never alone, one never saw daylight, the temperature was always regulated, one did not have to worry about work or food, and one’s thoughts, if any, were drowned by a continuous rhythmic throbbing.”  Forster was perhaps thinking of this connection to the womb as he imagined the appearance of the cell-dwellers: Vashti, that “swaddled lump of flesh...white as a fungus” is also to be thought of as “without teeth and hair."  In other words, these citizens whose every need is supplied by The Machine have essentially reverted to homunculi.

        With the exception of the deviant Kuno, the citizens not only do not miss contact with the natural world, they actively fear and loathe it.  When Kuno first requests that Vashti visit him in person, she demurs because,  “I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark.”  After she is driven by residual mother-love to make the trip, her first sight of the airship she will take is even worse: “Yet as Vashti saw the vast flank of the ship, stained with exposure to the outer air, her horror of direct experience returned.”  To her, “All the old literature, with its praise of Nature...rang false as the prattle of a child.”  This attitude is also encouraged by the faceless committees in charge of The Machine.
        It is when Kuno first sees the constellation Orion from an airship that his curiosity about nature is fired, for he sees in this grouping of stars “’... that they were like a man.’”  Kuno, in other words, has begun to imagine that he as a human is somehow a part of nature.  Vashti responds to this notion, “’It does not strike me as a very good idea, but it is certainly original.’”  She senses that Kuno’s identification with nature is “contrary to the spirit of the age;”  in fact, she senses that it is profoundly subversive.  In a world devoted entirely to the satisfactions that can be mechanically provided, any interest in, identification with or contact with Nature threatens the system with potential discontent.
        Vashti’s abhorrence of direct experience operates as well in the sphere of human contact unmediated by the machine - that is, “direct experience” of other humans.  Yet Forster notes near the beginning, “She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.”  Vashti can communicate with these people instantaneously and at will through the medium of what amounts to an interactive computer network.  Further, she can avail herself of the knowledge of all others, as well as that stored up from the past, and she can share her own ideas with everyone who chooses to hear them.  After she repels Kuno’s request to come see him, she delivers her lecture on Australian music, which is “well received.”
        So the other half of the Manifesto’s vision - from each according to his abilities - has also been realized.  Forster’s delicate qualifier regarding the improvement of human communication, “in certain directions,” indicates his attitude, but he lets Kuno phrase his criticism more directly: trying to explain his desire to speak with Vashti in person, Kuno says, “’I see something like you in this plate [the “screen” in which people appear to each other], but I do not see you.  I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.’”  As the conversation continues, Vashti fancies that Kuno looks 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 the manufacturers of artificial fruit.”
        And Vashti’s horror of direct experience of other humans is nearly over-powering.  The worst thing about airship travel for her is the need “to submit to glances from the other passengers,” and when the airship’s flight attendant touches her, she cries, “’How dare you!  You forget yourself!’”  Her distaste becomes clearer still when she reaches the end of her journey.  “And if Kuno himself, flesh of her flesh, stood close beside her at last, what profit was there in that?  She was too well-bred to shake him by the hand.”
        Finally, the instant availability of human communication has a paradoxical side- effect; the more quickly and easily people can communicate with each other, the more impatient they become with the slightest delay.  When Vashti takes Kuno’s call, her first words are, “’Be quick!...Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”  
        In Forster’s imagined world, human communication has become nearly instantaneous and potentially universal; that portion of human communication which is received by sight and hearing is available to all, and all but the aberrant find it “good enough for all practical purposes.”  Speed and ease, however, bear costs: the loss of “nuance,” (in other words, of emotion) and a terrible fear of experiencing what other senses bring - fear of smell, of touch, of “the bloom” that defines the grape but is itself indefinable.  Meaning that it cannot be reduced to an “idea.”
        In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander asks his readers to perform an experiment: “Please go look into a mirror.  As you gaze at yourself, try to get a sense of what is lost between the mirror image of you, and you.  You might ask someone to join you facing the mirror.  If so, you will surely feel that other person’s presence as you stand there.  But in the reflection, this feeling will be lost.  You will be left with only the image.... What is missing from the reflection is life, or essence.”
        But Vashti and her fellows seem to sense no loss in their condition.  They feel, instead, that they are in complete control of their lives.  When Kuno telephones Vashti, “The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.”  Music is simply a commodity at the command of individual whim.  When Vashti’s refusal to come see him irritates Kuno, “His image in the blue plate faded....He had isolated himself.”  
        What a male paradise; if a woman disputes your desires with illogical arguments, flip a switch and disappear!  Every man’s dream has finally been realized.  (This scene is reminiscent of the moment in Tim Burton’s great film Mars Attacks!  in which Joe Don Baker, secure for the moment in his trailer in the desert, watches his Marine son on television take up arms against the hostile Martians, only to be incinerated down to a still-charging skeleton.  Baker’s response is to frantically punch the remote, seeking a better outcome on another channel.)
        But at what cost does this mastery of life come?  The cost is pretty high, in Forster’s vision.  And the highest cost can be seen in Vashti’s complete loss of self-knowledge.  When Kuno appears on her “plate,” Vashti’s “white face wrinkle[s] into smiles,” and she is impelled to visit him in person by the thought that “there was something special about Kuno - indeed there had been something special about all her children - and, after all, she must brave the journey if he desired it.”  But when Kuno telephones her toward the end of the tale with the cryptic message, “’The Machine stops,’” she says to a friend, “’A man who was my son believes that the Machine is stopping.’”  When she must choose between the Machine and her son, her natural but perfectly unconscious maternal feelings are readily expendable.
        Because scarcely any self is left, a terrible emptiness is evinced by the need for constant and immediate mental stimulation.  After Kuno isolates himself, Vashti immediately turns off the isolation switch which has allowed her to talk to only one person, and “all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her.  The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes.  What was the new food like?...Had she had any ideas lately?  Might one tell her one’s own ideas?...To most of these questions she replied with irritation - a growing quality in that accelerated age.” Constant, instant, inescapable communication fills a void for these people, but because it does not truly fill the void, it becomes increasingly irritating, and the people become increasingly impatient with the current communication which is preventing the next communication from arriving.
        The Committee of the Machine senses that this void is becoming a problem - Kuno’s unauthorized visit to the earth’s surface alerts them to this danger - and so it undertakes to provide the citizens with a new religion, the worship of the Machine and its instructional manual, the Book of the Machine.
        “Those who had long worshipped silently,” Forster observes, “now began to talk.  They described the strange feeling of peace that came over them when they handled the Book of the Machine, the pleasure that it was to repeat certain numerals out of it, however little meaning those numerals conveyed to the outward ear, the ecstasy of touching a button, however unimportant, or of ringing an electric bell, however superfluously.  ‘The Machine,’ they exclaimed, ‘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.  The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.’”
        And so the “creation of man,”  the Machine which serves all human needs and desires that can be served by reason, becomes not servant but master:  “The word ‘religion’ was sedulously avoided, and in theory the Machine was still the creation and the implement of man.  But in practice all, save a few retrogrades, worshipped it as divine.”  However, in Forster’s imagination, the Machine proves a false god, for even reason has its limits.  As the Machine is failing, the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, besieged by complaints, must finally issue the mournful bulletin, “The Mending Apparatus is in need of repair.”  This marvelous admission may epitomize Forster’s skepticism toward the primacy of reason, but the costs to humanity he has noted along the way have done so far more completely.
        Forster saw with remarkable clarity that “science” and technology were erecting barriers between humans and the natural world, between humans and other humans, and between humans and their own experience of their humanity.  He saw that if people learned that they needed machines to communicate with other people, the machines would take on a life of their own.  He saw that people cut off from direct experience would become infinitely malleable, nearly identical and dead to all stimuli except those available to the intellect through the ears and eyes.
        “The Machine Stops” is short on characterization because it describes a world in which character - that is, individuality - has nearly vanished, replaced by “ideas.”  That is, by constructs of words entirely disconnected from direct experience of life, and which cannot be checked against direct experience of life because no one has any.
In this world, people are not only shielded from direct experience (and this is the benefit of technology), they are prevented from having it (and this is the cost).  People have created the Machine to mediate between them and Nature, them and each other, them and themselves; the Machine has thus become their master.
        I might be excused if this reminds me of the title of a textbook in use at my college: A World of Ideas .  The “ideas” in Forster’s story are pretty well summed up in a well-received lecture supporting the abolition of travel to the earth’s surface:  “Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote....’Beware of first-hand ideas....First-hand ideas do not really exist.  They are but the physical impressions produced by love and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy?  Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from the disturbing element - direct observation.”
        Here are the observations of two students quoted by Peter Sacks in his book Generation X Goes to College :  
        “Lectures are just one person talking, and it’s kind of just not really any tone.  Something that’s loud and flashes or something like that, it grabs your attention.  When somebody is just standing there just talking, it makes you want to fall asleep.... I think the media is out of control.  Technology is moving so fast.  We need to take a breath and stop for a while and give people time to catch up,” says Angie, apparently unaware of a self-contradiction that would have stupefied Walt Whitman.
        To which Frederick adds, “Higher education doesn’t work any more.  It doesn’t challenge.  We (students) think the media is more substantial than you the teacher.  We don’t value what teachers say and do.  We’re afraid of what you will say and do; it’s so personal.  With media it’s so impersonal.  We don’t want to be personal any more with anybody.  We don’t want to confront our emotions.  Machines are easier.  If we can get it from machines, we don’t have to get it from a person.  The media is passive, safer.  It doesn’t really affect us.”
        These remarks demonstrate how completely many of our children have been encased in their bubbles, and how completely their minds have come to resemble Vashti’s in their fear of others and of the self, in their febrile need for “something that’s loud and flashes or something like that.”
        Can we somehow turn these tools - the TV, the VCR, the LCD projector, the computer, the Internet - to our purposes as human beings?  I don’t think so.
        For one thing, they are meant to encase people so that those people can be supplied with pre-approved thoughts and values and needs, and they are meant to make sequential thought essentially impossible.  If only something that’s loud and flashes can get your attention, then your attention becomes merely a stultified blur, anxiously awaiting the next bang or flash.  For another, they are meant to encase people in the belief that they, themselves, are reality - “more substantial,” as Frederick says, than other humans, and far less threatening.
        Third, film, television and the Internet all place the highest possible premium on speed, in order to reduce those periods of stultified blur to the minimum.  “’Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time,’” says Vashti.  “In a perfect world, everything would be different,” opines a recent Dodge commercial; in other words, in a perfect world change would be perpetual, erasing any vestigial impulse to reflect upon whether the new everything was in fact an improvement upon the supplanted everything.
        I recently received a glossy, jazzy, multi-color brochure from Adelphia, encouraging me to “Experience the breathtaking speed” of their Internet cable connection.   They feel sure I will wish to “feel the rush of video, sound, graphics, and tons of information screaming in and out of [my] computer.”  In my “more gratifying Internet” experience, they assure me, “Web pages appear in a flash, as fast as you can click on them.  Files that took minutes or even hours to download now arrive in mere seconds.  So let slowpokes stare at half-filled screens.  You’ve got better things to do!”
        Nowhere in the brochure is any suggestion of what those “better things” might be, or, indeed, any mention at all of the content of these Web pages and files.  The point is to keep those moments of time wasted in darkness at bay.
        In Slowness, Milan Kundera writes, “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.  Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down a street.  At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him.  Automatically, he slows down.  Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time. In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”
        The intensity of forgetting is visible on a daily basis.  It can be seen in Angie’s and Frederick’s ability to contradict themselves in succeeding paragraphs without noticing that they’ve done so.  It leads to sentences like the one a student of mine wrote about William Bennett’s apology for the War on Drugs: “Bennett’s essay is filled with fallacies, which makes it very persuasive.”
        It may be, of course, that my student did not forget that he’d accused Bennett of mendacity before he praised him for his persuasiveness.  I find in many of my best students a profound acceptance of lying, illogic and gross appeals to emotion as the norms of communication.  This is scarcely cause for wonder, since they have been raised in a bombardment of advertising and promotion, dialects characterized by those very characteristics.
        For those reasons, I do not think we can make use of these technologies to teach our children to either care about writing well or thinking well.  I don’t think we can use them to teach our children anything except further dependence upon technology. It seems clear to me, as it did to Forster, that our worship of The Machine is rapidly reducing us to the condition of Vashti - that is, of fungi in human form.  
        Teaching Freshman Comp for thirty years provides a remarkable opportunity to view the contents of each successive year’s minds.  In my experience, this has resembled the opportunity to watch a photograph un -develop; the images have grown fainter and fainter, fewer and fewer, as the ideas have become increasingly “far removed from the disturbing element - direct observation.”
        If the claims of The Machine’s promoters are remotely true, then the generation of students we teach today, and have been teaching for at least five years, must be the brightest, best-informed, best educated students in the history of the known universe.  Their easy access to “information” has certainly been greater than any preceding generation’s.  Can it be that access to “information” is not necessarily the key to knowledge or to wisdom?  What is “information”?  
        I have spent the last 25 years living with a severe back injury I sustained moving one of those accursed hide-a-beds, and being generally stupid.  When my injury is about to get serious with me, it sends me signs through very circuitous routes.  For example, if I start experiencing the sensation of nausea, I know that one of my vertebrae between 12 and 17 is out of line.  It’s not that I ate something I shouldn’t have; it’s that I need to lie down on the floor and straighten out my sixteenth vertebra.  My occasional sensations of nausea are information; my knowledge of what to do about them is not information; it’s something else.  
        It is knowledge derived directly from physical experience combined with the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais, whose book Awareness Through Movement taught me how to become my own back specialist.  One of the things he taught me was that “symptoms” don’t necessarily manifest themselves where they originate.  Another was that using motion as a sort of imaginative x-ray, I could trace pain or discomfort to its source, if I was willing to take the time and expend the energy that imagination required.
        Learning to imagine (see in your head) your own body resembles learning to ask the kinds of questions required by anything that can be called reading or anything that can be called writing.  Such learning means close attention to detail, retention of a number of apparently unrelated details in mind over time, and seeking relationships among those details that make them mean something.  These activities require time and patience.  There’s no way around it.
        I could have consulted a back specialist or a chiropractor when I first injured my back, and perhaps spared myself the three months during which I could only get around on all fours or the two years during which I was one wrong move away from that condition.  I could have, except that I couldn’t afford to, my financial position being, as the sportscasters say, day-to-day.
        I’m grateful I invested my time in reading Feldenkrais and teaching myself what his words meant.  Had I gone to a doctor, I would still be in thrall to the medical profession, obliged to fork over large sums whenever my back got feeling poorly.  Equally likely, I’d be a permanent cripple, sections of my spine fused by some helpful surgeon.  As it is, my back is more reliable and strong than it was when I was 20, because I pay attention to its messages and know what they mean when I get them.
        What conclusions do I wish to assert from this tedious personal history?  
        That we always face a basic choice between relying on our own human powers (which we have let atrophy as we have fallen ever deeper into idolizing our tools) and relying on The Machine, otherwise known as Cutting Edge Technology or “Science.”
        That Cutting Edge Technology costs a great deal of money (which would better be applied to supporting human teachers and students), while developing our human powers costs only time - the time it takes to develop, study and refine individual perception, knowledge, memory, imagination, concentration.
        That the money spent on Cutting Edge Technology represents gigantic amounts of time spent by innumerable numbers of people.  We mortgage our future time to the demands of Bill Gates.  Perhaps only as we approach the end of it do we realize that time is our only actual currency.
        The benefits of Cutting Edge Technology as tools for teaching or learning or living are self-canceling.  If we and our children are pouring down cup after cup of legal speed to enable us to work longer hours so that we can afford to buy the latest version of “something that’s loud or flashes,” we will find that we don’t have time to make any thoughtful use of that loud, flashing something.
        Not being able to afford the latest Scientific Breakthrough might be the best break available to the human race.
        Our children have grown up in a world of electronic images and sounds that have supplanted direct experience and terribly stunted their powers of perception of the other and of themselves.  They have been most effectively instructed to believe that the Present is the only reality, and so they have no collective and precious little personal past.  (I’ve never been able to forget the answer one student gave to the question a Newsweek reporter asked in 1983:  “What do you know about John F. Kennedy?”  “He’s dead,” the student replied; “What’s to know?”)
        These children do not need further instruction in the art of passive viewing.  They do not need to be told that education means picking up the capsulized “messages” spoon-fed them by some inordinately expensive substitute for an overhead projector or a book; they don’t, for that matter, need an overhead projector.  They do not need to be encouraged to believe that knowledge, understanding, or wisdom reside in packages instantly available at the touch of a button.
        But these are the messages we give them, every time we fail to protest the purchase of the latest software “upgrade” (in which the Talking Paper Clip appears for the first time in three dimensions, yet more sublimely certain it knows what you want to do better than you do) and the latest hardware “upgrade” the software mandates. These are the messages we give them when we replace direct contact with “media” in our classrooms and our homes.
        I pay enough attention to job announcements to have noticed that technological savvy has become almost mandatory for those seeking work as teachers.  While I despise this development, I recognize that no young teacher can afford to appear to reside anywhere but on the Cutting Edge.  So I address this, finally, to my fellow Old Teachers:  can we afford to let this worship of The Machine continue unquestioned?
        I can’t; don’t know about the rest of you.  I can say that students need teachers, not entertaining electronic images.  I can say that the purpose of humanity is the development of each individual to that person’s greatest capacities, and that that development can only happen if the individual spends a lot of time paying attention to his or her immediate, sensory world.  I can say that learning to see and hear and smell and feel the world, and then think about what those senses bring in, is a demanding life’s work, and doesn’t leave time to worry about how to wire up the camcorder to the electric fan so that the wind can become visible.  I can turn off the Bubble Machine.

Malcolm McCollum
1419 North Royer
Colorado Springs  
CO               80907


  1. If life is about the journey, the Internet seems about the destination. I’m grateful to Malcolm for hipping me to this Forster story. Absolutely amazing Forster anticipated the dark side of the Internet and saw it coming 100 years ago, somehow or another. Malcolm’s piece makes it clear one direction things are going, a growing dependence on “secondary data.” Virtual worlds like Second Life make me shudder. Going on Facebook to see what people had for breakfast or to read their latest postings of some other columnist or blogger who has said it the way they like it said makes me queasy. It’s a new open medium that can be shaped and given value, so here’s hoping some of our grumblings are just “older generation” stuff. Malcolm points to some serious flaws in “information” and understanding that have had the vitality (the “bloom”) and texture processed out of the experience of acquiring them. Of course, ironically, I’m commenting electronically on an essay on a website on the Internet, but love those contradictions. Stop reading this and go do something.

  2. OK. I've stopped, and will go do some things.