Sunday, Jan 2nd, 2000
Life section

Let's not forget to meet F2F

All Wired Up But...

On the brink of a new age of things, it's time to reflect on being human, to be able to feel the touch of a woman's hand or to smell her hair -- to connect in a real way

'You talk as if a god had made the Machine... Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything.'
-- The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

ON INTERNET, time, when make-or-break can often hinge on a decision that has to be taken in a matter of seconds, reflex action must necessarily have a premium over reflection.

But even as we learn to rely more and more on our reflexes, to keep pace with machines whose speed doubles every 18 months, some of us should, some of the time, hit the pause button -- and take time out to reflect.

This is not an unpleasant burden. It falls on the shoulders of priests and pious academics (although they may no longer have that luxury, what with their salaries going to be pegged to market rates) and professional pundits who really are recalcitrant newspapermen.

Recalcitrant, because in a job that is a daily battle against the clock, they should know better than to dawdle.

So here I am, recalcitrant -- and unrepentant. And on this new millennium dawn, as I tremble on the brink of a new age of things that think, I'd like to reflect on what it means to be, well, not a thing but a human being.

I can do no worse than talk about a short story written by E. M. Forster before World War I, in response, he said, to "one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells". It is called The Machine Stops.

My friend Min gave me the book where it is one of the collected short stories a couple of years ago, and it has stayed stubbornly with me even though I have been seduced by the new, new thing, to borrow the title of a new book on yet another Silicon Valley star, Jim Clark.

I have been transported again and again to a state of rapture by the books of the various cyber-visionaries -- oh, hivemind! immersive virtual reality! robocopulation! But Forster's tale, like an insistently-blinking cursor on the edge of my computer screen, warns me each time that the future can just as easily be rupture as it can be rapture.

Turned on, booted up and jacked in (Timothy Leary's new slogan after he morphed from hippie to cyber-guru), we may connect across the world, but we may also lose our humanity.

In the story, set in an unmarked future, people live as swaddled lumps of flesh in honeycombed cells in a city deep inside the earth, which is run by The Machine. But they are more connected than the characters in A Passage To India: "She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously."

Like everyone else, she -- the woman in the story -- does not have to get out of her room, does not even have to get up from her armchair. Everything that she wants, she can summon by touching different knobs and buttons within easy reach from her armchair.

She is an "advanced thinker" who lectures on music from her room to others who can hear and see her "fairly well" from their own rooms.

When the story opens, her son is calling her from thousands of miles away. She speaks to his image on a plate which she holds in her hands. He wants to tell her something urgently, but not on the telephone.

He says: "I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you... Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face."

The mother thinks she detects sadness in her son, but cannot be sure because the Machine does not transmit "nuances of expression".

The "imponderable bloom" that is the essence of intercourse has been rejected by The Machine, and she and her race have accepted that a general idea of people is good enough for all practical purposes.

She dislikes travelling, but she decides to go see her son nevertheless. Venturing out of her room, meeting fellow creatures, she recoils from "the horror of direct experience".

When mother and son finally meet, he tells her that he had been "outside", gone up to the surface of the earth, without official permission.

As he made his way up through tunnels, he recovered a sense of space, -- "man is the measure", he declares. Up on the surface of the earth, he saw the sun as it set, he saw hills which he felt "had called with incalculable force to men in the past, and that men had loved them".

He tells his mother: "We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation... it has paralysed our bodies and our wills...

"The Machine develops -- but not on our lines. The machine proceeds -- but not to our goal."

In the last part of the story, the Machine starts to show signs of freezing up, but except for the son, no one believes that. Hasn't the Machine grown more efficient with each passing year?

Each breakdown of the Machine renders the people more helpless. For they have become like bees, they know only their own duties, they do not know they are part of the hive, and so cannot comprehend the whole. So much for hivemind.

In the end, the Machine stops. As everything collapses around them, mother and son crawl over dead bodies towards one another to touch the other's hand.

"I'm dying," says the son, "but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine."

THE new wired world promises us more freedom, more choices. But there is just that one choice we cannot have, and that is to unplug ourselves. Never mind, we are prepared for the ride. And we aim to win.

While in the thick of the race though, we must never get estranged from our own body, for it is not just meatspace, as many of the Early Adopters derisively call it.

I don't care for First Mover's Advantage if it means to be deprived of the touch of a woman's hand, or the scent of her hair. Simulations can never be "good enough" for me.

And don't let us confuse technical connectivity with connectedness, with real family members, real friends, in a real community.

The success of the many coffee joints that have sprung up all over the island tells me there is hope yet. Their patrons are the wired young, and to see them talking and laughing over a cup of cappuccino or latte out in the sun is to know that amidst rapid, radical change, human nature remains constant -- in this case, the need to associate with others, F2F or face-to-face.

Sitting in front of a computer in a room alone and chatting with other similarly isolated people over the Net is still an isolating experience.

And we mustn't forget that though we operate on Internet time, there are some things that cannot be hurried. Like friendship, trust, love -- and recalcitrant journalists and vintage whisky.

Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F