Only Disconnect! A Pandemic Reading of E.M. Forster

Sidney Perkowitz in Nautilus:

Chances are, you’re hunkered down at home right now, as I am, worried about COVID-19 and coping by means of Instacart deliveries, Zoom chats, and Netflix movies, while avoiding others and the outside world. As shown by the experience in China1 and recent studies,2 voluntary isolation to extreme lockdown are effective in slowing or stopping pandemics. But as cabin fever sets in and we miss friends and family, it’s natural to wonder about the mental and social cost of widespread physical separation. Yet the surprising fact is your tech-heavy exile is not a brand new idea in the Internet Age. It was foreseen long ago. The prophet was the great English novelist E.M. Forster. His literary classics Howards End, about British social relationships in Edwardian times, and A Passage to India, about British rule in India, are also known through their masterly film versions.

Howards End is the origin of Forster’s famous catchphrase, “Only connect!,” expressing his belief in the essential need for human relationships. Protecting those connections in an increasingly mechanized world was the theme of Forster’s 1909 story, “The Machine Stops.” The science-fiction story is a protest against what Forster saw as the dehumanizing effects of technology. It is meant to be a counterweight to H.G. Wells’ faith in the value of scientific and technological progress. Forster was firmly on the humanities side of the Two Cultures, the other being science, delineated by another English novelist, C.P. Snow, in the 1950s. But time and progress have a funny way of reshaping literature. Today “The Machine Stops” can be read as a remarkably prescient depiction of the Internet. What’s more, Forster might be astonished to learn his Machine can draw us together and preserve our humanity and relationships. That’s not to say, however, that a warning about technology in “The Machine Stops” doesn’t linger.

More here.