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E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’: humans, technology and dialogue

Article  in  AI & Society · February 2017

DOI: 10.1007/s00146-017-0698-3

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Ana Zimmermann W. John Morgan

University of São Paulo University of Nottingham; Cardiff University


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DOI 10.1007/s00146-017-0698-3


E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’: humans, technology

and dialogue
Ana Cristina Zimmermann1 · W. John Morgan2,3,4 

Received: 14 June 2015 / Accepted: 11 January 2017

© Springer-Verlag London 2017

Abstract The article explores E.M. Forster’s story The dialogue and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of percep-
Machine Stops (1909) as an example of dystopian litera- tion and otherness. The problem seems to be how everyday
ture and its possible associations with the use of technol- technological interfaces can change the way we first per-
ogy and with today’s cyber culture. Dystopian societies are ceive the world and the possibility that with certain types
often characterized by dehumanization and Forster’s novel of mediation there is a loss of connection with the Other.
raises questions about how we live in time and space; and It is argued that understanding dialogical conditions could
how we establish relationships with the Other and with help turn the relationship with technology into something
the world through technology. We suggest that the fear more humane. Literature such as Forster’s is considered as
of technology depicted in dystopian literature indicates an example of such a dialogical condition, suggesting ways
a fear that machines are mimicking the roles that humans of dealing with human dilemmas by exploring the field of
already play in relational encounters. Our relationship with possibilities.
machines frequently suggests a classical “I-it” situation.
However, a genuine dialogue is where there is no master Keywords Dystopian literature · Technology · Dialogue ·
and where communication and understanding are achieved Phenomenology
through the encounter and through openness to difference
and to change. The article examines the ways machines and
automata are imagined and become part of lived human 1 The Machine Stops
existence, in the light of Martin Buber’s philosophy of
1.1 Introduction
W. John Morgan—Honorary Professor at School of Social
Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, UK
“Imagine if you can:” is our invitation from E.M Forster
to picture a future where humans are connected with each
Ana Cristina Zimmermann other through technology; but without physical encoun- ters; and far from struggling with the natural environment.
W. John Morgan In this fictional world people live in individual rooms in which all needs are satisfied through the clicking of elec-
1 tronic buttons. Bodily functions are reduced to the essen-
School of Physical Education and Sport, University
of Sao Paulo/Brazil, Av. Prof. Mello Moraes, 65 - Cidade tial lower requirements necessary to sustain life. In brief,
Universitaria, São Paulo 05508-030, Brazil human life is managed by “the machine” which makes eve-
School of Education, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, rything easy, comfortable, and risk-free. This is the start-
UK ing point of a nightmarish literary journey which questions
School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, choices and emerging ideas about human development. The
UK world imagined by this novel may be a powerful spring-
Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research & Data, 46 board for exploring important dilemmas that we face today.
Park Place, Cardiff, Wales CF10 3BB, UK

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The Machine Stops (Forster 1947), first published in machines and automata are imagined and become part of
1909, is remarkable for the author’s prescience about the lived human existence, using the perspectives of Buber’s
possibilities and dangers facing humanity in the future. The philosophy of dialogue and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenol-
story seems very close to us in its themes and it is not diffi- ogy. We suggest that the fear of technology shown in dys-
cult to understand Forster’s warning about a world domi- topian literature indicates also a fear about the roles that
nated by hyper-mediated, meretricious contacts. A sentence humans already play in relational encounters. Literature, in
such as: ‘She knew several thousand people, in certain this case, explores different ways of dealing with this fear
directions human intercourse had advanced enormously’ is and the questions it raises. In Foster’s story Kuno reminds
an example. It is suggestive of today’s Facebook and Twit- his mother that the Machine was not made by a god: “Men
ter trends with their superficial attraction as contemporary made it. Great men, but men.” It stresses our historical
forms of human contact. The anonymity and disembodied condition and the power we have to change our reality. We
nature of such exchanges also mean that they are open to argue that the understanding of dialogical conditions could
verbal abuse. There are also phrases such as: “….be help turn the relationship with technology into something
quick… I am wasting my time” and claims about being more humane.
“always busy” that are current nowadays and allow our
ready identification with the narrative. The story follows 1.2 Dystopian literature, technology and cyber culture
the attempts to communicate between a son and mother,
which describes their condition in a human civilization that Fiction is another reality which makes it possible to explore
lives isolated, under the ground1, and without physical con- different universes through the genre of science fiction
tact. The alternative that Forster implies is one that recog- (Parrinder 2000). It moves between the reality of daily life
nizes humanity’s need for actual bodily experiences: “I and the realm of “what might be.” One of its functions is
want to see you not through the machine…” This is the to explore human dilemmas and a free literature, as a form
appeal from Kuno to his mother Vashti at the beginning of of art, is not committed to science with its aspiration to
the story. It has been observed that literature, and indeed art exact knowledge or truth. Instead, through imagination, it
in general, shows that when humanity encounters the pos- explores human reality, its possibilities and consequences.
sibilities and implications of its own science, it usually “Fiction then, from Rabelais and Cervantes to Grass
faces the imponderables of passions and instincts associ- and Goytisolo and Gordimer, is another way of questioning
ated commonly with embodiment (Novaes 2003). Here we truth as we strive for it through the paradox of a lie. That lie
explore Forster’s story as a pioneering example of dysto- can be called the imagination. It can also be seen as a par-
pian or, as some prefer, anti-utopian literature which illus- allel reality. It can be observed as a critical mirror of what
trates this. passes for the truth in the world of convention” (Fuentes
It has been argued that the story represents: “….the 2005: 5).
first full-scale emergence of the twentieth-century anti- When we consider Forster’s story, our main question is
utopia {which} begins the series of ‘admonitory satires’ not how literature anticipates reality, but what we feel about
that includes Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, this possible world. The concept of utopia, such as in Pla-
and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” (Hillegas 1967: 82). to’s Republic (1994), written around 380 BC, More’s Uto-
Forster, later to be recognized as one of the greatest mod- pia (1967) first published in Latin in 1516, and Andreae’s
ern English writers, was then a young Edwardian intel- Christianopoli (2007), first published in Latin in 1618, has
lectual concerned with human moral behaviour, tempered persisted in the human imagination through the dystopian
by secularist beliefs (Trilling 1964). According to Seegert or anti-utopian literature we have noted. However: “Such
(2010: 34) “….the story is also distinctively modernist in literature remained, nonetheless, indicative of humanity’s
its quirky attunement to the alienation of a technologically profound concern with its ethical condition, and with the
mediated subject so completely divorced from nature that fundamental struggle between evil and good in the socie-
it doesn’t even realize that it is alienated anymore.” This ties it tries to build and to sustain” (Morgan and Guilherme
enables us to consider how, through science and technol- 2014: 30). Utopian and dystopian literatures both raise
ogy, we engage with the natural and animal world and questions about humanity’s place in a world which does
with our fellow humans, how we understand and use our so much to construct itself. The modern cinema also pro-
personal embodiment, the significance of Otherness and vides some outstanding examples of the utopian and dys-
the possibilities of dialogue. The article focuses on how topian debate, such as Lang’s Metropolis (1926), Chaplin’s
Modern Times (1936) Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956),
itself based on Shakespeare’s seventeenth century night-
Reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, first pub- marish fantasy The Tempest (2000), Kubrick’s 2001: A
lished in 1864 (2004). Space Odyssey (1968), Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and

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Stanton’s Wall-E (2008). The fascination with and fear reality for instance, reawakens the philosophical problem of
about technology are seen also in the “Humans” Sci-fi tel- the mind-body relationship, first posed in the modern era
evision series (Reuters 2015). As does literature, such films by Descartes, and which remains one of the most intrac-
and drama before it explore changes in society brought table problems in philosophy. That said, the human body
about by technology; and the possibilities of remaining is considered by some to be an obstacle, obsolete, and
human when challenged by the necessity of extreme inter- even surpassed by new technologies. For the cybernaut the
action with intelligent machines (Tucherman 2006). Such physical body is considered a prison when compared with
communication mediated by machines, fear of human con- virtual bodies which are immune to illness, to physical
tact, of emotional engagement, bodily weakness, frontiers disabilities and, most importantly, to death (Breton 2003).
of time and space blurred by virtual interaction are ele- However, more recent empirical research especially in
ments present in Forster’s novel that also figure in our cur- cognitive science brings an impetus to the rejection of the
rent scientific debates. mind-body dualism (Wilson and Foglia 2015). In this con-
In the introduction to the 1947 edition of his collected text, the notion of “embodied mind” (Varela et al. 1991) is
stories Forster wrote that The Machine Stops was: ‘….a inspired by the phenomenological tradition of the French
counterblast to one of the heavens of H. G. Wells.” (Forster philosopher Merleau-Ponty that considers the body as
1947: vii; cited in; Hillegas 1967: 86). As Hillegas argues: both a lived, experiential structure and as the milieu of cog-
“Certainly it is in spirit and detail an inversion of the future nitive mechanisms. Such a view also supports studies of the
seen by Wells in A Modern Utopia. The controlling prin- development of smart and interactive technology.
ciple for this inversion is Forster’s humanism.” (Hillegas
1967: 87). Forster explores the possibilities and conse- 1.3 The development of artificial intelligence
quences of living in a world in which humanity’s depend-
ence on technology threatens the essence of what it means Early attempts to develop artificial intelligence focussed
to be human. on human capacity for thinking. In 1950 the English math-
As we have noted, Forster proves remarkably prescient ematician Alan Turing suggested replacing the question
about what has been made reality during the 20th and early “can machines think?” by a game in which three partici-
twenty-first centuries, especially through digital technol- pants talked by text. In this test, also known as “the imi-
ogy. Individuals may now experience virtual reality using tation game”, if a machine could play as satisfactorily as
devices which allow the exploration of imaginary worlds a human person, it would demonstrate a sufficient condi-
in a very immersive and convincing way. However, is this tion for thinking (Turing 1950). Turing, believed that this
merely a recreational attempt to escape from everyday life problem: “….has the advantage of drawing a fairly sharp
or is it already a new human reality? This question has line between the physical and intellectual capacities of a
stimulated debate about whether virtual-reality is empow- man.” (1950: 434). As Guo (2015: 3) points out, Turing’s:
ering and communicative or dangerously addictive and “….specific understanding of human identity also indicates
isolating (McGonigal 2015). The designers and the manu- a scientific reconceptualization”, with the human mind
facturers of digital games, not unsurprisingly, have a very abstracted into a series of symbolic operations, studied and
positive view of their products and their contribution to modelled as mechanical instead of emotionally embodied
creating a desirable future (McGonigal 2011). Such games superior beings. In his pioneering efforts towards intelli-
are more than escapist entertainment, and are also exam- gent machinery Turing investigated continually the sense
ples of a popular science which contributes solutions to the of self. Subsequent research and developments in comput-
practical problems of every-day life. For example, in health ers science have continued to provoke self-reflection: rais-
care, general well-being, and in terms of individual inde- ing questions such as what it means to be alive, to think,
pendence, computers and associated machines are empow- to have emotions. As Guo comments: “….it is the sense of
ering, notably for those with disabilities. who and what we are that is constantly reconceptualized
As for the human body, according to Stern (2006), Mary reflectively and creatively” (Guo 2015:7).
Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) reflects a dilemma As we have noted, technologies of immersion in virtual
between dystopian anxieties and utopian ideals brought by reality are developing constantly and in different directions,
new medicine: “Utopian optimism about the capacity of bringing more complexity in terms of human engagement.
medicine to liberate and strengthen human beings is thus It is possible to comprehend machines and robots being
closely wedded to dystopian fear about medicine’s potential developed as ever more humanized versions, inspired by a
to reduce, objectify and ultimately commodity humankind”. philosophical tradition that sees mind and body as insepa-
(Stern 2006:63) He reflects on how close utopia and dysto- rable (Turkle 2011). There are robots that are supposed to
pia are which has parallels with how we face technology understand human emotions, and which are capable of car-
in human life. The contemporary excitement about virtual ing for the elderly and for children (Vincent 2014; Byford

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2015); cuddling robots used as pets (Hudson 2013); and of social robotics. Such issues reveal the social impact of
robots which play games, music; and are more than sim- technology on human relationships and are of great ethical
ply useful things, but considered almost partners. Although significance.
questionable, it has long been common for people to con- However, as some critics point out, eliminating all
sider even their radio, television or music player as per- machinery from our lives and returning to the “naked
sonal company. The robot or the machine is now often seen man”, as suggested by The Machine Stops, is a naïve and
to represent in human reality what Karel Ĉapek (2014) problematic solution. We are now immersed in technol-
imagined in his famous play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal ogy and we must not forget how naturalized everyday
Robots), first published in 1920, a contemporary satire on human and technological interfaces have already become
the then apparently wholesale and confident acceptance of (Seegert 2010). Literature explores how machines became
scientific materialism. part of our lives and suggests a need to recover our human-
In practice, contemporary every-day life is full of rela- ity through reconsidering our embodiment and our physi-
tionships mediated by the interface between humans and cal and emotional encounters. Research on computers and
machines. At the same time the threats or benefits of tech- robotics also focusses increasingly on understanding the
nology represent an expansion of what we now think about consequences of interaction between humans and machines
humanity. Machines and super computers continue to rep- and among humans through new devices. Brassac (2006)
resent the wish to extend human capacities and, conse- highlights the contribution of a dialogical view of com-
quently, reduce struggle and suffering. It is the search for munication to addressing the relationship between artifi-
Utopia again. For example, exoskeletons and smart-devices cial intelligence and society and the way computer-based
such as the new Apple Watch represent a desire to amplify devices are designed. Such elements suggest the impor-
capacities through different levels of interface between tance of a better understanding of the notion of corporeal-
humans and machines. However, as we see a trend towards ity. Furthermore, it is valuable to explore how individuals
developing an “humanity” through technology which sim- make and sustain authentic relationships with the natural
ulates emotions and creativity, it is possible to visualize a world, including other sentient beings, as well as with their
parallel automation and alienation of humans. We incorpo- fellow humans, which brings us to the notion of dialogue.
rate already the rhythms and standardization of machines
in our daily lives as a consequence of an industrialized 1.4 The lived-body and perception
and bureaucratized world, as Charlie Chaplin’s film satire
“Modern Times” illustrated. The Machine Stops focuses on the consequences of exces-
Moreover, it is possible that high-tech mediated rela- sive dependence on machinery and the human body is
tionships interfere in the development of perception of and represented first as a “swaddled lump of flesh”. For Kuno,
human sensibility to the Other. As Sherry Turkle, who has a main character in the story, the exploration of a differ-
spent over three decades studying the way people inter- ent world begins with him being made aware of his body.
act with machines, comments: “….we expect more from Forster reminds us that our body is the first way through
technology and less from each other.” (Turkle 2011: 295). which we establish a relationship with the world: “Man is
Despite the huge evolution of games and digital tools the measure. .... Man’s feet are the measure for distance,
exploring new ways of communication or networks, the his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the
simplification of relationships through or with computers measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong”
and robots is shaping us as well and may lower expecta- (Forster 1947). There are many philosophical approaches
tions of relationships with our fellow humans.As Turkle to this but none are free of difficulties. Contemporary dis-
says: “We are tempted, summoned by robots and bots, courses reinforce old debates and represent the dilemma
objects that address us as if they were people. And just as of Cartesian dualism (Murray and Sixsmith 1999) that we
we imagine things as people, we invent ways of being with have noted. In Passions of the Soul, published originally
people that turn them into something close to things.” (Tur- in 1649, René Descartes (1989) compares the human body
kle 2011: 224). In a similar way, Vallor (2014) pays atten- with an automaton, a machine that moves by itself like a
tion to the risk of moral deskilling as part of the ambiguous watch, a metaphor which is still very apt. Indeed, the idea
impact of new technologies in information and communi- of the human body as a machine or as an object is found
cations. She highlights three areas where moral skill and more generally in Western science (Hogen 2009). Using
practical wisdom could be compromised: the impact on a different approach, the French anthropologist Marcel
soldiers of the use of military drones and other autono- Mauss (1992) points out that the body is our first and most
mous weapons systems; the realm of moral attention of natural technical object. But it is not a simple object; and
the new media practices of multitasking; and the impact he argues that cultural factors also shape our bodies and our
on practices of human caregiving by  the  potential offer behaviour, crucial when we consider the interface between

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humans and machines. The French philosopher Gabriel for high performance. The design of prosthetics, in this
Marcel (2007) also points out the possibility of an instru- case, does not intend to reproduce shape and manner of
mental use of our body, but in one dimension only. Human human body, but to amplify performance (Kim 2004).
corporeality carries the mystery of being and having. He However, our lived-body, as a being engaged with the
suggests that incarnation is a key element in thinking about world, brings to life the objects around it. We extend our
being. “Of this body, I can neither say that it is I, nor that it corporeality to the objects that take part in our human pro-
is not I, nor that it is for me (object).” (2007:11–12). Mar- jects; in the same way athletes incorporate sportive equip-
cel (2007) emphasizes our engagement with the world and ment (Merleau-Ponty 1962). As it is alive, the body is much
criticises a detachment or alienation, supposed by science. more conscious of itself than the individual may think. We
From another perspective, the English anthropologist Mary do not need to command it or interpret signs objectively for
Douglas (1988) highlights the human need for distinct it to deal with the world in everyday life. It organizes itself
boundaries. She analysed the ideas of pollution and taboo in space and time. On the other hand, we can also think
in different cultures and found that ambiguity and change about the body in the way we think about things. How-
are uncomfortable as they may be linked with insecurity ever, if our body is merely an object, then who speaks for
and weaken of our perceptions of life. It is interesting that, it? We cannot say that our body is one of our qualities like
for Douglas, the human body is a special element which an accessory; instead our corporeality is the starting point
represents both order and disorder, with its boundaries for all our qualities, “it is that by which there are objects”
especially dangerous. However, if we use a phenomeno- (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 105). Consequently, the ambiguity in
logical approach, uncertainty makes it possible to recognise which we live in relation to our body allows us to live in a
our ambiguity as a human being and opens up the possibil- perceptive world that is also ambiguous. It is not enough to
ity to learn from this experience. say “I am my body” to make clear our place in the world. I
Nowadays, the human body has a strong presence in the do not say me and my body, I cannot think about myself as
social imaginary and in the mass media. On the one hand it distinct from my body, even though I say: this is my body.
highlights our corporeality, but paradoxically it also indi- This confusing relationship with our corporeality is also
cates objectification, which opens the way to social prac- the point from which Gabriel Marcel thinks about our rela-
tices such as slavery, pornography, and prostitution. The tionship with the world when he says: “The primary object
improvement of control and attention in relation to the with which I identify myself, but which still eludes me, is
human body demonstrates even more uncertainty. Richard- my own body.” (Marcel 2007: 163). Our body is neither
son (2010) claims that robotic creation is a mimetic pro- object nor subject, but is a mode of presentation. Hence,
cess. According to her, humanoid robots are extensions of we cannot reduce our body to its instrumental possibilities.
human psychosocial bodies and, despite the fact that some It indicates what I am and the way I am, our personal exist-
robots have massive capacities of memory or strength, they ence (Schrag 1988). Our condition is not that of an objec-
fail in what are very simple tasks for humans (see “DARPA tive body, but a living body which inhabits space and time
Robotics Challenge 2015” commented on by Dalton 2015). and so reconfigures them (Merleau-Ponty 1962).
We still do not understand fully the complexity of the liv- A phenomenology of corporeality makes it possible to
ing body in the world, which explains the failure of some understand that the body does not disappear into cyber-
machines to imitate human behaviour convincingly; and space or is replaced by the use of apparatus: corporeal-
also the failure to explain human corporeality in terms of ity is instead redefined (Ortega 2007). The lived-body is
mechanical metaphors. Our lived-body is much more than the point of reference of a being-in-the-world (Merleau-
machinery, not only because of specific performance, but Ponty 1962). We are able to extend bodily boundaries to
also because a human being is complex, changing con- include devices and technology, while this indicates how
stantly through interaction with the world and with the difficult it is to determine objective boundaries for the
Other. There remain also questions about the Human body. The human body does not represent a thing but an
Machine, from the implant of plates and screws to sophisti- attitude; it is the presentation of a subject (Merleau-Ponty
cated artificial organs, bombs, and prosthetics. But, the fun- 1962). Merleau-Ponty proposes also that perception, our
damental problem in thinking about the body as a machine, connection with the world, does not come from the world
as proposed by Descartes, is the way we understand corpo- or from our intimate elaboration of it. Perception comes
real schema. As we have noted, the human body is not sim- from our experience of participation in the world. Hence,
ply the sum of its parts and our interaction with the world the way we perceive the world is not an innate ability but
is much more complex than cause-effect laws. Yet, technol- is acquired. It is not a passive reaction to the world. Our
ogy responds to the demand for improved performance and ‘gaze’, for instance, extends bodily boundaries, inter-
highlights the instrumental view of the body. For instance, rogates and touches the world with all our senses. “The
more and more para-athletes have hybrid bodies made up gaze gets more or less from things according to the way

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in which it questions them, ranges over or dwells on human potential through dialogue; and exploring our dia-
them”. Perception is acquiring a certain style of perceiv- logical condition helps us understand its power.
ing, a new use of one’s own body; our experiences enrich
and reorganize the way we perceive the world (Merleau- 1.5 Dialogue and its possibilities
Ponty 1962: 177). Such an understanding of perception
helps us comprehend the complexity of our dialogical In E. M. Forster’s story, “People never touched one
condition. another.” We can consider this a metaphor for dialogue.
Therefore, we learn ways of inhabiting space and time Although there is some appeal to humanize machines, our
through living the world, which is not exterior to our body, relationship with them frequently suggests a classical “I-It”
but integrated with our existence. Merleau-Ponty (1962) situation. The relation I-It is a subject-object relationship
distinguishes between spatiality of position and spatiality and can be between man and objects, but also between
of situation, which helps us think about virtual relation- human beings when one takes the place of the object. It is
ships. Spatiality does not refer to a position in a geometri- an objective relationship in which one uses the Other instru-
cal space, so the world is not a space for displacement, but mentally. I-It is an experience of knowledge, utility and
a space that extends through our actions and the meaning causality (Buber 1972: 2002). However, a genuine dialogue
elaborated by us and others (Bicudo 2009). Merleau-Ponty is achieved through an “I-Thou” relationship in which there
argues that we have the power to reckon with any possible is no superior and where there is openness to difference and
environment or, as Romdenh-Romluc says, we are able to to change. This includes the possibility and willingness to
“imbue a possible or imagined environment” with bodily touch one another. Buber (2002) describes the attitude of
significance, because we are able to access our motor-skills perceiving the Other as “becoming aware”. It means to give
in relation to that represented environment (2007: 56). It the status of knowledge to someone or something that does
is possible to conceive different horizons as a background not come from an objective way of understanding. It is not
against which to orientate our actions. We extend our cor- communication in the traditional sense of sender—mes-
poreality according to the projects in which we are engaged, sage—receptor. What is most important is what arises from
but it is our presence in the world and the relationships the relationship. It is not an inner process or a simple reac-
made there that provide the elements for such extension. It tion to an external stimulus, it is an encounter. The rela-
is important to consider this complexity as it leads to the tion I-Thou is a relation of openness, directness, mutuality
notion that we learn how to see the world through seeing and presence. It can happen at any moment between fellow
it. It is necessary to exercise our vision, which means also humans, but also with animals, plants, objects, art-works,
that the type of mediation can enrich or impoverish such and so on. It is impossible to anticipate or predict what will
learning; and consequently the way we explore the world happen; it is a process only possible in relationship. Guil-
and develop our capacities. So, we should think about the herme and Morgan (2009: 567) emphasize that: “Buber
kind of devices and mediated experiences we have and the rejects any sort of sharp dualism between the I–Thou and
understanding of humanity they carry. It is possible, even I–It relation; that is, for Buber, there is always an inter-play
probable, that the machines we create “do not capture all between the I–Thou and the I–It, rather than an either/or
nuances”, as Forster’s story explains, especially if we still relation between these foundational concepts”. A primary
do not know all the nuances to which we are ourselves word I-It is in accordance with Mankind’s will to be power-
subject. ful and to master objects and knowledge. This attitude will
If our connection with the world is mediated strongly we be disruptive if such mastery robs humans of the reality of
may lose part of its complexity. As the modes of contact their own I: “… without It man cannot live. But he who
change, so changes the experience itself and “because all lives with It alone is not a man.” (Buber 1972: 34).
contact must be mediated somehow, it does not follow that A problem with technology seems to be how everyday
no value distinctions can be made between different modes interfaces can change the way we first perceive the world;
of mediation” (Seegert 2010: 45). Mediated ways of meet- and the possibility that with certain types of mediation
ing allow different levels of complexity, and some may not there is a loss of connection with the Other (Seegert 2010).
be as complex and challenging as face-to-face meetings in For instance, Breton (2003) points out that the cyberspace
uncontrolled environments. Despite mediation, being-in- is an imaginary, but nonetheless real world, where the fron-
the world is related to our openness to other beings. The tiers are blurred and the Other exists through the interface
Other brings surprise, difference and even discomfort of communication, but without a physical body. The rela-
since we need to deal with questions for which there are no tionship with the world is obliterated by the relationship
ready-made answers. But this is what gives us the oppor- with data. It is a relatively simplified world in which it is
tunity to go beyond what we already are. It is not avoid- possible to experience countless different situations without
ing dilemmas, but how we deal with them that shows our compromising oneself. Meetings through different devices

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usually use simplified symbols, often with a preponderance among people is challenging and this kind of encounter
of visual or of sonority signs. These virtual worlds, most brings novelty to us. Again Vallor suggests: “….that what-
of the time, may be lived without any great consequences. ever defects new social media may suffer, they are likely
Physical encounters, on the other hand, require the respect more often mirrors of existing cultural sources of moral
of very complex social rules, an effort towards what is apathy, and abdication of critical inquiry, than they are
appropriate for approaches, the understanding of emotions causes”. However this mirroring “may amplify the damage
and expressions, empathy as well as sympathy. In sum, it is to our capacities as independent practical reasoners”. (Val-
a very complex mode of communication that involves our lor 2012: 197). Deeper and constant reflection on the chal-
whole sensorial body. So, in a controlled or limited envi- lenging and nurtured character of human relationships is
ronment this possibility of creation is eliminated from the necessary. An emotional connection is a challenge; it needs
beginning. However, we cannot click on a “new life” solu- work, engagement, care about the Other, and nourishment.
tion each time the “game is over” in our actual life. Developing friendship or a marriage for instance involves
Virtual and physical meetings are both real and bring living the encounter with all the complexity and expressiv-
consequences, but they are very different from each other. ity that it requires. It is necessarily a dialogical relationship
A virtual meeting may protect one from the unexpected, and the struggle that comes with dialogue is also its power.
but the unexpected is also what brings us the possibility of This is why: “Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to
learning and of enhancing ourselves. Some studies already face and talk about the hopes that are in my mind” is an
show the increasing difficulty of making strong connections appeal for human commitment and dialogue from Kuno to
among humans, considering the fragility of relationships his mother.
through virtual networks in the consumer age (Bauman
2003). For example, in her research on the use of technol- 1.6 Conclusion
ogy (2011) Turkle, found many examples of children ask-
ing for more attention from their relatives, or adults, and The cultural world we create is the condition of both our
complaining of loneliness despite their numerous virtual constraint and of our freedom. It is possible to argue that,
friendships. However, some users of virtual connections as we extend our corporeality to objects around us, a world
describe it as easier and safer than having actual meetings, hyper-mediated by technology will also change the way
as they do not need to deal with “real faces” and can leave we perceive the world. On the other hand, our relation-
the conversation at any moment, without meaningful con- ships depend also on openness to encounter, mutuality and
sequence. This may also be seen in people’s readiness to exchange. Furthermore, each decision brings unexpected
engage in abusive behaviour through virtual communica- consequences to which humans respond with fresh solu-
tion which they would be reluctant or cautious to do in a tions that modify the problems. So: “….there is no situation
physical encounter. In a virtual world people are perform- without hope, no choice which terminates these deviations,
ing a character or an avatar, while computers or mobile or which can exhaust man’s inventive power and put an end
devices are not a substitute for opening a dialogue with all to his history” (Merleau-Ponty 1973: 23). In a similar way,
the nuances a face-to-face encounter encourages. In Tur- when considering Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogical
kle’s research (2011) most youths preferred texting instead education and its potential for conflict resolution, Morgan
of calling as it does not take too much time and there is no and Guilherme (2014: 37) raise the prospect of hope:
necessary further commitment. In other words, they are in “Humanity may not be able to find earthly perfection,
control of a conversation which keeps a distance between but it can find improvement that will make its lot more
them and the Other. It reminds us again of the desperate civilised and therefore more bearable. This is achievable
attempt for dialogue between Kuno and his mother: “‘I through a humanistic education that provides the capacity
have called you before, mother, but you were always busy of living in co-operation and harmony with one another,
or isolated. I have something particular to say.’ ‘What is it, as well as the knowledge and skills necessary to material
dearest boy? Be quick. How could you not send it by pneu- improvement and its sustainability. These are the links
matic post?’” (Forster 1947). that connect aspiration and hope, through education, to the
Technology has increased our possibility of making ini- prospect of a better, utopian future; even if, like  the hori-
tial contact with each other through new facilities and possi- zon, it can never be reached finally.”
bilities. However it should not replace actual meetings, that Forster’s story remains relevant to us as it consid-
cannot be controlled or edited. Moreover, it is when we are ers human distress and fears for the future. It is a fiction,
surprised and hesitate that we need to be creative, which is but the author’s intention is to share with us an emotional
the richness of dialogue. In such dialogue we face not only truth which anguished him and by extension humanity.
the potential of surprise from the Other, but we need the The understanding of human challenges, choices, limits,
Other to learn how to deal with our own ambiguity. Being consequences, possible new starting points, is one of the

Author's Personal Copy
AI & Soc

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