The 14 Sept 2015 issue of the New Yorker was of special interest because it contained an essay by the late Oliver Sacks, the neuro-scientist and writer who transformed how we think about others. An example of his influence was evident in an article in that same issue by Atul Gawande, also a physician, who described some of the ways that the good doctor Sacks had touched his life, especially the importance of “seeing” others.
Sacks frequently drew on literature to help him express ideas and in his essay Gawande describes a time in which Sacks urged him to read E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops,” published in 1909. The story presents a dystopic world run by a Machine, a place where human interaction is limited to something akin to social networking, a world in which travel is seen as unnecessary. But the protagonist, Kuno, is not happy living in his cell below ground, relying on the Machine for his every need, as do all the other humans not condemned as “unmechanical.” Kuno craves contact with others, especially his mother Vashti, and his entreaty to her is poignant: “The Machine is much, but it is not everything. 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. That is why I want you to come home. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”
In our world of social media we seem to enjoy more contact with more people than any other prior age, but Forster detected a fundamental problem when simulated interaction replaces inperson exchanges, a kind of existence where we stop playing in the natural world. Forster thought that this path would lead to a loss of what it means to be human. At times, I have wondered if virtual meetings will ever replace our annual meetings, and, if they do, what will be the consequences (see Lynn Nyhart’s Isis Focus piece from March 2013, “The Shape of the History of Science Profession, 2038: A Prospective Retrospective” for one take on the consequences). We cannot measure the benefits of simply sitting next to someone, taking in her gestures, her voice, and what she is trying to say, but the advantages are many, and it seems worth it to me that we pour our labor into the planning of the HSS meetings so that we can listen carefully to each other, even if we cannot measure the value of it. Podcasts and virtual attendance will continue to play an increasingly important role in our conferences, and I welcome these innovations; I just hope that they never become substitutes. To really “see” a person we need to be with them. It is the stuff that enriches our scholarship and each other, and I hope that you will join us in San Francisco this 19-22 Nov.
Thank you for your membership in the HSS.