To us messy-ass humans, the definition of “presence” is as gray as the matter in our paradox-laden frontal lobes. Presence can never be mechanized into minutia–codified into an algorithm caught in the on/off binary mix. Presence is empathy, connection, focus, concern–planted and nurtured in the biological and neurological recesses of our ubiquitous chemical (im)balance.
“Tele”-presence is in itself a paradox. The “tele-” of “-phone/-vision” lives in the world of technology, distance, the wholly unperson world of mediated experience. Presence is the warm, skin-smell influence of one-bodyness; the “eyes, windows, soul” cliche of, dare I say it, love. How do these concepts find themselves together? Can the trans-human, trans-mission, trans-cendence of technology recreate a suitable simulacrum of the flesh, the voice, the lips?
It’s the tools. The spear that kills better than hands. The book that remembers better than minds. The bike that runs faster than legs. The computer that…does everything better than it’s ever been done before, period and forever. These tools let us extend and design the solution to every need. The need of my hunger is no longer fulfilled by walking outside and harvesting, but by an inconceivably complex system of labor, chemicals, trucks, refrigerators, advertisements, design, engineering, economics and sliding doors. Can our intimacy be so designed? Can our love? Can our presence with each other be picked apart by a million bytes, distributed, categorized, analyzed and mechanized into the most efficient and efficacious “love” between these people-that-are-but-systems?
Yes. It can. It has. But not all the way. People who meet online still breathe. People who fuck with Tinder still sweat. These tele-tools allow us to explore our intimacy in new, designed ways, but until we offload our brains to bytes, we’ll still be interfacing with the same mushy gray matter that makes up our lives. We hurt, we love, we cry, we fuck, we are true and false, we are 1 and 0. Our lives are built on instinct, on chemical, on neuron–on q-tips and toothpaste. So long as our blood is red, the world of “tele” and the world of “presence” will remain separated, even if only by an infinitesimal wisp of space.
People of the millennial generation loathe helping people over fifty how to utilize technology. We might seem like we’re chipper and patient, but that’s either because a) we’re being paid for it or b) we must recompense for not calling our parents enough.
There’s a trick to teaching people to fix ANY tech problem. You teach them how to google. That’s it. Even though, to us youngins, googling feels like second nature, it’s actually a skill we’ve just seamlessly acquired. We intuit keywords, phrasing and source-finding as easily as we take a breath. We dip into the pool of infinite knowledge without a second thought.
With a flick of my finger, I can learn practically anything. Take that to it’s logical conclusion and you find yourself faced with an odd question: If we can just dip into the pool of knowledge at any time…why do we go to school? Do we really need it? A simple “Ok Google…” can find me anything I want, so what does taking a class really do for me?
My wife and I play a little game where, if you can’t remember who was in a particular movie, you have to sit and try to remember instead of using IMDB. We literally simulate what it might be like not to have all the answers, for fun. Inevitably, we give up and ask. “Of course! Christopher Walken! Again!”
IMDB is a good example of modern “information exchange.” I put that in quotes not to make a dubious sexual reference, but to examine how the concept of “information exchange” has radically changed. So lets hop into our Delorean/Phone Booth/Hot Tub, set the dial to about 200,000 years ago and explore how information exchange has developed.
First stop, Words! (Technically there’s a zeroth stop if you want to count genetic exchange, but I’ll let Matt Ridley help you out with that one. For our intents and purposes, we’ll forgo the saga of evolution.)
Words, or at least proto-linguistic grunts, were the first step in information exchange, and they were a huge one! Let me break this down for you. Humans learned how to transmit thoughts…from their minds…to the minds of other humans. I cannot overstate how important this is, but I’m going to try:
Learning how to make words was the most important step in evolution that ever happened to a living species maybe in the whole fucking universe. The step from *silence* to “Berries here” is as miraculous as the step from prokaryotic to eukayrotic organisms or the step from empty warm pool to first instance of life.
However, my friends, “Berries here” is not exactly Beethovin’s Ninth, so the importance might be lost, but it was information exchange nonetheless. The attributes of “Berries here” are as follows: Non-complex, hyper-local and transient. It was nothing abstract, it didn’t travel far and it died upon utterance. So the glory of transmitting information (as monumental as that was) was hit with some pretty big barriers right off the bat. Let’s leap forward a bit and see if I can get impressed with the next step.
Second stop, Writing! Think of writing as the first giant leap toward human immortality. By introducing the written word, we’ve crushed one of the big limitations of Ooog the cave-person just saying “Berries here”: transience. Now instead of the words just evaporating, they can be saved. They can be written down and given away later. So after your death, your thoughts, knowledge and discoveries can be passed down to further generations.
Talk about hacking evolution! Evolution is based on the principle that only the fittest survive, but with writing, the fittest can pass a cheat-sheet up a few generations to help them survive. Think of any big historical text–Hammurabi’s code, The Koran, The Wealth of Nations, Mao’s Little Red Book–as a cheat-sheet for how to structure the world. Most people attach their life to one these texts and simply do what it says. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, most of us are just coasting on repeated philosophies and statutes our whole lives. Thank goodness someone wiser than I wrote down how to live! Otherwise, we would need to figure it out from scratch each new generation!
So we have some complex, enduring information exchange, but it’s still pretty local. Parchment was quite expensive and writing was a skill for the elite, so we’re still a little stuck. What’s next?
Second and a half stop, the Printing Press! I’m only giving the printing press half a stop. I know, I know, it’s revolutionary and all that, but really, it just accelerated the access to writing. It didn’t introduce a new concept.
What it did do, however, is work to crush that last hindrance on information exchange: locality. With books being churned out, mass distribution of information became much easier. Gutenberg and company no longer had to employ scribes to spread the good word. Instead, they had a big meaty machine to church out and disseminate knowledge. In all, it was an invention that ushered in equalization–as the price for knowledge dropped dramatically–meaning middle and lower class people could access it more easily.
So the printing press was good, but it might as well be a sky blue crayon compared to our next step.
Step three: the internet. AKA the invisible, instantaneous, personal printing press.
The internet is the be-all and end-all medium for information exchange. It is complex, permanent, world-wide and literally lightning-fast. The internet has inexorably changed the way we communicate socially, the way we sell things, the way we stand in line, the way we learn and the way we think.
It’s been a long trek from “Berries Here” to Google Chrome, but we’ve done it. We’ve gone from simple to complex, from transient to permanent and from hyper-local to global. We have access to nearly all the knowledge in the world–certainly more information than we could ever digest in our lifetimes.
So finally, I can return, at long last, to my initial question. Do we really need to learn anymore? If the past humans have done all this work, accrued all this information for me AND figured out how to make it all instantly accessible at almost any location, why do I need to learn? Why am I spending the first fourth of my life in a classroom–where human-to-human information exchange is mostly inefficient, ineffective and expensive?
Well, I’d be a pretty terrible teacher if I left it at that.
In the next post, I’ll propose two reasons why learning is still a worthwhile pursuit.
When I graduated high school I decided not to go to college. My friends, with stars in their eyes and scholarships in tow, looked at me sideways when I told them I wouldn’t be joining them.
The bulletin board in the library of my small, private school showed the plans of each senior after graduation. A majority of the names grandly circled the category “University.” A smattering of others respectably gathered around “International Service.” Then there was my name, hovering ostentatiously by the all too dubious category “Other.”
Not to be deterred, I decided to stay home and pay my parents back for everything they had done for me for the first 18 years of my life. I would do all the dishes, wash all the laundry and cook all the meals. A fittingly grand gesture to cover-up my lackluster expectations for the future.
Once my friends went off to college, I got to work. In the first two months, I perfected the art of baking bread from scratch, volunteered at a local bookstore and auditioned for the local theatre. I was feeling pretty great about my decision–no need for school for this boy!
So inevitably, on a terribly gray day, sitting in the bookstore flipping through a vintage issue of Spiderman, it occurred to me that I really did miss school. I’ve never been one for stubbornness, so it took about two minutes to convince myself I ought to go to college.
Applying to the liberal arts college in my city was simple enough, save for one awfully heavy decision. What was I going to major in?
Looking back now, the question seems quaint–an adorable quandary with the guise of gravitas. But at the time, my hazy assumption was that launching into a “major” in college meant the doors of your chosen society burst open wide for you and the world greets you as a professional.
“Welcome initiate. Ah! I see you’ve majored in [your major]! Your life path shall now include doing [your major] while earning [money/respect/fame]. If you stare across this wide chasm you can see [other majors] earning [money/respect/fame] doing [other majors].”
So I chose to major in Theatre. Though I was deeply interested in biology, computer science, math, philosophy and psychology, I could never imagine counting myself among the sullied ranks of the “undeclared” majors, so I stuck with it. The maze of life was laid before me and I chose my path and started running. Sure, I peeked over at other paths, but I never took a step backwards. I was headed toward the professional realm of theatre and that was that.
Problem is, I was working off of a model of professional development that now feels obsolete. This worldview of diverging paths leading toward ultimate professions is becoming less and less relevant. It may still be somewhat in tact for people born into familial dynasties: a celebrity with celebrity children, a service worker with service worker children.
If trade schools beget trade workers, what do liberal arts schools beget? Confused artists. Instead of a maze with one entrance and one exit, life had transformed into a Jackson Pollack painting of opportunity, failure and wondrous pipe dreams.
And you know what? Life still feels like that.
So for a stupefied millennial caught between a past generation of people with hard skills and an ever-shifting vision of the future, sculpting a “career path” feels like an act of futility. Instead of asking “what should we do?”, I choose instead to ask “how shall I live?” Perhaps too philosophical to be practical, but by answering the latter, the former may follow.
Now comes the time for my attempt at a metaphorical leap of faith: If the question on the table is “how shall I live?”, what if we use a scientific concept to answer a philosophical question?
Consilience is primarily a scientific term for strengthening a proof by providing diverse sets of evidence. For instance, if we ask “how fast is that car going?” we could provide evidence from a speedometer, a radar gun and a calculation of distance divided by time. All three ought to provide the same answer through different means of measurement. Thus we can more confidently answer the question. “The car was going 975 meters per second” and coincidentally “the car has vaporized.”
So what happens if we replace a measurement-based question of science with the more esoteric question “how shall I live?” What different forms of evidence would we need to come to a good conclusion?
In a sense, each one of us has answered, wittingly or not, this question of “how shall I live?” We answer it every day, by simply doing the things we’re doing. If you choose to write, work, love, kill or play facebook games, you’re answering that question every minute. The largest proponent of any of our answers is likely what we might call our “profession”.
So when asked the question, “how shall I live?” an engineer is answering differently than a dancer. A truck driver is answering differently than an accountant. A soldier differently than a preacher. A farmer differently than a cab driver.
So how can we create consilience in our venture to answer the big question? How can I answer the question as both a soldier and a preacher? As both a farmer and a cab driver?
My answer? Be curious about every damn thing in this world. Get rid of “career paths” and dive headlong into the wilderness of complexity. If I’m going to gather lots and lots of evidence, I can’t just be one thing!
This, of course, means getting rid of the presupposed identity I’ve cast upon myself. “I couldn’t do that, I’m an artist.” “I shouldn’t try this, I just flip burgers.” “I can’t dance, I’m a plumber.” By opening up my identity as “what I do” rather than “who I think I am”, I can step into any realm!
Most recently, I’ve been learning how to code–and let me be the first tell you, I’m not great at it. It takes me 20 lines of messy code to do what someone else can do in 2 elegant lines. So why do I bother? I’m not going to wow any coders anytime soon and coding sure doesn’t come up a lot in the rehearsal room. Why am I wasting my time?
Because of consilience. Coders see the world in a way I don’t, so I want to learn their language, both literally and figuratively. So instead of choosing to just see the world as a director or a performer, I can see it as a coder. Or a geologist, or a carpenter, or a clown. By gathering skills and knowledge in diverse areas, consilience can help me gather evidence for answering my ultimate question: “how shall I live?”
Now, I could be silly. Maybe I should stick to my guns. I should get good at something and push as hard as I can towards it. But there’s something in me that can’t do that. I need to keep learning. If I’m going to purport a solution to the question “how shall I live?” I ought to collect plenty of evidence.
So until my brain fully crystallizes and all my youthful plasticity is gone, you can find me flitting about, being an “Other” and running headlong into useless things I’m not very good at.
I am a security guard. I stare down toward the woman I am supposed to drug and carry away. She is surrounded by an audience who is set on protecting her. If I try to take her away, the audience won’t let me. The story we wrote says that I’m supposed to take her away, but I see the looks in their eyes. They really won’t let me.
I take a breath…and improvise.
This past semester, 31 MFA candidates, including writers, directors, designers of all hats and performers of all styles, set out to create an immersive theatrical experience in an art museum.
The first task was to learn about our space. Once you step out of the bounds of a proscenium theatre, you must consider crafting the theatrical experience in a whole new way. Mostly, there are a lot more questions to answer. Where will the audience stand? What can they see? How does it feel to walk outside? Where can we hide things? How can we transform the space?
If you’re in a proscenium, your answers are often straight-forward:
Where will the audience be? “…um, in the…seats?”
But where will the performers be? “Um. On the staaaage?”
The theatre world is wonderfully diverse, so how obvious these answers are varies dramatically from artist to artist.
So, for the first 7 weeks we climbed, yelled, stripped, ran, hid, jumped and generally tore around the art museum (sometimes to the deep chagrin of the museum staff, who, all in all, were insanely generous to all of us). Each movement and design exploration was meticulously cataloged so we could keep a treasure trove of what I’ll call “experiential dramaturgy.” We did something, we talked about it, we wrote it down.
The second 7 weeks of the semester were dedicated to crafting a holistic, unified experience. What was something that could tie this together? We sat down and talked. We talked and talked. We talked a lot.
I have a lot of energy and a lot of fun performing (given the first opportunity in this process, I decided to hang upside-down) so sitting and analyzing for long periods of time was often challenging. I like to work on my feet. We would finish a few hours of exploration and sit and talk about it for an hour. The perceived value of these discussion sessions varied from artist to artist, but overall they provided a lot of answers.
We eventually landed on an encompassing story: This show will take place in a bunker in the future where water is a scarce resource. At the core of this bunker, there is a centrifuge that turns people into water (cuz, you know, it’s the future). Today is the day of the first sacrifice.
We split the performance into three simultaneous “tracks” that audiences could follow. One that follows the school within the bunker, one that follows the day of a typical family and one that follows the authorities within the bunker society. We would run the show three times each night, so people could follow all three tracks if they wanted. Each track, we decided, would culminate in a final moment where everyone would come together and three actors (one from each track) would be sacrificed and liquefied.
Or, so went the story we wrote.
After a lot of rehearsal, writing, shopping, marketing, construction, programming, organizing and (a few) beers, we opened our two night run of [De/As]ending. The first night went off with nary a hitch. A few missed cues, a bit of improvising and some wonky timing, but hell, it’s theatre.
So we tore everything down, (we had to construct and tear down everything each night, as we were doing this show in an operating art museum) and prepped for the second night.
The second night opened, as the first, to a sold out crowd. The first run-through goes well. Everything is in it’s place. Once the audience sees the sacrifice (the ascension of the elevator-turned-deadly-centrifuge) they are ushered out. The next audience then waits at the bottom of the pyramid.
As I stand guard over the audience (playing a minor role in the “authority” track I directed) I see that it’s just about the same crowd. People are waiting to see the experience again, this time following another track.
The track starts, but something feels a bit…different. The audience is riled up. As we go through our security speech (in character) one audience member pours out the water we’ve given him and loudly proclaims “I will not drink people!”. Another talks over us as we perform, telling us he won’t be a part of our evil schemes. As performers, we’re flustered, but push on.
The scurrilous remarks continue through the run. With audience members pushing small acts of rebellion against us. They steal little things and hide them from us, they talk back to our instructions, and they openly question our motives.
The climax of our show grows nearer. As the guard, I was to drug and apprehend a scientist who I thought killed the leader of the bunker (in reality, her character is framed, a fact the audience witnesses.) The scientist is standing at the bottom of some stairs, surrounded by audience members who she is trying to “rescue” from the bunker.
I step down the stairs, start to perform our tightly choreographed fight sequence when all of a sudden my arm is grabbed by an audience member. She shouts “We won’t let you take her!” and pulls on my arm.
This is…not part of the show.
My mind clicks into “the show must go on” mode. I shake the audience member off, pick up the scientist and climb the stairs. From behind me I hear, “We’re going with them! We can’t let this happen!” I walk a little faster, now fully expecting to get decked from behind from a passionate audience member.
After going through some doors, the scientist and I break character. I turn around to face the audience members who have followed us through the door. They look surprised.
“Oh…she’s okay.” one says, referring to the now fully not-drugged scientist who is running down the stairs to set up for the next scene.
“Hi.” I say to them.
This is a little absurd.
I struggle for words. “Um…what? What are you guys doing? We need to set up for the next scene. Are you…um? Hi. My name is Phil.”
They explain that they cannot stand by while we kill people. They explain that we are forcing them to be implicated in murder. They explain that they were trying to stop us.
I know that in about 20 seconds, the rest of the audience is going to come through the stairwell. This is not the place or time for a psycho-social debate.
I learn their names, usher them away from the performance path and say they should email us with their thoughts. I urge them away from our final climax of sacrifice; I need to get back in character and finish the show.
I enter the sacrificial chamber to find something else very strange: one of the three people on our sacrificial altars is…an audience member. An audience member wanted to be sacrificed to save one of the performers.
Something was happening. We were all entering new territory.
The second run finishes, the audience is ushered out and gathers by the pyramid. We have 10 minutes before the third and last run. I reset props, double check everything, walk to the top of the pyramid and find…it’s all the same audience. Everyone who went through is going through again.
I have no idea what’s going to happen to us.
The leader of the bunker steps to the top of the pyramid to introduce the show. The audience boos loudly. “Down with the bunker!” “You’re all evil!” “You’ll all die!”
I take stock. I am now about to act as a security guard, ushering an unruly audience through the path of an oppressive, authoritarian regime. I must kill the scientist, a person they’ve come to love and last time I tried that, I was accosted. The audience has been colluding to take us down. We have planned for none of this. We are all a little scared.
In the immortal words Quentin Tarantino, “just shit your pants and jump in and swim.”
The run starts similarly. Shenanigans, heckling, foolery.
When the audience is taken away into the “science lab” for the first time, I catch one of my fellow performers. He plays John Worthington, one of the bunker’s leaders.
“Hey,” I say, “I don’t think they’re going to let me kill the scientist. If I get a bad vibe, I’m just going to kill you instead.”
“Deal,” he says. What a champion.
The moment comes. I come to the top of the stairs, ready to drug the scientist. I see flames in the audiences’ eyes. They shout “she didn’t do it!”, “I won’t let you take her!”. They grab the scientist and stand in front of her. This was it.
I turn back toward the leader of the bunker. We catch each other’s eye. A silent acknowledgement. I turn back to the gathered audience.
“This is what you wanted!” I dumbly improvise. I drug the leader. I drag him away.
The audience is silent.
This last sacrifice looks…different than we wrote it. There is, again, an audience member who has stepped in to replace our “misbehaving child” sacrifice. One of our actors, it seems, has made it to the sacrifice unscathed. Then there’s the leader of the bunker, who I’ve just drugged, who is supposed to win, but I guess is now going to die also.
Bada bing Bada boom. Ceremony. Sacrifice. Audience leaves.
We all gather in a haze of fear, anger, euphoria and confusion. What just happened?
Over the next several days, we discussed, we decompressed, we complained, we yelled, we cried, we analyzed, we philosophized, we diagnosed. In a nutshell, we grad-schooled the hell out that performance. There are far too many opinions and perspectives for me to recount, but one thing was certain: something really happened.
Was it a team of highly-educated audience members who sought to educate us about process drama and interactive performance?
Could some audience members really not tell the real world from the world we’ve created?
Arizona is fraught with oppressive authorities and water scarcity. Did we hit a nerve?
What happens when you remove the typical social contract of the theatre seat? “You sit there, we perform here” is no longer the case. We invited the audience into our world and they didn’t like it. They wanted to change it. They were standing right next to us, watching us kill people. They just reached out their hands and stopped it.
The audience’s acts of touching and speaking, grabbing and yelling were both revelatory and deeply disturbing. My first thought was, “hey, we’re trying to perform here assholes!” This was joined by my second thought, “whoa, these people sound serious.” These thoughts were eventually joined, weeks later, by a realization that is unfortunately not evident sometimes: “performing can be very powerful.”
How should people touch the worlds we create? As theatre artists we are uniquely positioned to create challenging answers to that question. You might yell at the movie screen when Snape kills Dumbledore, but that’s not going to save him. But if you yell out to an actor…hey, we can all hear you. “Hey, Romeo! Yo, she’s not dead, she’s just sleeping!” Audiences typically follow prescribed, unspoken etiquette. What happens if you get an audience inexperienced with that etiquette, or so experienced that they want to break it?
What happens if we ask an audience member to stand? To speak? To run? To die? To kill?
Each step we take out of the world of the proscenium is scary and exhilarating. Less rules means more risk. Less rules means more fun. Less rules means more danger. Do we enforce a new set of rules when we step outside the theatre? Or do we let the audience’s will, as their feet, roam free? Mario can save the princess, why can’t I?
As a director, I’ve had to throw out the question “how can I affect the audience for good?” and replace it with a much more basic and scary question: “how can I affect the audience at all?”. Theatre is 90% failure, 90% boredom, 90% I’d-really-rather-be-watching-Netflix.
If people walk away ecstatic, great. If people walk away furious, great.
The biggest thing we have to fight is mediocrity. Take the audience out of their seats. Let’s show them something.
Recently I was pondering why people like stories. Is it that they create a sense of imminent danger with swift resolution? Is it because they allow us to create recognizable patterns and watch them play out predictably? Perhaps they allow us to sense connection with other human beings who are also trapped in these exotic ghost-driven meat machines with a vague sense of purpose?
Those questions have produced lots of theories based mostly on neuroscience – exploring the brains patterning, empathy centers and chemical components. That’s all well and good, (well, actually it’s super duper fascinating) but I’m interested in something more specific. Why do you love stories? Why do you seek out the stories you do? Why do I?
In an attempt to explore this question, I was strangely reminded of a late-night conversation I had many years ago in a dorm room revolving around another question: What would you do if you could do anything?
If that seems like the exact kind of question a tipsy, naive, faux-philosophical freshman might ask, it’s because it is. However, to understand the question, you have to get rid of any assumed parameters. This isn’t about what job you want. This isn’t about what you would do with a million dollars. This isn’t what you want to be when you grow up. All these questions contain assumptions about economy, society and culture as well as even deeper assumptions of chemical properties, mathematics and physics.
If I remember right, that late-night dorm conversation devolved into imagining where the best hiding place might be if the zombie apocalypse happened. But I think the question merits a revisit.
At first glace the question seems nonsensical or cliche, but I think how you answer it reveals something about yourself and about how you like to experience story. The question could be asked another way: If you could live in any story, what story would you live in?
This will inevitably be an incomplete journey, as the thought experiment is, by definition, boundless. But lets take a walk and see where we end up!
So, you walk into a Denny’s and the greasy teenager behind the counter says, “By the by, I’m the master of the universe and you can do whatever you want now, boop!” You’re a little weirded out by this, but you order fries and a root beer and sit down at a booth by the window. You do feel a bit different, but this couldn’t be…could it? You look across the street and see a school bus. You blink your eyes and turn the bus blue. Then pink. Then green.
Then you have a total existential meltdown, eat some fries and start down this very scary path:
Question: If you could do anything, what would you do? [italics added for emphasis]
First step: Self-alteration
Assumptions: The Universe remains unchanged.
Initially, my first thought is: “What super power do I want to have?” Flight would be awesome, if a little cliche. Invisibility would be terrible, because my retinas would be invisible too, meaning light couldn’t land anywhere in my eye, meaning I’d be blind. Maybe just a floating pair of eyes? Morbid.
Maybe it would be fun to go back to elementary school with all the knowledge I have now, though that would probably be an intensely lonely and frustrating existence. I would likely fulfill my fantasies of being a wunderkind in a couple of days and spend years frustrated with my peers. I don’t even want to touch the issue of sexuality.
We could even tone it back a bit, maybe just alter my appearance, intellect or charisma so I can achieve whatever life goals I might have more easily. I find this route tedious and boring. Mostly because it so quickly slides into self-deprecation, which is something we could all do with a little less of. This also includes things like staying the same age forever. Ugh, snore.
If I really want to get crazy, I could start imagining altering the chemicals in my brain to make myself happier. This seems like a scary rabbit hole, because if I just alter my brain so I feel happy, successful, at peace and accomplished, then I wouldn’t need powers anymore. This is really shades of Philip K. Dick, but I could just tell my brain not to worry about the my powers anymore and spend the rest of my life happy. Anyway, I don’t really need to tell stories or make friends or have ambition because I could program my brain to be happy without it.
Whoa. That got a little dark. Let’s move on before we just become euphoric vegetables.
What’s next: Altering other people
Assumptions: The Universe remains unchanged
This one starts with that old gem, “I want world peace,” the go-to answer for any conscientious school child or pageant contestant. Even though the sentiment is clear, the complexity of what “world peace” might mean is staggering. Does that mean creating enough resources and evenly distributing them? What about religious beliefs, do you make everyone have the same ethical and moral framework so they won’t fight? That seems a little presumptuous. What about national or social disputes, do you make everyone content? Again, that feels unfair.
You could always make someone fall in love with you. This feels even more petty than changing yourself to be more attractive to others. Could you live with yourself if you knew your “loving” relationship was just manufactured by your mystical powers?
On the other hand, it would be super cute to make other people fall in love. I could be a denizen of cupid and make grumpy people fall in love! For some reason this feels reasonable, but designing what “world peace” would constitute feels morally reprehensible.
Oh! Wouldn’t it be awesome to go into a crazy nightclub and immediately make everyone sober, alert and aware of everything around them? That might be super mean, but it would be hilarious to watch.
Or! You could set up a system whereby people who were unconsciously rude would be immediately struck with a full life-story of the person they just upset. “Hey watch it asshole!” Poof! “Aw…I didn’t know you built Lego villages when you were younger. I did too!”
Changing other people is a tricky subject. I’d want to enact either small changes or changes that complexify, rather than simplify, others’ world views. This also begs the question, how do we uphold a moral code when we have the ability to do anything? More on that later…
Let’s move on to something devoid of typical moral reasoning:
Lets try: Altering materials on earth
Assumption: The people of the universe remain unchanged
Finally, released from the quagmire of human relationships and into the playground of material!
Imagine building a house from nothing! I can be my own architect, contractor and interior designer! Find a little piece of land and build whatever I want on it? I could build a space ladder. I could dig a superdeep borehole. I could construct a gigantic fortress. Or a labyrinth. Or Yggdrasil, the World Tree! Okay, I’m entertained for several decades.
What about taking one material and turning it into another material? All concrete is now balloons. Poof! Everything blue is now orange. Poof! All cellphones are now Furbys. Poof!
Along that same vein, I could go join a circus in a small part of the world and advertise as an alchemist! Dopey people would pay me to turn their plants or furniture or baby carriages into gold, and even though reasonable people would think I was just another cheaty charlatan, I could just actually turn their stuff into gold! The story of the “real-life alchemist” would be relegated to the back page of some terrible tabloid, but everyone who visited would actually become rich. Hah! Classic.
Or I could create new materials. I could finally bring Flubber to life, or…or…wait. Whoa, it’s actually hard to think of what new materials could do. The creation of new materials is usually a means to an end, but if I could do anything, I could just create the ends automatically. I wouldn’t need to create lots of graphene to build a space ladder, I could just create an awesome space ladder!
So far, I would spend the most time crafting things. People are complicated, but material is easy.
Speaking of time, how would that work?
So, what about Altering the flow of time
Assumption: The Universe follows a linear path from past to future
As I’ve moved through this, I’ve made some assumptions about how time flows. So let’s address that.
Once the teenage master of the universe gave me powers, I really should suspend the state of the universe as my very first order of business. Maybe there’s some cosmic filing system where I can “save” states so I can access them again? This is unimaginative language, but a computer-based system is the best reference point for talking about this.
So the first thing I should do is save a copy of the universe wherein I haven’t used my powers at all yet. That way, if I ever feel inclined at the end of this eternity of infinite play, I could go back to the moment I got my powers, use my powers to cancel my powers and live my life as normal.
But before that! Let’s go back in time!
I’m not much of a historian, but even I would love going back to watch how they actually built the pyramids, or figure out what was going on with all this Jesus stuff, or see if asteroid Theia really hit the earth to create the moon.
Maybe this is just me, but I would also love to trace the origins of words. See when a word was used for the first time. Or I could even find the first word that was ever used, period!
The past is fun, but moving forward? Here’s where our “saved states” come in handy.
It would be all well and good to simply observe, unobtrusively, the past. But if you wanted to interact with anyone, the future you came from would immediately vanish into the aether. Any interaction you had in the past, no matter how small, would change the future. Which could be a whole game unto itself!
You could try changing small (or big) things and see what difference they might make. If I picked an apple from a tree in Massachusetts on March 4th, 1781, would that make any difference today? Would I still exist?
What if I kicked a rock across a field on Pangaea? That wouldn’t make a difference, would it?
What about just freezing time?
Let’s try freezing time without tweaking much physics. Check it out: I freeze time. I blink my eyes. I unfreeze time. The universe explodes. Why? Because if I don’t change basic physical laws, velocity still equals distance over time. If I blink my eyes, the velocity of that movement would be one centimeter divided by zero. Zero. Because I stopped time. So when time moves again, there would have been a physical interaction that created infinite force. Thus, the universe explodes.
Okay, fiddle-faddle, wibble-wibble poof! Now that doesn’t happen. Now I can freeze time, walk around and…well, do what exactly? Look at people frozen in time? This isn’t as much fun as I thought.
Let’s try moving forward in time!
I spend a lot of time imagining what the future might be like. I’d start at my preliminary state in the Denny’s, become invisible, immortal and all that jazz, then speed time up and just watch the world change. Does the Internet of Things actually take off? Will Left Shark become a new cultural icon and run for president? Do we actually create an Artificial Super Intelligence?
This is fun, but it becomes a bit tedious. I could simply create all these things myself. I’m still hardwired to the narrative of humans living on earth. Which makes sense considering I come from Earth, am a human and concern myself with the goings on of other humans.
Can I break out of the human story? What would that look like?
Da dada dada DA DA!
When we return to Journey to the Center of the Zero-Parameter Thought Experiment we’ll explore such things as
I want “busy” to die. “Busy” destroys people. “Busy” is the reason I wake up feeling tired. It’s the glorious drug of distraction and the ubiquitous excuse for masochistic scheduling.
I’m not talking about “having a lot of stuff to do” or “working non-stop from morning to night” because I do those things. I love those things. It’s that “busy” feeling that I hate. The one that keeps you from taking a break, eating outside or stopping in for a random chat.
Well friends, I captured a brain demon of “busy” today! I figured out one of it’s evil tricks! Maybe it’s attacked you too? I call it the Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap. It goes a little something like this:
I was in the shower this morning, which usually represents a peaceful, creative cocoon wherein I can relive my flying dreams or think I sound good singing Johnny Cash. When all of a sudden popOh, I need to send an email to a student about their schedule. pop popOh, I have that presentation this Friday and I need to print out some script sides. pop pop popShit, I haven’t emailed my group yet, I need to remember to bring that script to class and shit, we’re out of milk! popWhat time is it? popOh, I need to send an email to a student!pop …um…have I washed my hair yet? I don’t remember…
This is what an attack of the Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap feels like. Let’s see what we’ve accomplished:
1. Ruining a potentially relaxing moment alone.
2. Getting stressed out about all the projects I need to do.
3. Not actually moving forward on any of said projects.
Basically, I run through my brain, gathering little ounces of stress from all my to-dos – which leaves me no closer to getting anything done – rather it adds an extra pound of unneeded stress to my day. So now, not only do I have a lot to do, I also feel “busy”. Consequences of “busy” include being a little colder to everyone, getting annoyed at unimportant things and a having lower threshold for achieving a truly bad day.
This might not happen to you. If so, awesome! You are either a) smarter than me or b) reveling in the fact that you aren’t in graduate school.
If it does happen to you, you’re in luck! Because I figured out how to avoid the Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap! Check it out:
Step 1: Write tasks down.
Step 2: Remember that you wrote tasks down.
Step 3: Tell yourself that you have enough time to get everything done (this isn’t a lie, you really do have enough time, I promise)
Step 4 (optional): Sing Johnny Cash.
You might need to figure out some steps on your own. They might include deep breaths, some sort of tea or a different iconic country singer, but those work pretty well for me.
In the end, “busyness” may be an inextricable part of being close to the fire, but I hope not. “Busy” should not be a way of life. It’s a plague wrought from insatiable distraction and instant communication. The Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap is a terrible little minion that we can kill together! It’s not much, but I need to level up before I enter the Bayou of the Impending Apocalypse or the Giant Fortress of Existential Angst.
When I was a kid, I was not competitive whatsoever. I was ecstatic playing youth soccer not because of the sport, but because it gave me an excuse to run around. For some reason, it isn’t a big deal if you run around with a bunch of other kids on a field, but it is a big deal if you run at top speed down a grocery aisle dodging shopping carts and old ladies. Wednesday evening was soccer evening and my time to run. And run I did.
As time passes, and I’m considering what I want to be when I grow up (after the ubiquitous fireman, astronaut, and paleontologist phase) I ask myself, “what can I do so I never have to compete with anyone ever and can just revel in excitement and awesomeness? Of course! (my naive, prepubescent brain divines) The arts!
I held on to that dream for a long time.
But now, in graduate school for theatre, among so many talented, well-connected, entrepreneurial colleagues, the veneer of idealism has dissolved, leaving me with a…well, rather undesirable quality. I have resentment.
Perhaps it was my naive upbringing or my not-so-subtle inferiority complex (call it little-brother syndrome) that now puts my resentment so harshly into focus. There are times, my worst times, when I am mad that anything cool in the world is happening without me. Even some hypothetical artist who I’ve never met, with their hypothetical good art and their hypothetical praise making some hypothetical money just makes me want to kick their hypothetical ass. Even a slight comment about someone else’s work going well can set me on a full existential tailspin.
Am I that self-centered? Am I that thin-skinned? Do I not annoying preach to anyone who will listen that self-confidence, daring and enthusiasm are the life-blood of creation? So when I get angry about others’ success, I get angry at myself too. At my hypocrisy and egotism.
Now, this anger is not who I am. I’m not an angry person. I’m a terribly happy person. So why does this happen?
Um, I really don’t know. That’s too hard to answer.
But I can imagine my ideal:
Ideally, I genuinely celebrate every artist’s success. Art is a really, really hard field to get paid in. It’s fraught with pitfalls, tension, depression and self-doubt. The creation of art is a celebration of human achievement and connection – an act of impossible communication – a desperate shout into the abyss of the human condition and a thin echo reverberating back through the void.
So why does it have to come with jealousy and resentment? Has my craft been commodified? Am I a business competing with other businesses? Is this what being an artist is really about?
Asking that feels like a kid asking his parents about death.
For every ten critiques, we only remember one compliment. For every ten beautiful pieces of art we create, it only takes someone else’s better one to make us forget them.
I don’t want to live in that narrative.
I want to be running on the soccer field. Kids score goals, teams win and lose…but all that’s grown-up stuff. I just want to grab all my friends, look across the field and run headlong into the wind.