Faces. Faces staring at you, entering the dark candle lit room. Is…this…the book club? I ask, not sure if I am in the right place. No answer. I approach, getting closer and closer to the decadent yet beautiful stage that has been set up for the first scene of the act. The faces keep staring but provide no answer. Just a gentle, neutral, inviting smirk.
Oh. I smile: they are not real. They are just masks, fixed to the chairs of the room. Cool.
I try to remember how I got there. It was one of those late nights in the Media Lab. Bright lights on, a complete and deafening silence all around, a few lonely and sleepy faces wondering around like improbable geeky ghosts in a sci-fi story. I knock at the glass door of my friend and colleague working by my office (an unnamed vampire of the Media Lab, one of the few who instead awakes when darkness comes). “Good night.” I say, meaning “Good work”. “Good night.” He says, meaning “Good sleep”. I am about to leave when he calls me back. “Oh, before you go. Take this.” He gives me this retro, almost ominous, black sticker of an eye looking at an open book. The sticker has a QR code on it. I do not ask questions. When at home, as a diligent Sherlock Holmes of simple mysteries, I follow the link to a landing page that is as uncanny as the sticker: a black background with a small black door (or a book cover?) that reveals inside another clue: a location (Bartos theater), a date and title (Simulations and Simulacra, by Baudrillard). Alien music seems to emanate from that website. Three people — this time real. I think. — pop out from the darkness, inviting me to take a seat. “No no, not in the audience. Your place is on stage, you are the main actor today.” Oh gosh. I wonder if I am still in time to come up with an excuse… We wait for curious minds to show up. Only a handful of people arrives, which gives me a sense of intimacy and coziness. For a brief moment the thought that the fake humans are more numerous than the true humans passes through my mind. I look at the seating area and see hundreds of masks staring back at me, all in that very same inviting immutable smirk.
Many of us have not read the book, but apparently this is not a problem. It’s a book club in essence. Because it is about a book. Or actually, about the book’s theme and central ideas. In the case of the book that we had (not) to read tonight, the theme is the un-answered (un-answerable?) Cartesian question setting in motion Wachowskis’ most celebrated film and driving the hosts of Westworld as well as many characters of Black Mirror. How do I know I am not living in a simulation?
The conversation starts with people sharing an episode of their life where they felt they were in a simulation. Surprisingly, people share. They share a lot. Intimate personal stories of affection and deception. Stories of uncanny feelings and self-doubt, sometimes felt for a moment, sometimes for periods of their lives. How do we know we are not living in a simulation? As others before us have realized, we don’t know. We cannot know. We can only be sure that those feelings are there, that we experience them with the unforgiving power imposed by anciently selected neurotransmitters released in anciently selected carbon-based synapses; or with the equally unforgiving power of (modernly?) designed binary pulses coded in (modernly?) designed transistors. We cannot know if we are indeed simple parts in a complex simulation (I see Prof. Bostrom raising his philosophical brow at this line), but perhaps we can ask ourselves what is the simulation for? Is it for deception? Or is it for understanding? Perhaps it’s just the setting of this room, but my high-school drama teacher’s words come to my mind. There are two kinds of fake. One is Monopoly (the board game) money. The other is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Catch me if you can (the film) money. One is explicitly and honestly fake. The other is deceivingly and non-obviously fake. One is for play and for understanding the workings of a more complex reality. The other is for pretending to be real and fool you into thinking deception is your reality. Acting on stage is first type fake. Acting in our daily lives is second type fake. The conversation pivots on our personal experiences, our jobs, our lives, our friends. Many of those stories are set in our very own dear Media Lab. We ask ourselves, if we live in a simulation, what kind of simulation is MIT? What is our purpose as a leading academic institution? What is our role in the world? How much of this world (the real world, the one behind our 24-h news, the one that has no voice powered by fast Internet and 24/7 electricity, the one that cannot afford going to university, the same that is on the verge of climate and nuclear collapse) can we and do we effectively help? Are we in type one or type two’s realm? I go back home, that night, with more questions that I had initially, but eager to return to the next event. As I stare out the window, I catch a glimpse, somebody across the street wearing one of those masks, gently, smirking, back at me, perhaps wishing me sweet simulated dreams.
Second act, different place (the surreal Frank Stella room, hidden inside the gutters of the old MIT), different book, different medium (we all speak in a old-fashioned radio microphone. For posterity they say. But I look closely, and the receiver is never on). Beyond Apollo by Barry Marlzberg is the story of two of the best astronauts in the world, going for a mission at the limits of the known Universe, for which they have been training all their lives, and still, they fall prey of their own internal desires, ghosts and fears. Another sci-fi story (Sphere? Solaris? Stalker? Even Horizon?) of human hubris punished by its necessary downfall. This time we discuss failure. Our own personal failures, which we are so afraid to tell in this competitive shiny world of embellished resumes, and six digits cutting-edge science yet corporate(-minded) jobs. And indeed the conversation has difficulty in taking off. Few people try their timid best. There seems to be a better taste in the room for the second theme of the book, namely the constant search to surpass our limits — in their physical, emotional or intellectual form. Why we are constantly trying to go beyond them is not clear. Couldn’t we know who we are even without pushing ourselves to the boundaries of what’s possible? How can we still pursue the unknown (the realm of science some would say), when this is just a desolated land of nothingness that brings no joy? Again, many questions open up, few get answered. Nobody follows me home this time. I made sure to take a long detour.
Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality Dolores?
And finally, the third and last act. This time set at the Sloan Business School. Here we discuss, perhaps ironically, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (Herman Melville), the story of a humble laborious clerk, who suddenly decides to just do… nothing. To every prompt of his boss or his family and friends, he replies “I rather not.” More people show up to this last event. Many come from California. Some from Vietnam. Perhaps a coincidence, someone jokes, but we end up talking about meditation, capitalism and boredom. Can people simply do nothing? Is Bartleby dead inside? Or actually, as a modern day Siddhartha, very very much alive? I am personally and strongly inclined towards the second one. The consensus in the room seems to be that one of the most horrendous deformations of eastern culture happened when Indian meditative practice bred with capitalism. Suddenly, what was an instrument to go beyond Maya, the veil of deception and appearance that is our perceived reality, became one of its most perverse tools. You need to be more productive at work, but neither coffee or sleeping less work anymore. You want to get that promotion, or publish that high profile article, but feel very stressed or tired. You work already many hours but still have a back-taste of guilt when you get drunk on a weekday night with the people you love, or simply when you don’t check your emails on the weekend. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Meditate! and you will achieve all that — while objectively looking cooler than others who simply take a pill every now and then. Melville — but also Tom Hodgkinson, John Perry, Kabat-Zinn and many other contemporary Bartlebies — reminds us that in an era of doing, of capitalist productivity that squeezes people as well as its environment, simply being is a revolutionary act. I step out of the business school building. The sun is up, winter is almost over. And with it I see the river surrounded by a crowd of avid runners, jogging towards perfection.
Epilogue. isthisabook.club? was an anti-normative social gathering in physical space, a multimodal mobilization experiment driven by an invisible hand that tried to reconnect us with the reality of a tangible world, so neglected in these times of digital hyper-sociality and analogue autism. It invited all of us to reconsider, through the words of 18th century philosophers and poets, the building blocks of our lives. Its mystery shaked us into questioning the nature of our own reality. A mystery that deepens when in a balmy summer night, I am told by a friend of a friend that these were not the only three episodes. That there was one other before, that I missed, where they discussed The Bible. And that before that one, there were others in the ’80s. And that those old book clubbers, who were also from the early days of the Media Lab, contacted the new book clubbers. That the new book clubbers actually didn’t read books, didn’t really want to organize the sessions, that they had been strongarmed and that, well … at this point I am not sure I believe all this. What stays is a sense of self-doubt. Why do we act like we do? As an ex-psychology student, I knew that our behavior is often guided by external forces beyond our control and awareness and that free will is a matter of debate. But what happens when our psychology, evolutionarily designed to perceive with absolute clarity its own free will is embedded in the modern world, that pushes our aspirations and desires to the limit, that values our choices as a sacred thing? How much of my reality, of my actions, of my desires and aspirations are guided by “me” and how much by the flashy apps I use, the perfectly tailored advertisements I watch, the news I am algorithmically recommended to read, the people I am suggested to befriend, the career that I am told I am supposed to pursue. We are brilliant technical experts with outstanding records. But like a mask that in the shadows can look like a real person, these frills can deceive us into thinking that our value lies in the wits and papers and patents and Wired interviews, rather than in simply being humans helping other humans, of flesh and bones, animated by our passions and lack thereof, scared by the same ghosts that inhabit any other person’s mind and heart. In an era of doing, simply being is a revolutionary act.