21: Out of Body

As we've transferred our collective consciousness to the stratosphere, a spaceship veering hastily out of Earth's orbit in a fiery blaze, I've found some strange comfort in the transformed stillness that remains in our physical world.

Our brains have fled to higher celestial ground, while our bodies have been reduced to sims. We're all still physically here, standing on this idyllic beach, jogging along the peaceful water at sunset, lying on the grass in the sunshine, but our minds live elsewhere. I'm an NPC now, and I kind of like it.

I thought I knew what it meant to be an NPC, that soothing state where dialogue is limited to whatever a game developer could've programmed into you. But the NPCs in my life — neighbors, shopkeepers, passersby — were still capable of toeing the transgressive line, and that was always the danger. In my old life, I'd flee cafes and bars when the baristas and bartenders started asking personal questions, rerouted my daily walks and bus routes when my companions got too familiar. [1]

But now, everyone's really an NPC. We're outright forbidden to get close to people we don't know, and strangely this seems to have made everybody much kinder. Perhaps there's a relief in knowing nothing more is expected of us, except to be polite and maintain our 3 feet of distance and smile demurely with our half-covered faces. (I'm assuming, of course, that everyone's as curmudgeonly as I am.) There is no possible timeline where we progress beyond pleasantries anymore, and this feels nice for a change.

Meanwhile, my soul, liberated from its body, is having a party on the internet. If internet friends are like moon-people, we've all slingshotted ourselves into space. My physical world may have been pleasantly lobotomized — rolling green hills, quiet creaking marinas, and the occasional very dull trip to the grocery store — but my online world has become infinitely more rich and interesting.

Online Town, Netflix Party, Discord, ham radio, 3-D printable gifts sent as CAD files, networked printers (the messages printing themselves out like on a Ouija board), meeting up on Figma, meeting up on Mario Party, meeting up on Animal Crossing, meeting up on Minecraft, meeting up on World of Warcraft. My lack of physical presence isn't a limitation, it's a liberation. Doused by a chemical accident, we've discovered we can morph into silver puddles and reappear wherever we please.

I don't need my body anymore. I'm enjoying learning how to interact using a new, proprioceptive set of senses. Yes, it's tactile, but I'm not really touching you. Yes, it's visual, but I'm not really seeing you. A phone call feels more intimate than a Zoom call. Doing activities together feels more intimate than talking. The best online interactions I've had don't try to recreate the past, but start with the premise of disembodiment.

(Are we in purgatory? Maybe we're having a near-death experience, the kind that happens when your heart rate’s plummeted and the doctors are trying to revive you. The experience only lasts fifteen seconds in the real world, but when you're the one who's dying, it stretches into a glorious eternity.)

Weirdly, Twitter feels like the most boring place I could be right now. It feels too Old World, like trudging to an office building when I've just arrived in the disco afterlife. I'd rather be a spooky spirit ghost haunting the radio waves with my friends, exploring the backwaters of the internet, gleefully playing pranks and dissolving into fits of giggles.

Back in February, a friend mused in our Messenger group: “What if we made our own custom group chat app to hang out on?” The idea struck me as quaint, but unnecessary: after all, everyone knows there are only so many messaging apps to choose from, and most of them are made by Facebook.

Fast-forward two months, and I've hung out on at least three different chat apps that my friends have built for fun. Who knows whether it’ll last; weren't we supposed to be getting more “efficient”, whatever that means? But now, it's the homegrown apps, the suboptimal apps, the janky apps, that give us the texture and variety we're craving, while the sleek apps, the Made by Facebook apps, the 99.9%-uptime apps, feel like chipped plastic, hard and hollow and unappealing.

Maybe our hearts are flatlining right now, but until we’re all revived, I’m enjoying this strange fun interlude. It feels like 2013 again.

[1] Before we had video games, Jane Jacobs called this “sidewalk life” which is probably a nicer way of saying NPCs, but I don't find the term NPC offensive, because I'm just as much an NPC in other people's lives as they are in mine. To me, it's about having a mutual respect for personal space, which is basically required in a densely-populated urban area. In other words, NPC-ing one's environment is an adaptive behavior, not reflective of a lack of regard for humanity.


A funny thing that's changed about writing these newsletters in the past two months is that when I sit down to write, I always feel like I'm chronicling the end of a phase. Writing these updates feels like trying to describe a state that's receding from me, like painting a sky full of stars that are already dead. I don't expect my "out-of-body" state will ring true in another week or two; I already feel my soul being recalled to its physical form again.

Phase 0 (March) was total mind annihilation. Phase 1 (April) was the lone astronaut, floating in a sea of wreckage. Now I'm putting away the video games and the baking supplies, slowly shedding my quarantine clothing. I'm not sure what Phase 2 (May) looks like yet, but when I try to imagine the road ahead, my vision is filled with flowers.


Since we're all lonely astronauts right now, dreaming of our loved ones and our former lives, I thought I'd share a little snippet from Chronic City. One of the main characters, Janice, is a glamorous astronaut trapped in space, waiting to come home. Everything we know about her comes from the letters she writes to her boyfriend, Chase, who lives in New York City:

"Inside [the spaceship] we've managed to kid ourselves that we exist…Oh, the lie of weightlessness! We only feel we're floating because we're forever falling, as in an elevator with no bottom floor to impact. And so, inside the elevator, the human party continues oblivious, the riders flirt and complain and mix zero-G cocktails, or chase bewildered zero-G leaf-cutter bees."

Notes

Notes from the past two months have been updated. Frankly, going through my recent notes was a little horrifying: I’d been mostly making lists of things (I guess this is a habit I fall into when I'm stressed?), as well as pandemic thoughts that were so specific to a particular day or week that they feel too irrelevant to share now. These past couple of months have felt compressible to everyone, I suppose, but this is my way of saying I haven’t had a whole lot going on in my head recently.

Anyways...a few highlights:

  • I think I find information suicide (is there a better term for this that’s not so depressing? identity switching?) interesting for the same reasons that other people find longevity interesting. Why shouldn’t I be able to start a new game under the same body? There’s some parallel to longevity here bc the answer is “biology dictates our social norms”...and in both cases it's about challenging whether that biologically-driven life trajectory is something we have to cater to after all. Like if longevity is pitched as a failure of the imagination to think beyond our physical bodies and beyond death, I feel like there is also a failure of imagination to think about how else our physical bodies can be creatively repurposed during our current 80-year time span

  • A new hire bringing in their favorite tools for the job is like a new spouse moving into your house with their favorite stuff. “Nesting” at their new employer

Books

I read whatever spoke to me on my bookshelf last month. This trio of books feels very Phase 1 Quarantine to me, a triptych of dark and lovely tales that helped me gulp past my fears and stare directly into the vantablack of a world coming apart.

  • Industrial Society and Its Future (Ted Kaczynski): I always enjoy reading a good manifesto, because the term "manifesto" seems to give people cover to say whatever it is they're really thinking. Kaczynski’s thesis about over-reliance on systems is way more interesting to contemplate today; his work also provides a nice foil to pmarca's “IT'S TIME TO BUILD” essay. I think Kaczynski would say there’s a fundamental question pmarca didn’t address, which is: But why should we build? In Kaczynski’s view, it’s not that this machine failed us, as pmarca claims, but all machines that will always fail, so long as we continue to build.

  • The Call of Cthulu & Other Stories (H.P. Lovecraft): The horror, the horror! Just kidding, that was Kurtz of course, but I'd like to think Lovecraft and Joseph Conrad would've been friends, creeping their bony fingers around the ugly edges of humanity. Reading these stories feels like screaming into a pillow (“The Beast in the Cave” is my favorite), which is deliciously good at a time like this.

  • The Machine Stops (E.M. Forester): David Laing (who’s great) recommended this novella last month, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s about a world that looks remarkably like ours right now, with everybody living in isolated pods, connected only by The Machine, which works just fine until, well, the machine stops. This felt so on-the-nose to current events that I almost felt guilty reading it. I also like thinking of it as the literary companion to Kaczynski’s work, a bit of agitprop commissioned by his tree-emoji followers: “Is this the world you want? Is it?!”

Links

  • “Spatial Software” (John Palmer): John explores how software can use “spatial interfaces” to provide its users with new ways of thinking and interacting. I'm grateful to this essay because it was the first thing I read post-COVID that helped me find the plot again (to use Venkatesh’s term).

  • “Holy Water” (Joan Didion): Joan's ode to water, and our ability to control it, is a beautiful, deeply Californian essay. It popped back into my head early last month while I was praising the dry goods in my home, holding a bag of flour—sold out in stores—with renewed wonder.

  • “PSST...” (Helen Tseng): A fun little "care package" with magical mystic flair, dedicated to re-grounding its reader in the local and physical. I love stumbling upon quirky projects like these; I also recommend checking out Helen's beautiful personal website!

  • “World Of Warcraft vs. COVID-19” (Nikhil Krishnan): I recently discovered Nikhil's writing on the healthcare industry, which is funny and irreverent and approachable all at the same time. In this post, he writes about a 2005 “pandemic” in World of Warcraft, when an infectious spell that drained a player’s health started spreading through their pets.