To Behave The Way Everyone Does
“Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?” “Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three lady-bugs embedded in it. “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” –Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Do you ever find it strange that we humans all agree the ‘real world’ is what we experience with our eyes open, and that all the beautiful things we see with our eyes closed are simply dreams or imagination? Human experience is written as a summary of time spent awake, rather than time spent dreaming whilst asleep, and in this way the waking life becomes history. Surely you can tell the difference. Look up from these pages; take in the world around you. Which is it? Are you somewhere you recognize, surrounded by faces that you can identify? Is the lady sitting across from you really there, or have you imagined her? Are you quite sure that your surroundings aren’t just made up by your own head to fill the gaps? If you’re so sure, if you know how to make the distinction… can you teach me? Can you teach your secrets?
The fire burned bright beneath the façade of The Watchman towering on high. Warm, orange light licked at the dry edges of the stack of wood. It grew and grew as an evolving flame and danced in a glorious blaze. Smoke unfurled towards the stars, flanked by tiny flecks of ash, as though by diligent guards. There were many sounds – neighboring campsites were full of laughter, singing, or the low murmur of conversation – but as I stared into the fire and focused on the flames, the background noise was slowly enveloped crackling wood before it vanished altogether. I felt Ariel’s eyes gazing at the same curling tendril of orange, which grew bigger as we watched, engulfing its host log with an eager sizzling. We were perfectly relaxed. Earlier, we had found a wall of black basalt on which to climb and our limbs were sore and aching from a good long day. Now, time was simply burning up slowly, flickering like embers. My brain raced to try and capture each passing moment, every little piece of the unfolding universal tapestry, so I could make it as much of myself as possible. I felt like The Watchman, overlooking my very small piece of the world; the real Watchman had the entire Zion valley under its all-seeing gaze. As always I was forced to resort to written human language, symbols scratched in the dark, in my attempt to capture the moment permanently. As a result, I now hold my own memory in my hands. It is not quite satisfactory; much is lost in the inevitable compression of thought to page. Only occasionally does the simultaneity of the moment still live in the text that emerges. Some means of compression is always the process through which experience becomes memory. Moments are captured in many ways. Whether the methods are photographical or musical or computational or lexicographical or synaptic or otherwise, moments are stored and reproduced as art. Different aspects of the moment become important depending on the compression medium. Photographs highlight light (or the absence thereof) and the relationship of objects to each other in space. Music attempts to communicate emotions and feelings through sounds and vibrations. Code expresses the state and behavior of the observed system, is pure logic, and often is called the ‘single point of truth’ about something. Writing uses the transcription of spoken language to attempt to imitate or construct elements of other media, in a hope that the combined effect produces something greater than each of the individual compressions; in a sense it is a compression of compressions, to whatever layered depth the author desires. All of these methods are improving over time. They are each inventions of human culture and have existed within the human causal set for millennia, evolving and maturing along with us. Photography has given rise to videography and filmmaking, wherein larger and larger swaths of reality can be mimicked and reproduced; computational models have become generative and dynamic and more powerfully predictive as new methods emerged over time. Human composers and novelists dedicate years of their lives to the perfect arrangement of notes and words, seeking just the right recipe to stir the insides of their audiences into a delicious soup of evocation. These improved compression techniques come ever closer to a lossless compression of experience, yet they continue to sacrifice something. The function increases asymptotically to a limit. Perfection has not yet been reached. This means the only time I really experienced this moment, the one that I’m writing about, is right now, while I watch the shadow of my pen slowly take shape and disappear as my hand writes a fire into the page, the stars burning overhead, my skin burning with the sensation of arnica and cannabinoid oils, my heart burning brighter than ever before. We are each born with some of the same pieces. Among other things, a brain; a set of sensory organs; and a network of pathways connecting the two. This is is the interpretation system of the human. Feedback from the sensory organs travels along the pathways to the brain, which processes the data and produces interpretations in the form of neural impulses and motor function. These results near-instantaneously backpropagate through the pathways to the sensory mechanism, and the cycle continues. These components make mistakes. Each process has an inherent error rate, and it is different for everyone. For some, colors appear to be different hues or saturations; for others, colors never appear at all. Sounds may be augmented or ignored depending on input from auditory and tactile sensors in the right places. One might forget critical information when they need it most because of a data access error in the retrieval process. As a product of endless errors, the human body is constantly interpreting and misinterpreting its environment. Our collection of errors is what makes each of us unique. And the uniqueness of the ‘real worlds’, which manifests as the result of these intersecting errors in perception, is boundless. At once a moment is processed thousands of different ways. This glorious diversity is a direct product of blips; mutations, insertions, deletions, of all kinds. Memes are products within this space. When two patterns of behavior as the result of similar pathways of errors occur simultaneously in the present moment, the observation of this similarity produces a bond between the experiencing parties that is often so baffling as to be humorous. This is what the brain of society is always craving: patterns! We love patterns in data, trends, emergent properties of the interactions of many tiny events, because it’s order from chaos.
It’s my job now, to close my leather-bound book and cap my pen and douse the fire and survey the campground and lock the car and doff my shoes and crawl slowly into the tent, but it’s the best job, one I’d happily do every day of my life for just enough money to buy sandwich-makings and a tank of gas. This writing is my own mistake, my own little misconception of the world spooling out like thread, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make its way into a tapestry someday. I wonder if it’ll lead anywhere. As I finish off the dregs of Ariel’s tea and bring the chairs back to the box on top of my car, I feel a strange sensation. It feels like I’m being somehow piloted; as though perhaps a future me has taken over the reigns of my conscious behavior and is guiding me through the motions, directing me towards the best parts of the desert. Future me already knows the way; I can trust that everything I do is a step in the right direction; so I do it all happily. This feeling makes it easy to find peace, because I already have everything taken care of. This life is just the natural unfurling of an experience, one which long ago had been rolled up and tied like a scroll and thrown into a bottle at sea.