God in the Machine

My number one biggest fear is someone else being able to read my mind, but I’d read someone else’s mind in a heartbeat.

Scratch that. Let’s rewind for a second.

Everyone’s got their thing.

Some people fear spiders, or cannibalistic clowns who hang out in sewers. For others it’s heights, or snakes, or a pubic hair lurking at the bottom of their soup (and those people are onto something, really).

We’ve all got something or other that gives us the heebie jeebies without fail.

Mine happens to be mind readers.

Granted, I don’t think such people actually exist.

I don’t believe anyone who says they have the ability to read minds (Miss Cleo, here’s to you). Having said that, if you advertise that as a skill you posses, I’m going to try my damndest to stay a zip code away from you.

Case in point: there’s a van parked outside of a house I drive by often on my way to work that advertises “Psychic Readings” and I give it a wide berth when I’m passing.

Wouldn’t want to wake the poor psychic with whatever troubling thoughts are tumbling through my head at 7:00 in the morning (or anytime, really, but I find thoughts are especially fog shrouded and moth bitten the closer they are to dawn). I imagine psychics (were they to truly exist) as aggressively tortured souls who couldn’t ever shut it off, no matter how hard they tried. I don’t know for the life of me why this particular psychic lives in suburbia. Maybe she gets off on the songs that are constantly stuck in her neighbors’ heads.

This is why religion and I got divorced: I couldn’t handle the idea of an all powerful, all seeing God being able to peek into my brain whenever he wanted (which, per the rules of omnisciency, could pretty much be all the time). Some of that stuff ain’t pretty. Writing has a lovely way of allowing the writer to sort through their thoughts without retribution, but religion doesn’t work that way.

Coveting alone is enough to land you on the naughty list, and who doesn’t covet? From celebrity zines to porn to obsessively checking exes or crushes on Facebook, we all covet. As the great purple Prince once said, “If a man is considered guilty of what goes on in his mind then give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.”

Kill me, basically, for the unprompted, uncharacteristic vulgar vomit that spews in my mind when someone cuts me off on the highway. For the putrid crap that snakes its way into my internal monologue when anyone mentions “Politics” or “Taxes” or “Hayden Panettiere” (not the same putrid crap, of course, but prurient all the same).

Something (religion? puritanical America?) taught me at a young age that those things were and should be largely within my control — thoughts as well as actions — and if I was letting sewer thoughts back up the plumbing in my brain, then I was to blame. It was either lazy or malicious. It couldn’t ever be instinct, and so what if it was? If your thoughts are rotten, doesn’t it betray that your instincts are rotten — that you, by default, are simply rotten to the core?

How can you apologize for just being rotten?

For the sneaky way jealous thoughts erode into violent thoughts — thoughts, mind you, entirely different than actions, but thoughts that, to an all-seeing, never understanding, obviously perfect God, look disappointing nevertheless.

Religion and I had an awful relationship, and we’re still picking up the pieces all these years later.

Then, to make matters worse, someone you know dies, and baby you is sitting at the funeral thinking “Great, now not only can God see into my brain, but so can this recently deceased person kicking it in Heaven”. Now the thoughts in your brain are a free for all: an open buffet for the entire entourage of Heaven –the genuine goody-goodies and all their sycophants — to pick over and amuse themselves with and judge without remorse.

You start policing your thoughts, and you drown in anxiety when your gut thoughts aren’t the thoughts you want them to be. To bury that anxiety, you start doing all kinds of strange, compulsory things — hand washing, counting, excessive praying, avoiding cracks to protect your mother’s back — each compulsion a kind of ritual that temporarily makes you feel good. It keeps your demons good and locked up (until the rituals themselves start giving you anxiety), and that’s as good of an introduction to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as I can give ya.

Religion and I had an awful relationship, and we’re still picking up the pieces all these years later. I can proudly say we’re at least friendly (only the lucky ones can say that about their exes, right?), but we’ll never be as close as we once were.

I basically changed the locks on my brain and threw away the key.

Now, the closest anyone’s gonna get is through my writing.

Which is important because I think that, contrary to everything I just said, the only way we’re ever going to kick the icky impulses that make up the unfortunate parts of our humanity is by honestly communicating them with one another.

By attempting to share what makes up our mental interiors — by inviting others into our prerogative. That’s the point of art, as it is the point of writing. To try and share and explain and, as consumers, to try and adopt other peoples’ points of view. To live in their heads for a moment, without judging, only seeking to understand and, ultimately, to understand ourselves.

Basically, as resistant as I am to other people (or gods) truly understanding what goes on in my head, I readily admit that trying to truly understand others (and being open to others trying to understand me) is, at worst, healthy, and at best revolutionary.

But that doesn’t mean every thought you have is golden. That doesn’t mean all of your opinions (or mine) are special or worth sharing.

I believe in a certain kind of honesty, just as I believe in Political Correctness (I was a child of the nineties, what do you want?) It may not be cool, but I think I’m in agreeance with its notion that some thoughts are just diarrhea, and should be flushed before they have the opportunity to bubble out of your mouth.

Maybe that’s why God and I finally broke it off: I didn’t feel like he gave me a chance to courtesy flush before he came barging in. I can spend my entire creative career as an adult proving in vain that there was then (and is now) a method to my madness, but I’m afraid all he saw were the ghosts and goblins that boogied behind my eyes.

Okay, let’s fast forward.

I want to swing this whole ship around to what’s really on everybody’s mind: Facebook purchasing the Oculus Rift.

Because the implications there are fascinating and the possibilities endless and it relates to the whole mind reading thing.

For those of you who don’t know, the Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset (and Facebook is a massive website that allows you to feel incredibly jealous about all of the accomplishments of your closest-distant friends, while pretending that you, too, are having a really good time).

Think about it for a second: it could have been the military that bought the Oculus Rift, and then what would have become of it? We’d have combat that finally resembled that found in a Japanese anime or video game: soldiers strapped into a Virtual Reality simulator and controlling super mech warriors miles away. Metallic beasts punching and crunching and slinging aircraft carriers at each other like deadwood.

Social media copulating with virtual reality means we’re no longer chatting through a little box at the bottom of the screen that burps and chimes every time you send me a message.

Or it could have been the FBI, recreating the lives of serial killers, allowing all their operatives to become Will Grahams, virtual psychics sizzling in the bileous thoughts of Hannibal Lecters until they understood where they might strike next.

Or better yet, the Justice Department. We could recreate crime scenes and allow juries to stalk through them inside virtual reality, deciding for themselves how exactly the gunshots fired from the second floor of the Book Depository hit the motorcade.

But no: it was Facebook.

Social media copulating with virtual reality means we’re no longer chatting through a little box at the bottom of the screen that burps and chimes every time you send me a message.

No, now we’re virtual avatars sitting in some beautifully shaded digital cafe, sharing a pixelated latte, both of us adopting whatever persona we want — one of us some massive mammaried pig tailed princess in a mesh teddy, the other a dragon with a pea coat — you name it, it’s now you.

Better yet, we’re all inhabiting digital versions of how we look in real life — ideal us, us at our favorite point in time, everyone in their early twenties and in peak physical condition — better than peak, we can now expand those biceps and pecks without ever setting foot in a gym. Body hair is perfectly manicured, bad breath is vestigial, and eyeballs no longer accumulate that nasty gunk that gums up and hardens on the outside of your eye (Ew! What is it with eyeballs? I hate that stuff. That’s my second biggest fear: eyeball mucus. Sorry for even bringing it up).

In this digital cafe, we are the people we’d actually like to be. We’re revealing to the world the things we’d keep about ourselves and the things we’d change. It’s show-and-tell, and it’s kind of romantic.

Now, this scenario is all fine and good, but it can get better: it will get better! It should get better.

So far, the only tools to help us beef up our empathy in a PC world are tools we largely already possess: by seeing how another person invents and reinvents themselves (online or in real life), you can get closer to what is actually important to them. By talking to them (how novel!), you can get even closer.

But you know what’d be even snappier than talking? If you could actually just peek into that person’s head — just for a split second, like how the frightening God of my childhood could. Better than checking your spouse’s internet history, and more efficient than a black-lit episode of Room Raiders.

You could catalogue the things you both had in common, from the trivial (favorite albums, sports teams, trashy MTV reality shows) to a place beyond: the icky sticky realm of gooey memories, experiences, opinions, secrets and shame. This is a place it usually takes a lifetime of conversation to reach, but, with a quick mind peek, you can access it almost instantly. Sure, you’d miss out on the more improvised discoveries of real life interaction: humor, for example, and all the other impulsive wonders of conversational ballet. But you’d find something else: deeper, more ancient and undefined. More vulnerable and honest, for better or worse.

You’d find the core of a person, if you could Frogger your way past the obsessive-compulsive highways of anxious, accidental thoughts you’d no doubt encounter.

And imagine if, when you peeked (and after you’d combed through all of their Likes and Interests), you saw yourself there, listed amongst their favorite things. Lovely, right? Easier than self-worth: seeing that someone else believes you have worth. To glimpse inside someone else’s mind and see yourself there.

Not just one someone, but many someones — the point of our ever elongating collection of Facebook friends and followers. Every number under 1,000 seems painfully flaccid, doesn’t it? And yes, we check, even if we tell ourselves we don’t. We’ve memorized it. It’s shamefully tattooed into our brains, a scarlet letter as readily retrievable as our social security number or the name of our first pet, as guilty and stable a pleasure as our favorite kink.

If I could see inside of another person’s head and find myself there, I think it might quiet some of the things that keep me anxious at night. If I could see inside of many heads and find the same thing there, it might just blast that anxiety to bits. Take it out back and Old Yeller it before it had a chance to bare its fangs again. If celebrities could mind read, they’d bathe in what they saw there like Elizabeth Bathory took to blood.

Your thoughts are still your own, but your senses have been hijacked by another person’s — everything you see and hear, at the very least, now belongs to someone else’s experience.

None of this peeking with malicious intentions, of course, and only with the consent of the person(s) whose shoes we’re walking in. And only with the express reason of understanding that other person — and, yes, by understanding them, to somehow understand ourselves.

So the Oculus Rift can’t do all that.

It can’t so efficiently plop you into another person’s brain, but it can maybe plop you into another person’s day.

Imagine if someone were to record their entire day — sun up to sun down — with Google Glass, say, so they’re recording exactly from the view of their eyeballs. Imagine then that you could experience it while inside the Oculus Rift. To see through their eyes and hear with their ears for an entire twenty-four hour period. Your thoughts are still your own, but your senses have been hijacked by another person’s — everything you see and hear, at the very least, now belongs to someone else’s experience.

If you did that for long enough — say a couple of days, or even a week — would you start to think like that person, too?

Even better, what can we invent — some nano-machine, perhaps, that we can plug up into our heads — that can actually interpret and record our thoughts? Decipher neurons as they shower our brains and turn them into art.

You wouldn’t need fingers or a voice to write, nor eyes and hands to film: you’d only need your thoughts, displayed electronically for others to see.

If you could listen to those thought recordings, would you begin to understand, innately, why another person did the things that they did?

We could shatter our mirror neurons and replace them with actual recordings of what people were thinking and feeling at any given moment.

Empathy would no longer have to rely on imagination, but on intense observation and scrutiny, to boot.

Then you could see a person’s entire day with the Oculus rift (in real time via a live feed to your Virtual Reality Headset) while also listening to their thoughts at the same time.

Watch through Jim’s eyes as he gets coffee, but listen to the chatterbox in his head obsess over his failed relationship with his landlady’s daughter as he pours the sugar in.

See from Jill’s eyes as she runs along on the treadmill, but hear her anxieties as they stick to her soul like barbs.

Hear these people denounce God and pray to God and wonder if you shouldn’t be hearing this stuff at all.

And what happens if Jim sees you? What does he think then?

If he likes you, and you now understand his thoughts, will it make it easier for you to like yourself? If he doesn’t, do you really want to know?

At that point, you’ll have literally walked a mile in another person’s shoes, for better or worse.

Could you even mute your own thoughts, while you soaked up Jim and Jill’s and allowed yourself to sink into the malaise of their points of view? Is that the only way to prevent yourself from actively judging whatever it is you were exposed to while living inside their day?

Would living as Jim or Jill for a day actually make you a better person, or would it just dilute your personality?

At a certain point, could you merge your thoughts together?

Would you want to?

Is this what we’re all inching towards — some moment when we all become one, nestled inside the belly of a great digital beast that’s interpreted our thoughts and spliced them together and turned them into a quilt of humanity — a Franken-Blanket — all stitches and scars, all warm and free from war and violence, humming along to the perfect imperfection of our own thoughts?

That choice — how one chooses to interact with the world — is the place where art is not an instinct, but an accomplishment. Where personality is not a reflex, but a choice.

This is like a charcoal sketch of a sci-fi hippie commune by way of Ed Gein, and I’ve got to wonder:

Who would want to subject themselves to any of this?

It actively disturbs me as I write about it — the capacity to see from another person’s point of view seems at once to be both progressive and invasive.

I guess I’ve never kicked the fear of those pesky psychics, or made my peace with God, and I fear they’re posed to ruin everything.

By becoming such a collective — by becoming one, where all thoughts buzzed equally in the same head — why, that would destroy art, wouldn’t it?

It’d just kill writing and painting and observing and sharing.

Because half of the importance of art is transparency — sharing an honest reflection of how one sees the world — but the other half (and maybe the more important half) is being judicious and discriminating amongst your own impulses, and choosing what’s valuable — what should be cherished and shared and sculpted and written about.

That choice — how one chooses to interact with the world — is the place where art is not an instinct, but an accomplishment. Where personality is not a reflex, but a choice.

That choice is the first act of creation, and creativity, of course, would be nothing without it.

The rest of it — the knee-jerk impulse thoughts you’d rather not share (and the thoughts Jim and Jill don’t want you to see, either) — are best left alone. Just dumb, rotten, animal instincts that don’t speak for you if you don’t let them. They’re the stuff everyone’s got gumming up their garbage disposals — the embarrassing drivel best left at the bottom of a glass, or maybe in the scrap heap, only for dogs and psychics and gods.

Hopefully they can forgive the bad taste as they nose in.

Forgiveness, after all, is divine.

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