All posts by riva

The Crossing

On the brittleness of beliefs when fiction borders reality. An account.

She came to me, her arms outstretched with their sharp coldness, reminiscent of industry. I touched the shine of her steel, mesmerized by the reflection of the light. I was falling again, tantalized by all that she represented and all that she promised. She had picked me up at the end of the previous level, telling me to follow her. I didn’t really have a choice. There was a strange beauty in her lifeless metal ambiguity, a hint of sensuality in her insensate sterility. “I will absolve you from death”, she whispered in my ear, her lack of breath sending the sensation of cold shivers down my spine. I repeated those words over and over until it eventually dawned on me that those words had never been said, that the promise had never been uttered. Moments like these destroyed me. My imagination was playing tricks on me again, torturing me with all that I desired. I just wanted eternity like everybody else.
I walked through the cityscape a few steps behind her, partly out of respect, partly out of fear. The slums were just as I remembered them from previous levels, piles and piles of neon shop signs, their lights still bright with their cold cathodes. One light still hung off a broken chain next to a portal: EXIT THIS WAY. I noted the sign’s location for future reference.
I had promised myself I wouldn’t give up as easily this time. She had called me a coward at the end of the previous level and she was right. I wanted to push my mind to the limits this time, to test the boundary of my endurance. I had naively said this at the start of every level. I’d been entering Games right since the CKGN, the meta-universe which hosted these worlds, had dropped their price point to where young programmers like myself could afford to transfer to a world of their choice. My mother had begged me to stay, her repetitive drawl warning me of the empty promises of the Cokaygne. She always insisted on referring to it by it’s full name as if it were a naughty child.
‘You want to join those blasphemous hackers with their promises of sweet milks?’
Yeah. I did. The finality of the molecular world was destroying me. At the moment of waking, I would notice the new marks on my skin, the birth of a new line on my face, some sort of cut still slowly healing. I would watch my own stark decay each morning in the mirror. The whole thing disgusted me. This fleshy prison that had sentenced me to death.
I had to get out.
Since the CKGN had made other worlds more easily accessible, the people who chose to stay behind had become more determined and dogmatic in their protests. Taking to the cities in their droves, holding placards calling for the redemption of Earth and ‘LOVE’. I had no empathy for their poorly defined memes, even less for their decision to stick with this terminal disease they called life. My mother was one of them, ensuring that for the first 21st years of my life I was deprived of any awareness that the CKGN even existed. But there were people on the other side who had carefully left easter eggs for those like me who were trapped behind. It took 3 prompts for me to discover the CKGN. My mother didn’t understand enough about programming computronium to stop me from finding them. It was CKGN code of conduct that once a user was curious enough to accept and follow an easter egg, he swore confidentiality on the pain of death. All I knew when I saw the code was that even though I had no idea where I was going, I knew I was definitely never coming back. I was home. I was here.
There was an intense heat.
These were unusual sensations for a CKGN game. What level was this? I looked ahead, hoping she would have acknowledged that I might need reassurance, but she was marching onwards unfazed in her determined steel. She wasn’t looking back at me. I looked around and behind me, suddenly aware of how in my own head I had been. Wasting my game time on meaningless memories. To the right of me were generators, working to their maximum. To the left of me was an endless landscape of racks, racks upon racks upon racks, unrecognizable hardware that the generators were cooling, racks that were processing something. Processing something within a game? Or just a feature? I hadn’t seen this in previous levels. I wanted to touch them. Were they cooling qubits? There was no hardware behind CKGN anymore, the rapid development of programmable matter had meant that entire new worlds could be created out of anything. The entire stack of computation had dissolved with the development of computronium in 2150. We had coded ourselves the Midas touch, except our hands could turn single atoms into entire universes. Anything could be everything and everything was ours.
I chased up alongside her and pointed to the racks in a questioning fashion. What are these? I said with my eyes. She said nothing but somehow I had heard her say many things. My mind put those words there to test my own beliefs. I was my own worst enemy, no longer able to decipher truth from what I wanted to believe. They were racks of encrypted data.
“Encrypted data for what?”
For earth.
For the people still behind.

“Their data?”
Their existence.
“Their lives?”
Their DNA.
“They exist here too?”
There are no boundaries.
Just false beliefs. Just fanciful dreams.

Had she said it or had I? I wasn’t sure. The heat intensified.
It didn’t matter. All I knew was that I had to keep pushing forward.

The devil you know

The devil exists. But not in the way you think.

The devil is a demon inside you. He’s the demon of myopia, of short-sightedness. He’s the demon preventing you from building a better future. He’s the demon who tells you that your actions have no consequences, and that your life is just yours, unbeholden to anyone else. Your devil is persuasive: he convinces you that participating in-line with society’s norms and coercions – regardless of their diseased nature – is the most important thing to do. He smirks and drums his fingers as you amass things – products and services that he’s convinced define you, and that social recognition, of you in your individual capacity, is something to live and die for. We all have these demons inside us, preventing us from becoming the best version of ourselves. And it’s up to us to decide to fight them.
The Oxford dictionary defines The devil as ‘chief evil spirit of Christian and Jewish belief’. But over time it’s slipped into an abstraction that also fits our secular world and our metaphors. The devil represents the dark side, or even our dark side. It’s antonymous to what we define as the good or morally ethical.
The parables presented in the bible are often deeply analogous to contemporary life. God does not just have to be some external father-figure that judges us, but could also be a representation of our inner agency and rationale. We are each our own “god” in some way, and each of us has the power to turn the world around us into a heaven or a hell. This world, in all its unbelievable complexity and beauty, and in all its future outcomes, is always definable by us.
Look out of the window. What do you see? Is it a world already defined and fixed? Or do you see that opportunity for improvement? Regardless of what you see, the fact remains: in an interconnected world, densely networked both physically and digitally, one person’s actions can now reverberate across the globe with huge repercussions. It is technology that now allows us to define the world, and in a way that was totally unprecedented.
We are all gods now
When we look out towards the horizon what do we see? Do we see our own narratives, lives, children or grandchildren, or can we comprehend the full scope of possibility? By contemplating the spectrum of future scenarios we are forced to reconsider our roles within a broader narrative. Heaven is the flourishing existence of this world. Hell is the destruction of it. We are the gods of this world. Dystopian futures (hell) are easy, because they don’t require us to do anything right now. Building better futures (heaven) requires us to step up to the mark – as individuals, as groups, societies, as a species.
Joris-Karl Husymans’ infamous 1891 novel, Là-Bas, tells a story of Durtal, a protagonist based on the author, embarking on an investigation of the occult underworld. The novel culminates with a description of a black mass, the ultimate satanic feasting of devil worship. Throughout the story, the reader is presented with and challenged by savage ideas of moral turpitude stemming from these demonic rituals. And on some days today, we as well fall into the constant entrapment of the media, obsessively consuming the horrors of our own actions. As individuals, as groups, societies, as a species, we continue to worship our own devils in a way that reminds me of Husymans’ Là-Bas.
We sacrifice our rational to the black mass of our own media outlets. We parade our own demons. We fill our minds every hour of every day with a plague of distraction. The fact that we have become accustomed to a constant noise rotting our brains is endemic to an anthropological system that needs to be hacked. We should feel a shock that should fuel us into action, both as individuals and as societies. The future of the universe might very well depend on us recognizing our human power. By recognizing this power within us, it contextualizes our actions. Are we making the best use of it within our careers, our love lives, our daily lives? It’s an idea that isn’t antonymous to humility, it’s an idea that should have humbleness at the forefront. By recognizing our individual and group power to affect, it connects us with every life past and present.
The devil is real
The devil is real. He’s behind you clicking the next link in your Facebook newsfeed to another pointless article about what a celebrity did today. He’s keeping your eyes fixed on the news headlines that play every evening on your television set. He’s the adverts on your radio, reminding you of your own insecurities – insecurities that can only ever be resolved through purchase. He’s the magazines we read and the ads that line our streets.
Knowing that every future life is somehow connected to the current time-slice of the universe in which I am existing doesn’t allow for television, the Kardashians, or caring about how many ‘likes’ I have gathered on social media today. What is required from us is action, actions that rely on us developing a strength of will to avoid these distractions. Actions that depend on the rejection of our own internal demons that fuel our demise.
Actions, born out of kindness, for the sake of all the future beauty of the world.

Young at Heart

Do you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?

I still wonder to this day if children are humans in their purest form. Untouched by the world, unfazed by all the complexity, full to the brim of self-efficacy and seeking to change the world. As children we dream of a wide spectrum of possibilities, fantasizing over our own powers and potential that, once finally freed from the shackles of our parents and schools, we would have the chance to utilize.
I remember being inspired by my playground peers, telling me how they would one day conquer space travel or design new nations, just like they did after school in SimCity on their PCs. And after all these years, after all the Facebook pictures of former classmates with their new families and their lives seemingly not conquering new nations, a part of me still holds on to the idea that they are secretly playing out the goals they set out for themselves as children. That maybe at some point in the future they will turn around and be like “Ah! You see! We were just kidding all along, we’ve been secretly sailing the galaxies, whilst you foolishly doubted us.” It’s fun to daydream of the possible worlds that would support these kind of revelations.
As children we can fathom of all human history as if it were a pocket book that folded neatly into our hands. We imagined the kings and queens, the tribe leaders and the cavemen in all their color and splendor. The Diplodocus was an aesthetic sibling to the Giraffe, their long necks reminding us of the slides that we would run to in the park. On walks to school, we would have time to notice the dapply grey jacket sported by an overweight pigeon, on another the red-breasted tuxedo of an aristocratic robin. We might have imagined their faces, their spectacles, their conversations. We might have imagined their families, their friends, their interactions with lower species. We might have thought we would unlock the secrets of interacting with them, and sometimes we thought we had. We would dream of the freedom of adulthood to carry out our actions. Now looking at adulthood, it seems to have robbed many of us of our intellectual freedom, curiosity and aspiration for life.

The world’s greatest meme trap.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote that “the human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” It appears that by becoming an “adult”, we actively seek to be “adult-like”, which basically means fitting in to imitate others the best that we can. We have this notion of “growing up”, which may just be the world’s greatest meme trap. A trap where you need to mature out of adolescence, which was a time where you had an active imagination, experimented with your external appearance and tried to figure out who you were. But do we as adults each really know who we are? Or are we just trying to adhere to what the world tells us we should be? It seems much more logical that working out “who we are” would be a lifelong iterative process, perhaps one with no end. There is no fixed “I”. There is no one person we need to stick to being. How boring, to miss out on all the other flavors of life?
I remember being 14, with blue hair, always covered in leopard print, hitting up the punk gigs with my high school best friend Amber. We would don our Dr. Martens and fight our way through crowds, full of a lust for life and a deep love for the music. A few months ago, immediately disregarding a gig poster for one of our favorite bands provided an important self-check. Who was I now? What had I become? What iteration of myself, since that 14 year old, had I currently fallen into? Would that 14 year-old like me now? It only took me remembering my disregard of the poster, mainly out of fear, to realize she probably would have loathed me. It’s near impossible to keep track of one’s “self” over time, to catch what current iteration you’re on. We lose track – there’s currently no logging, no continuity, no reflection without biased hindsight. I think most of our childhood selves would abhor us now. We become a sponge for everyone else’s ideas, reflecting the world around us. And until we collectively agree that the scene we reflect is utopian, we have to attempt to resist it.

Devil’s advocate to our own convictions.

Imagine a state of mind, free from any biases – from anything, read, felt or experienced. Almost (if not totally) impossible, we’re left to deducing things to logic. But the idea of training oneself to be free from as much cultural, social or personal bias lies the foundation for attempting rational thought. For some it comes easy, but for the most of us it’s something we need to train ourselves to do. To a degree, we all need to at least attempt to think outside of ourselves and to play devil’s advocate to our own convictions and our current state of existence. To wonder what we think of ourselves right now, at a time when we knew much less about the world. A time before the world told us who we should be. Perhaps the hardest challenge in the world is to keep up a character of non-imitation, especially when the world specifically defines your “maturity” by your ability to imitate well.
Do you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be? I do. And she provides a constant point of reference for self-awareness, and she got me to go to that gig and I loved it. It’s a question that we could benefit from asking ourselves on a regular basis. The ultimate win would be in marrying these two worlds, adopting our younger mindsets with the capacity that we gain as adults. Because in reality, the eight year-old in you was right. But if you want to sail the galaxies then you should probably start now.
And it starts with realizing that you can.

6am

The scope of human history doesn’t allow for sleep.

It’s an appropriate time to write about sleep. 6 am in San Francisco, the morning light jabbing in like lightning bolts through the blinds of the bedroom bay windows. The sound of early risers in nearby houses, opening shutters, closing doors, going to work, again, again. It’s the time of the day I experience most vividly. Out of a silent slumber, I notice every sound, every hot water pipe turning on, every parent taking their child to school and every bird with his coo. I experience the same thought each time – “You should sleep more”.  It’s a weird paradox to be so in awe with life that it leaves you detached from important sleep. To be in awe. That’s what the days are for.
Many mornings I’ve wondered if anyone else shares this version of insomnia. It doesn’t stem from anxiety or sadness, it stems from a totalitarian joy that fights closed eyelids. There’s so much to learn, so much to see. A hundred years of life couldn’t satiate every curiosity, every instance of possibility, every sunrise. I treasure those few hours of quiet on Earth, when nature plays out her symphony to introduce the world of man. He comes in with his drumbeat, his sirens and his car horn. And to scale rooftops of the Financial District and watch this whole scene unfold, that’s what the mornings are for. Remembering the size of it all and feeling excited, daunted and humbled.

Replace a night of sleep with talking

And to put on shoes and get out the house before the rest of the world wakes up. Running through imaginary slaloms and racing to distant objects. For there’s no one to see you skipping. No one to hear you singing! Your arms out wide from your chest as the cold morning air infiltrates your lungs. And then you slip and fall into mud, only to get back up again, the blood on your knees bringing back certain sentiments of childhood. You’re not a child anymore, although somehow you feel exactly the same. And in that moment you remember Time. With bloody knees you stand by old trees and pay your respects to every past moment that lead you to right here.
And what about the books? All the words ever written, every poem, every tale, every piece of humanity’s culture that lead up to the version of civilization that we are today. How to read every account? Every love letter between two individuals, every speech at every battle, to be able to understand every hieroglyphic. All the time in the world couldn’t bring you to comprehend every mathematical formula, every philosophical idea, every artistic creation, every ounce of research. To seek to feel every thought ever thought by man. To know what the Incas experienced when they lost their lands, what the Vikings felt when they crowned their Kings. Every book in the world could barely bring you close. The scope of human history doesn’t allow for sleep.
And to write. In writing experiences down we transfer them into a perpetual existence that lies outside of ourselves. I sleep much better after writing, seeing the thoughts laid out, viewing them and touching them before the nocturnal makes them a distant memory. To think that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet, no matter how bad the current day has been, how bad the situation, how poor you currently are or how anguished. Another day is another opportunity for kindness. It’s another day for passion. It’s another day to carve out your reality. Whether you decide to comply to career and relationship norms that don’t exist anywhere apart from in our farcical mental constructs, or not. To meet a new person and to replace a night of sleep with talking, sharing childhood stories, music, hopes and dreams. To take risks! To make memories! To turn to your loved one and say “forget work today, let’s run away and go to the beach, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and make sandcastles” and not care that you’re 25 or 45 or 90.
That’s what the days are for.
That’s what the days are for.

Everything ends

There’s a feeling that swells up your veins and chokes your senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out all thought. That’s the awareness of your own mortality.

My Grandmother faced the same fate as a biodegradable shopping bag. Both made of molecules, of atoms, controlled by thermodynamic systems intrinsically complex. With entropy, no worldly item is more special than any other.
The formal definition of the Second Law of Thermodynamics states:

The total entropy of any isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value.

Entropy is represented as an abstraction – something intangible – but its effect is very real.
I have often thought that thermodynamics might be the Universe’s real God. We all bow down to the same master in the end, whether a star, a galaxy or a slug. Coaxed through life by the forever deceitful and cunning time, we tumble through the world blindly, as if the laws of thermodynamics had enlisted time as a servant guiding us to the bittersweet.

There is something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death

Contemplation of life has led many of us to study: Theology and philosophy, metaphysics, future technologies and even their role in a supposedly promised Singularity. Time is dripping. Time destroys all things. And to think about it – to blank out all worldly thoughts and think about man’s demise, to concentrate and connect with our fortune of a vast nothingness, of the absurdity of it all, of your own existence, of your own thoughts – creates an intense emotional paralysis. A feeling that runs through your entire body, swelling up veins and choking all senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out every other thought as if you’ve been paralyzed by a stroke. That’s the awareness of your own mortality. Some feel they could die in end that very moment, completely humbled by their own inferiority. Perhaps that is the last experience we feel when we do actually die. Completely overpowered. Gone.
But there is value in invoking that emotional uneasiness. To feel it deeply but then use it as a motivator, a call to action. For regardless where science takes us, regardless what the future holds for the lifespan of ourselves and our descendants, there will always be something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death. For a lover to overpower you is a minor prelude for what one day we imagine death might do. The French got it right with le petit mort. We each only have one real relationship, and it’s between us as individuals and time. In the end death consummates that relationship into an eternity. One day, time will ravage your body, she will destroy you, physically and mentally. Evolution may be the greatest artist but she paints a cruel beauty of destruction. All us creatures, harmonizing or contrasting with each other. None of us holding Dutch the value of the eternal whole, none more important than the other – although perhaps naively thinking we are.

Each of us, roaring to disturb the universe

To think about these things – love, consciousness, life and death – leaves us humbled by the histories of all those who have lived before us, and of all those who will live after us. To realize the unimportance of ourselves in the sequence of the eternal everything. Forever impressed by the genuine role of human anonymity, the universe doesn’t and won’t ever really know who we are, other than just one of many dots in the vast space-time spectrum. Each of us as individuals, roaring in our attempts to disturb List the universe. We roar! We roar! It’s imperative for the human condition. For change, for progress, for the advancement of our species.
Contrast that with the lives of less conscious animals and how they carry their humbler paths in the evolutionary sequence: At the end, they seek to find a secluded spot to hide and die quietly. They rot to the ground and into the circle of life. There is no fanfare. No quest for immortality. No funeral procession. And there’s a strange Lancement sort of sublimity in the minimalism. It came. It went.
Imagine if we had the capabilities to experience both our own birth and death. Man would be a different creature. By the time his consciousness has fully developed, he has often already taken much of the world around him for granted. With death there is no chance for post-experience reflection. From a positive, a something, we become a negative, a nothing. I feel my own fragility in moments of sickness, the starkness of my own decay, and I think to myself “How lucky you are to normally keep this complex atomic mix so together.”
Even though I have no desire to die, even though it’s imperative to extend and expand human lifespan, I feel lucky for what I already have. Grateful and humbled that out of all the randomness, out of all the complexity, out of all the cells and out of all the stars and out of all the processes, out of this mad unique palette that makes up this universe that I have a chance to experience. It’s a feeling that makes the mundane beautiful, because in reality there is no mundane. The simplest thing in our regard is laden with sublime complexity. It’s near impossible to not become awestruck, once you start paying attention to the details. And at the end of a long day, tired from work with restless worries, to again have the chance to be in bed remembering that it’s another night under the Milky Way. Another day that has bred a lovestruck fascination. Another day of life.