Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Zen and the Art of Portal Maintenance

This blog entry is full of some rambling thoughts and ideas from the last few days, tenuously tied together by a thin metaphor. It's the way my brain usually works.

I've been playing Portal recently. For all of my Pop Culture interests I am woefully behind the curve on videogaming. For those who haven't played the game the basic premise is that you are a test subject in lab, armed with a Portal Gun, a device that allows you to create portals that allow you to teleport between different areas of the game. It’s essentially a puzzle game where the player uses this one idea to navigate increasingly difficult maps. It’s a portable hole.

I first encountered this idea in a Saturday morning Warner Brothers cartoon.

And then with a silly Marvel Comics
villain called The Spot.

I'm not going to talk very much about the game of Portal. If you’re interested I'm sure there are tons of internet articles discussing and deconstructing it in far more detail than I can. I bring it up because of other things that have happened in the last couple of days, interspersed with playing Portal.

Here’s where the thin metaphor kicks in.

Out of the blue I pulled my old paperback copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig off the shelf yesterday, the exact same copy I read thirty years ago. This book is considered a classic for many reasons. It is about many things, including motorcycle maintenance, but in brief it is a discussion of the differences between a Classical understanding of the world (Science), and a Romantic understanding of the world (Art), and the attempt to reconcile them. This description couldn’t be more basic or less explanatory of what the book is really about, but I’m not going to attempt to summarize what took Pirsig nearly 400 pages to discuss. Go read it.

I have often said that this was a very influential book to me, but quite honestly, other than some of its main highlights, I couldn’t have told you very many details about it. My memory (there's that topic again), has convinced me that this was an important book to my personal growth, but I couldn’t elaborate with any specifics.

I don’t reread too many of the books in my life. I know some people revisit favorites on a regular basis. I have nothing against that practice, but with rare exceptions I just don’t do it. There are way too many books I haven’t read yet to spend time with things I’ve already experienced. I’m particularly hesitant to reread those books that I think of as significant and life-changing. What if they don’t live up to my memory? Will that taint my formerly positive assessment of them, or will I just be able to accept that I’m not the same person in need of those lessons at this point in my life?

So, with a little trepidation I opened the book and began... and was immediately sucked into the narrative and have been devouring it again. Within the first thirty pages I read a couple of paragraphs that floored me. Here it was, that thing that made this book life-changing for me that I could never remember precisely or explain to anyone. There’s more to the book than just these two paragraphs, of course. But the point is what I experienced was reading something that I now take for granted as one of my primary ways of viewing the universe, a way of being in the world that is so second nature that I don’t even think about it very much any more. This book is the first place I ever encountered these ideas that now form a core of my way of thinking.

In that moment a Portal opened and I was in touch with Wayne in his early 20s, being blown away by these ideas and wrestling with what they meant and incorporating them into his life for the first time. This hole in time allowed me to relive those informative moments through the eyes and mind of someone older, more experienced, and hopefully wiser. It was different than simply remembering something. It felt like an insight into the path of my life, a direct connection from the person who first read those words to the person I am, reading them now.

Books are Portals. That's probably not the most original or insightful thing I have ever said, but it’s true. In this specific case it was a very personal sense of connection, but it happens with books all of the time. Whenever you open the cover of a book you are creating a Portal, allowing you to see another world or another point of view. You step through and are transported to a new mental location, coming out the other side in a different place than you were before.

Like I said, not particularly profound, but there it is.

After the initial revelatory experience afforded me by the time travel of prose I continued to read, and while that experience didn’t repeat I continued to be engaged in the story. I am reading it as a different person than the one who first encountered it. Whatever affinity I may have with 20-something me, that experience and many others have changed me. I am different and so is the world. While the words on the page are the same they are being absorbed through different eyes and carry different meaning.

Part of the problem in addressing the Classical/Romantic split is that each of them not only have their own language, but each has a different way of processing information. One’s a PC and one’s a Mac, to use a recent metaphor. It’s difficult to find a cross-platform common ground without degradation of information.

Which is true in so many of the issues of the world. Part of our problem in understanding others is that we often have incompatible operating systems. It’s true on the personal level and when multiplied out to include large groups it gets worse. Religions obviously have different operating systems. So does the Conservative/Liberal split in politics. Same underlying commands written in vastly different language codes. No wonder we get so many error messages when trying to make a point with someone who believes differently than we do. It’s not just the language, it’s the entire underlying architecture of the system.

At one point in the book the narrator is unable to reach some old friends because they have a different phone number than the one he remembers and is afraid he will not be able to find them (this was first published in the pre-internet 70s). He does find them, but muses about changing technologies:

“It's not the technology that's scary. It's what it does to the relations between people...”

Which made me think of Facebook, which is another kind of Portal.

Our newsfeeds are full of little windows into other people’s lives. I know a lot of people who are not comfortable with Facebook, or social media of any kind. I think, like anything else, it’s how you use it. I don’t post anything very personal there, using it as a place to promote my various projects, to keep in touch with what’s going on in friend’s lives, to see what events are going on around me I might be interested in, to find links to articles and news stories, to be exposed to new music and books.

But there is a danger to it as well. Those little Portals into other peoples lives can cause some consternation and misunderstanding. “It’s what it does to the relations between people...” I know a lot about people who I don't really know. I get glimpses into their lives without being a part of them. This can lead to a completely false sense of intimacy, as if I know them much better than I actually do. These Portals can create a sense of connection that doesn't exist. It can, of course, lead to knowing people better in the real world, but what we see is a curated version of that person. I guess the argument can be made that that is what we see when we first meet anyone, but this feels different. Somewhat voyeuristic.

The other piece of this that I find problematic is discovering things about old friends that changes the way I feel about them. I often see posts from old friends expressing opinions, usually in the realm of politics or religion, that I find radically different from my own. I don’t like my reaction when I see this. While I want to respect the opinions of others there are times I just shake my head in anger and disappointment. It makes me sad to realize how far we’ve grown apart. I still love the people they were, and I like to think that in one on one, face to face conversation those things really wouldn’t matter. But it also makes me wonder that if I met them today would we have any common ground to build a friendship on.

This is the equivalent to rereading a favorite old book. What if this person doesn’t live up to my positive memory of them?

Which brings me back to the Classical/Romantic division Pirsig talks about. Not that any human relationship is that easily categorized. The binary is too simple. But I think some of it comes back to our different operating systems. Some of the disagreement and inability to genuinely discuss some of these issues is that our entire underlying informational structure is different. I think it is important to recognize that, though maybe it's just me throwing up my hands and giving up on actually communicating with anyone with a different mindset.

So I have to ask, what has this technology done to my relations to other people. I look through a Portal of time and see the person I used to know, filtered through memory and the stories I tell myself about them. I look through the Portal of Facebook and see something that challenges those memories and stories as filtered through my current state of observation and interpretation.

Both are true stories, and both are imaginary tales.

And round and round we go. The cycle never ends.

Or, as Robert Pirsig said, “The real Cycle you’re working on is the cycle called ‛Yourself.’”