MJD 58,854

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Captain's Log

To be present in a seat in a movie theater is to pay attention to a movie for a couple of hours, tuning out the few distractions, and giving in to the carefully crafted temptation to escapism. To be present, outside of a vehicle, in the middle of a busy, high-speed intersection, is to pay attention to half a dozen largely unrelated things every second, with the set of things changing every few seconds, while everybody gets mad at you.

In the former situation, your presence is normal and expected and already accounted for by the tightly coordinated active agents shaping the situation (the movie director and crew, and the theater staff). In the latter situation, your presence is abnormal and unexpected, and needs to be accounted for by the loosely coordinated set of active agents (drivers of vehicles passing through the intersection, traffic designers) via quick reactions. In the former case, your presence can continue in a stable way for the whole two hours. In the latter case, the equilibrium likely to shift with an accident pretty quickly. In the former case, the active agents expect you there, and are fundamentally well-disposed towards you. In the latter case, once they detect you, their intentions are going to be hostile. In the former case, passivity on your part has no real consequences, but activity can be disruptive. In the latter case, activity may or may not help stabilize the situation (depending on how sure-footed you are in ensuring both your own safety and that of drivers), but inactivity is likely to be high-risk. At best, you may be able to put on an orange vest and start directing the traffic, improvising an illegal movie nobody wants to be in, out of a fundamentally untenable situation.

Movie theater situations are fundamentally easier to be present in than busy intersection situations. You win bigger rewards and suffer smaller losses for every minute you persist, with a nice big payoff after 2 hours: closure. The reward for lasting a minute in a busy intersection is risking stress and death and being thought of as a crazy person for one minute, and the reward for lasting 2 hours is having 120x as many people think of you as crazy, and being mad at you for adding risk and annoyance to their drives. Plus 2 hours worth of cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your system. And you win no rewards of closure at the end. You reward for surviving the situation is continued presence in the situation.

But sometimes a busy intersection is the only place available for you to inhabit. Sometimes there are no movies playing. No finite games to retreat to. Sometimes, there is only the infinite game. You have to dance awkwardly in the intersection and endure hostility till a movie starts. Passages between finite games are more often marked by external chaos than emptiness. Any emptiness, calm and stillness that might turn them into liminal passages have to be generated by your mind. BYOL. Bring Your Own Liminality.

The metaphor of a command deck for life suggests a deceptively consistent movie-theater-like condition of controllability. Sometimes it is a movie theater, but sometimes it is actually an intersection. A command deck being rocked by explosions, with the instrument panels are exploding, and Spock droning on about falling shield integrity percentages, is not a bad movie. It’s a live intersection. A place where it is fundamentally hard to keep it together.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. What a succinct metaphor arguing for the personal determination of boundaries, aka the perception and inner strength to decide at what points one walks out of the intersection, regardless of whatever societal pressures there are to stay and keep dodging. Or the inverse: Deciding to leave a carefully crafted theater experience (which may also have societal inertia), and engage traffic, but for what purpose? When to do which and why…sounds like an E.M. Forster novel.

  2. Nicely done! (assuming you’re referencing Bowfinger and the 2 famous Eddie Murphy scenes deliberately). K.I.T.!!

  3. Both experiences, the movie theater and the pedestrian intersection, involve the insulated pre-negotiation of boundary zones. In the theater (unlike watching a personal screen) one ‘rents’ the right to choose a fixed seat in a designed space– I want to see the screen, experience the film, from HERE. If the theater is not filled, we claim other spatial ‘rights’ without negotiating them– don’t walk in and sit ‘too close’ to me…don’t talk to loud…don’t distract me with your screen use….don’t smoke…don’t smell. Usually we don’t fight to resolve these issues; WE move, not them. Then we enjoy that space until the lights come up again.
    In the traffic situation, a potential negotiation has already been put in place. A well designed traffic environment allows a pedestrian to ‘rent’ the space ( a marked crossing) for a programmed time span (long enough for most pedestrians to cross). This is in a perfect traffic situation…the crosswalks are well placed, the time is sufficient AND the vehicular operators honor their social and legal obligations.
    Anyone who walks in or near traffic knows those are risky assumptions to make.
    Respected boundaries help societies function because they eliminate the need to constantly negotiate ‘rented space’ (space not owned) in expected social situations. The intersection becomes unsafe, as does the theater, when individuals within those environments do not or will not adhere to the pre-set social boundaries. But don’t forget…we have drive-in theaters!

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  4. Sitting in a movie theatre and inhabiting a busy intersection are two ends of a spectrum. Life tends to be more subtle, the boundaries get gradually erased and we are lulled from one state to another, a gradual shift over seconds, minutes, hours, days. An event has to occur to finally wake us up to appreciate the difference.