Rick and Morty in the Wisdom Tradition

“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody's going to die… come watch TV.” - Morty

In 2015 physicists used human instruments to detect gravity waves, ushering in a new era of listening to ripples in the structure of space-time itself. You will be forgiven for wondering “what does this mean?” because it is in your nature to wonder such a thing: you are a human, you are a meaning-maker.

In an age where we are presented with theories of black hole time travel and infinite universes nested inside of infinite universes we are deeply straining our abilities to connect the findings of science and its models of the cosmos with the appearance of the world that we live in daily. 

It is one thing to posit a spherical Earth, or a rotation around the sun, or that you are made of cells, these things are actually rather tangible: walk for a while and measure some shadows, get out your star charts and track a few months, and take a look at some of your skin under a microscope. Even atoms and photons can be somewhat observed. Yet the newest findings of science are not so embodied, they are not so observable. You and I are not going to fall through a black hole any time soon. Nor can we perceive the trillions of nested universes that might make up the space between the space in the atoms of our cells. 

The world we live in is the same as it ever was—except that we can tweet about it-- but the models of our cosmos have never been more exotic. “The truth,” it seems, has left us all behind. 

Enter Rick and Morty: the show that says “what if we actually could observe the multiverse, and moreover what would happen if we started wandering around between infinities?”  

Rick and Morty is loosely based around the misadventures of a fringe “scientist” Rick (in the style of Doc Brown from Back to the future) and Morty (in the style of a Marty from the same franchise, but much less girlfriended). Together they jump through the multiverse using Rick’s flying ship and his interdimensional portal gun, and one time they have to take a detour through interdimensional customs.

A new age demands a new philosophy, and in Rick and Morty I have found the most salient distillation of the findings of the modern hard sciences, and the wisdom traditions into one thesis: all meaning is local and temporary and all morality is local and temporary. Perhaps even truth itself is just a local ordering of available information. 

We are in the post-postmodern age now, when we must accept into our hearts, minds and souls that no 'outsider' is coming to help us make meaning, no one is coming to help us decide what is right and wrong, only we can make such decisions, only we make meaning.

It is our responsibility, it cannot be handed off to a god or a demon or aliens, it is only the purview of us, the finite organisms called humans on the beautiful rock called Earth. Against the nested infinities we humans stand as little droplets of order. Together we are the meaning.

Whatever images of gods we can conjure in our minds, we cannot shake the full reality that we alone find ourselves entrusted with the daily quality of our lived-in reality. Our beliefs are choices, works of art that we enshrine into our personas. If you have a belief in something specific without acknowledging the potential arbitrary-ness of belief itself then you're missing out on the real opportunity. Beliefs are real, but the believer is more real.

As the sociotechnical web of cybernetic global capitalism continues to envelop the planet and the worlds’ societies, we have crossed into a new age. Now and forward human will is a primary influence on the macro state of the earth, from climate to the features of the crust.

There is a profound dissonance in our world today. We are collectively, to use Jung’s analysis in “Man and His Symbols”,  a neurotic.

Some of us try to plant trees as others of us destroy entire forests. Some of us try to create new coral colonies as global industrial activity acidifies the oceans killing whole reefs. Some of us try to help the global poor as others continue to utilize their labor and bemoan there being “too many people.”

This is where thought and art comes in. We can imagine being an alien coming to visit our world. Before you see any of us individually, you would likely first see humanity as a superorganism. You would observe our hives glowing in the darkness. You would see the holes we dig into the earth looking for minerals. You would see vast strips of land parceled into repeating patterns.

Then you would learn gradually about the little units called “people” that make the macroscopic patterns you observed from space. You would find it fascinating and disturbing to learn of the immense dissonance in these people’s dealings with each other. They often work against each other! 

Re-enter Rick and Morty.

In one episode, Summer gets a new job and Rick begrudgingly finds himself the only one who can spare the time to drive her to work. So he gets to meet her boss, Mr. Needful, who is running a store where all the items are free; one never pays here, not with money muahahaha

“Mr. Needful” asks Rick what he desires, to which Rick replies “eh, I make my own stuff” and then immediately identifies him as the Devil, which catches the devil flat-footed. After some disinterested poking around by Rick and banter, the Devil thinks he has found the item that can tempt Rick: a microscope that reveals things beyond comprehension. Then Summer banishes Rick because she likes the feeling of community and order that the Devil, er Mr. Needful, is giving her in her chaotic teen life.

So naturally Rick comprehends the microscope and the whole scam that the Devil is running. And he manages to ruffle feathers with a strong opinion in the process.

“Does evil exist, and if so can one detect and measure it? – rhetorical question Morty the answer is yes you just have to be a genius.” – Rick

He then returns to Mr Needful’s shop with a metadevice that can detect and catalog all of the Devil’s cursed items. Along with a cure for the first customer’s curse. After a brief fight with the Devil, Summer again banishes Rick. Yet this time Rick decides to open a store across the street to remove the curses whole sale. So now the devil is merely giving away items for free and no one is paying him with their soul, instead they are paying Rick money.

Despite beating the devil, Rick is not a ‘good’ person. He professes to not care, and when people try to call that out as a bluff he leans right into it by making them feel stupid for even trying to get him to care.

Rick faces the infinity of possibilities in the universe daily and has become jaded to the very idea of good and evil. Faced with the immensity of possible experience, Rick is just along for the ride and trying to have a good time.

Yet still, Rick is a human, and no matter how he tries he cannot shake off the human nature to try and find meaning in the world. Rick’s catchphrase “wubalubadub dub” is not just nonsense, it is a cry for help.

In one episode of Rick and Morty, the entire population of the Earth gets Kroneburnged, turned into grotesque monsters, because Morty asks Rick for a love potion. The love potion is fool-proof, Rick assures… unless it comes in contact with the flu…

Naturally, Morty was already out the door before he learned of the flu caveat, headed on his way to the annual “Flu Awareness Dance.”

“Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.” – Rick

After a few failed attempts to reverse the terrible cascade of genetic mutations that Morty’s deployment of the potion evoked, Rick makes a decision: leave the reality they destroyed and find another. Luckily for them there are infinite universes, so Rick finds one where he and Morty had freshly been killed by an experiment and portals over to fill their selves’ place. 

Naturally, Morty is upset at burying his own corpse. Yet later on it gives him a clarity of vision that is unmatched by those of us who still believe that things are “meant to be” or that there is a “plan.” He is able to help Summer calm down about her own angst by scaling up the existential angst to include death, and then both of them can enjoy just being.

Rick and Morty is part of a long tradition of art which is about embracing death and infinity and finding peace in the midst of chaos. Once chaos is embraced then one is free to be oneself, and one can relinquish the desires for control to work with the desire to explore and be.

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And here is where the show touches me deeply. We do not have a portal gun for our meat, only for our minds. We do not know how to touch other universes, we can only think about that and make art to play with the idea. Us as living beings only have this one Earth. The infinity for us is only theoretical. We cannot actually go to an adjacent universe. We do not have an infinite supply of worlds to go to if we mess this one up. 

Which means that we cannot actually be Rick, we can only remember the lessons of his character. Just as in the Bhagavad Gita there is Krishna who is astride reality and sees all, when a man Arjuna tries to join that stance at the edge of a battle about to take place and renounce action Krishna kindly reminds him that he is there to fight and so he must. But that the stance of infinity is there to remind him that his actions can never be boiled down to good and evil - all we ever are is that we are. 

In the Dharma blossom sutra there is a story of a great poet who writes a flowery expose about his abandonment of care for the world and material concerns, and sends it to a zen master. The zen master writes a reply: “fart fart”. The poet becomes enraged upon receiving the letter and rushes over to the monastery, only to realize in trying to confornt the Zen master that he the poet who said he knew how to let go of care had totally failed the lesson of not giving a crap. 

That is the beauty of art, and for today’s post-postmodern era I see Rick and Morty as part of the same tradition as all great wisdoms. It is an elaborate thought experiment in thresholds of absurdity and the human minds’ ability to order chaos. Rick is constantly going on adventures, and his mantra is usually “don’t think about it!” as Morty attempts to weigh morality, Rick knows that such things will get them killed in the multiverse.

Together Rick and Morty—along with Beth, Summer and Jerry—are analogs for you the viewer. Rick is boldy going where no one has gone before, but is not taking any notes and has no real agenda other than “see cool shit and do exotic drugs.” Morty is drawn in, but is trying to grasp for meaning. Yet every time Morty tries to help and impose moral order on the multiverse he finds some unintended consequence that makes his efforts pointless, or even worse.

The word “wisdom” is not an answer itself, but a pointer to a reminder: there are no clear answers, there is no clear good and evil. Anyone who is selling you some kind of clear vision of the world probably has an agenda and will profit off you buying in. Being uncertain is a power.  Dissonance is only painful if you try to remedy it - what about just letting it be and seeing how it evolves? Embracing your limits opens up infinity to you, even if just in art and mind.

Don’t be the hapless townspeople falling for Mr. Needful then relying on science Rick to cure you - be Rick and make your own stuff. But don’t copy Rick because he is a mess: Rick is fragmented because he thinks meaning is a crutch, so he just drinks himself out of caring. If you want meaning, go ahead and put it there. Just don’t forget that meaning is arbitrary or else you’ll be a brittle mess getting flustered by every challenge to your world-view. When you profess your heart and someone replies “fart, fart” you can either laugh and roll with it, or get flustered. 

Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Rick, these god-person characters are all about offering you a challenge much more than a thing to follow. You’re supposed to take up the mantle, to assume the challenge of driving your own destiny. When Jesus says “I am the sun of God” you can repeat after him and say for yourself “I am the sun of God”. When Buddha is still in the face of fear you are invited to join that stillness. When Krishna tells you that what some call the slayer and the slain can only be called itself, you can break the spell of duality within you. When Rick says “don’t think about it” you are invited to action and to follow your curiosity. But with all these characters you are required to remember that they are art, mere thoughts of the wider picture. It’s up to you to synthesize them together. Great art in the wisdom tradition, like Rick and Morty, offers you the perceiver a unique chance: by breaking apart the personalities into characters you get to recombine them into something more real. 

Make your own stuff, see the absurdity of it all and still choose to give a shit. Because even though we get infinite art and ideas, we only get one Earth. 

"I asked my love, what do you need, to make your wild heart beat? And this, my love, he said to me wholeheartedly...Whatever makes you happy!"

- Snarky Puppy

 

 

SIGGRAPH 2017 & The Birthing Of Interactive External Imagination

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I attended SIGGRAPH 2017 in LA and was struck by how mature the technologies are. It felt like a capstone moment, when so much of what I had dreamt of over the recent years of my life started to look tantalizingly possible. This post is a collection links from myself and others, please click around and explore the future As We May Think - There has long existed a dream of what an augmenting medium could be about, and a profound new chapter feels close at hand if we choose to build it...

 

At SIGGRAPH I was delighted to see Ken Perlin in the interesting demo #MeetMike. I recorded his talk on my phone, so it's not the best quality, but ironically the main thing I want to share is not the visuals, although they are incredibly impressive, but rather Perlin's message: we need to work with humanity as we build social computer experiences. Perlin would rather see a cartoon with great expressivity than a photo-realistic avatar with rigid muscles. Perlin is a pioneering researcher and thinker currently working on HoloJam and Chalktalk.

That said, the #MeetMike demo was extremely impressive in showing a glimmer of what a photo-realistic avatar could be like. The possibility has been lurking, but Mike Seymour and his team brought it to life and gave it an application, and they did an amazing job!

In my touring around the booths I encountered Imverse in the back of the room with a cool first take on making the creation of Mixed Reality really easy. Talking with Javier the CEO was really fun, his tool already has some of the elements of Perlin's HoloJam, but could use a lot more interactivity in creating real-time advanced animations, as Javier agreed and is working on. Unlike HoloJom though, Imverse is a commercially-ready application that works on more standard VR gear, without the need of a fully tracked room, making it ripe for experimentation by us mere mortals without lab-space!

Another highlight: I was really blown away to wear ODG's Mixed Reality glasses because they were so light! They run Android and will cost a bit over $1,000. Their form factor made me think, "yup, this one will actually get used in the field like it should." They're a self-contained computer, which limits graphics but mobility is my favorite element of what makes Mixed and Augmented Reality so special - computing out in the real world, with our hands free! 

With Apple's AR kit and small glasses like this we are getting ready for Mixed (or Augmented) reality sooner than I thought! 

But before any of this we also need to think hard about computation and what we're trying to do - what is the Center Of "Why"?

And I'm intent to explore where we've already been to make sure we're always breaking new ground and/or refining the garden we're already in. A recent ACM panel gives a great crash history through the present with the ethics.

Most of the improvements we need are in conceptual understanding of computation - SIGGRAPH showed me that the raw technology is ready for anything! So it's up to us to imagine a more robust version of just what it means to "use a computer". We need smarter interfaces and a more expressive form of programming, and we can begin experimenting today even before all the gadgets are ready.

If I talked with you at SIGGRAPH I probably told you I'm tired of clicking little buttons and using inert spaces which I must instruct EVERY element of the action I wish to perform. I mean it. I want to paint with math and math with paint. I believe that computing is a shared substrate for all of human endeavor, and I know it needs to let us be fully human within it. 

In graduate school I started exploring the research that is currently present for making a much more expressive interface for computing based on the the mighty pen, hypercharged by the affordances of a digital substrate: As We May Sketch

I am fascinated by the dream that we might eventually Converse with Computers in new forms of conversation, even if it is just to make graphics in a more user-friendly way.

There are already methods for approaching "artificial" intelligence in computers that will let us switch from thinking of machine learning as a data problem to having machine learning become an expressive experience allowing us to bridge rigid logics with blurry imaginations.

I am struck to my core that computing can and ought to move beyond us as explicit instructors and toward us as cooperative participants with an increasingly dynamic and intelligent substrate ready to hold our creations and let our minds soar. We in our physical bodies and full humanity are at the center of the vision of the future.

Still beyond our wonderful maturing pen-based tablets with 2D motion screens, we are entering into a time when graphics can move outside of rectangles - a time to explore more Humane Representations of Thought. We do need to keep humanity in mind, both our soaring potentials and our consistent ambitions and nagging flaws, books like Rainbow's End help situate the affordances against stories.

Back in 2015 I wrote a collection of three scenes from a School Astride the Metaverse, an attempt to envision a school that bridges material and virtual reality into a kind of whole:

This vision is not complete, it is playground to think about possible styles of school in the future. The first two are grounded, and the last one is more fanciful. There's an entire arena to go into with mixed reality and even more simulation space games - I'm working on it, but for now want to re-surface these since they are starting to look almost conservative in light of this years' tech I witnessed!

This is not meant as a description of the future, but rather a constellation of ideas about how the future of education might look in a world where technology keeps getting better and cheaper, yet overall amounts of money spent on education remain relatively constant. This is not a utopia, this is meant to explore the feeling of what certain compromises and perspectives might manifest as. You certainly do not have to agree with or love or even like this vision, but I do hope that you want to discuss it and the ideas within since this is a world not too far away. Mere decades really for some parts of it; other parts are less clear...

It's important to think and converse about holistic visions for the future of education, not just individual technology artifacts in the classroom and moderate systems deployments. This is my attempt to help add a little flavor to the conversation.

Let's make a future where learning is an adventure and allow new generations to soar past our wildest dreams.