Many Mes

Photographer: Andrew Seaman | Source: Unsplash

MeMe and YouMe

The Buddha, peace be unto him, is famous for declaring there’s no self. Strictly speaking, he denied the existence of an abiding, permanent self, especially the metaphysical Atman of Brahmanical Hinduism. We are born, we grow into adulthood and then we pass away. Some think we restart that process in the next life. The Buddha says: one life or many, there’s no rock to tether the ship of existence.

The Buddha left out space in his calculations. Sure, there’s no single self over time, but what about having the same self in space? Are we the same person in every direction?

Perhaps not.

Every one of us experiences ourselves from the inside-out. We refer to ourselves as “I.” It’s commonly believed that we have unique access to that self, an experience of being me that no one else has, that there’s an inner door to a secret chamber that can only be opened by one key. Who else can tell me that I am in pain besides myself?

But there’s another self (or many selves) of which I am only partially aware. That’s the self others see and experience. Why do we assume these two selves to be the same? When my daughter asks me not to be upset with her, and I reply that I am not upset at all, is it possible that both are right? Is it possible there’s a MeMe that’s fully transparent to me and a YouMe that’s fully transparent to others and the two aren’t the same Me’s?

It’s much more likely that the two are somewhat consistent but far from being identical. Which poses a problem for any autobiographical effort because a recounting of MeMe can’t pass off as a recounting of Me in general. The rich and the powerful have always had alternatives — they can hire people to write about their YouMe or even better, if they are famous enough, others want to write about them of their own volition.

The rest of us have to try hard to get others to talk to us for a few minutes, let alone writing praises. But even the most avid biographer doesn’t have the access to my daily routine. In fact, I am too absorbed or distracted to fully grasp what I am doing. The wake of my passage is invisible to me. Fortunately, that data is being scooped up by our friendly neighborhood tech giant. If my data across various websites, social media properties and calendars is aggregated and made available to an automated story generation system such as Narrative Science, I might receive a half decent autobiography in the mail every morning.

“Rajesh left home early yesterday morning. He caught the first train to South Station where he waited for the Acela for a full thirty minutes during which he flipped between his kindle and his phone. On the train he worked on the Acme report for the third time in so many days, changing most of the ten pages that he had written the day before.”

More suspense than my real life for sure. I might even pay for that service. But why stick to the real world. Why not probe lives I have never lived and don’t plan on doing so? Technology comes to the rescue once again. After all, most of my online explorations are funded by personalized ads trying to sell a future different me. The same as every advertisement in the history of marketing but personalization brings new opportunities to the creative autobiographer.

Paths not taken

Forking forest path
Photographer: Jens Lelie | Source: Unsplash

Who does Facebook think I am?

In an attempt to understand myself through the eyes of Skynet, I have decided to take a screenshot of the first ad that Facebook inserts into my newsfeed every time I log in.

Hypothesis: If I take a screenshot every day for a hundred days I will learn more about who I am than a hundred years of Vipassana.

Just kidding, but I bet I will learn something. Don’t ask me what though, I am only on day 2.

Day 1: Today’s ad wants me to read like a CEO. Which is to say, not read at all but to get my staff to summarize it for me. Hey, at least I am better than Trump who doesn’t even read his summaries.

Sadly, I am going to pass. No $7 a month summary of business books for me. But the exercise frees up the imagination. Who is this CEO Rajesh? I’m thinking he wears a black suit everyday. Except for Saturday when he changes into a silk kurta to celebrate his pride for Mother India.

Day 2: Life is a roller coaster. Having rejected the offer to have summaries of business successes sent to my inbox, I must have missed a major opportunity while my competitors were making detailed notes. End result: I have been fired and my wife has left me.

Not to worry: DreamBuilder is here to rescue me from the jaws of failure.

It turns out that one in five men is utterly alone, without a friend in the world. Am I one of them? Facebook thinks so, at least today. How can I fulfill my dreams if I don’t have a warm community? Dreamers of the world unite.

The story is still being written. Facebook is going to help me discover myself. And me_2, me_3 and every self that could be me.


Weekly Newsletter #3. August 13, 2014. “Stories”

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story — Yoga Vasishtha.

Summer is waning in Boston. The days are visibly shorter than they were in June and July. My daughter’s thoughts are turning toward school. She will be starting in three weeks but two of those are in a camp organized by her school teachers. This is the last week of unstructured time for her. We are going to take a mini vacation to cap the break. I will not be in town for the Friday newsletter, but I didn’t want to break a tradition almost as soon as I began it two weeks ago. So here’s this week’s newsletter, a couple of days early.


My grandmother was an excellent storyteller. She created worlds out of thin air; anything was possible once the lights were off at bedtime. Whitehead said that all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. I suspect all my thoughts are interpretations of my grandmother’s stories. It’s no coincidence that we read stories before sleeping. Stories and dreams are creatures of the night; weaving new worlds as our bodies rest. I don’t consider storyweaving to be a metaphor. The world is made out of stories.

On the face of it, it’s a really weird idea. We think of the world as real, hard and made of stuff. At most, we are willing to make an exception to that general rule by admitting other equally solid but insubstantial entities like numbers, sets and other mathematical and logical objects. Stories are the very opposite of hard; they are soft, flexible and in our current ontology, inside our minds. Hard can’t be made out of soft, could it?

There’s a simple answer to that conundrum, for it’s a very old idea with a new twist. Let me give an example. India is full of pilgrimage sites — the Divyadesams, the Jyotirlingas, the Viharas — often marked with a temple. Most sites are associated with a deity and often a guru figure. Each one of those sacred places has several stories that are attached to it. There are myths of gods and semi-divine heroes who have bestowed their blessings or done heroic deeds at that place. There are famous, i.e., historical, not mythical, gurus who taught or had an enlightenment experience there. There are the tales of people who were cured of their ills after visiting one of those places.

Interestingly, the 108 Divyadesam’s get their identity from being mentioned in the poems written by the Alwars. They’re places that exist because they were written in stories. It’s Austinian “how to do things with words” with a vengeance. My guess is that most pre-modern communities were similar. They don’t have the Cartesian, geometric intuition about space that we do.

I believe that we’re about to re-experience the world in a similar manner. Technology is moving us toward a non-Cartesian intuition about space, space that has meaning and value on top of geometry. The most obvious reason is that stuff is becoming smart. As a layer of software gets baked into our built environment, we too will experience space as having value, meaning, interaction and stories. I have this app — made by Google, of course — on my smart phone that pings me whenever I am near a landmark in it’s database. It immediately calls up the history of the landmark, who’s lived and worked there and what significance it had then and now. I would say that app prefigures a world marked by stories.

As the mobile experience blends into augmented reality and internet of things, I think it’s more or less inevitable that our experience of the world will have a narrative character. I also think it will prompt us to rethink our metaphysics. Perhaps it’s stories all the way down — that value and significance aren’t just a human thing. In our attempt to de-anthropomorphize the world, we might have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

This week’s links

  1. An interesting article on narratives in games. I like how the author contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of different narrative media such as literature, movies and games. We know it’s hard to turn novels into movies. I invariably prefer the book. What about turning stories into games?
  2. There’s Alan Kay telling us that explanations aren’t stories, that we need to think differently in order to do science. I disagree with him, but he does tell a nice story.
  3. Myth and philosophy are key to bridging the gap between scientific and fictional narratives. If you haven’t read Roberto Calasso, you should. He seems to have ready every book in every language while writing quite a few of his own. One of my favorite books of all time is Ka, his synthesis of Indian myths.
  4. The quote from the Yoga Vasistha is one of two epigraphs at the beginning of this newsletter. The infamous Wendy Doniger wrote an excellent book on the YVbefore she got into trouble for applying the same techniques to Hinduism as a whole. Moral of the story: write about books that people don’t read.