posttitle = “What’s it like to be you?” titleClass =title-long len =45

“What’s it like to be you?”

At burning man this year, I spent a day exploring that question, from the inside and from the outside.

“What’s it like to be you?” I asked someone sitting at the Tea House at my camp. They said something like, “It’s awesome. My life is really great. I have all of these really good friends…” and I said “Sure, sure, but what’s it like?”

I was trying to understand, I guess, what the texture of his qualia was like. (Qualia = “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”(wikipedia)) I was having this feeling that other people were just figures in my dream, or just characters in my story, and I think this was in part an attempt to break out of that.

I spent a few hours at the Tea House, talking with friends and strangers, trying to get glimpses into what the plots of their stories looked like, and sampling my own experiences as well. I ran into Brayden, one of my campmates, around the start of this, who told me that he was heading out. I ran into him again, hours later, just before I was heading out, and he said he was going to go sleep.

I spent a moment being present to the reality that he had had his own story happen in the space between those two tiny interactions, and that our plots had just intersected momentarily.

After I left camp, I found myself reflecting that the “What is it like to be you?” question, while pointed and interesting, wasn’t the only way to get clues about the texture of others’ experience. “How are you doing?” when asked with the right kind of tone, could actually generate some windows into the other person as well. Also, of course, off-hand remarks that people make, if you’re paying attention.

Part of my mission for that day was to make it to Tycho’s amazing sunrise DJ set, and looking up at him flowily spinning tracks, I had a simple realization: I will never get to really know what it’s like to be Tycho. Even if I could spend a week, a month, a year with him, asking him about every little detail of his life and experience, I still wouldn’t have access to quite the qualia that he had at that moment, while making music for everyone. At best, I might get to have a very vivid what-it’s-like-to-be-Malcolm-Ocean-simulating-himself-being-Tycho experience. But I don’t get to experience being Tycho. And not just Tycho. I don’t get to experience being anyone other than me.

(A brief aside: maybe someday we’ll have technology that makes this possible. I haven’t missed that point. But it’s hardly something I can count on.)

Realizing this, deeply, at Burning Man, with a glorious sunrise on its way, I started crying. I thought about how the sunrise is just the earth spinning so our side of the planet faces the sun, and how crazy it is to realize that we’re tiny meaning-making apes on a much-much-larger-but-tiny-in-its-own-way rock-ball spaceship, hurtling through the galaxy. And that most of the universe isn’t conscious. I was struck by grief at both the impenetrability of others’ qualia, and at how (as far as we know) Spaceship Earth is currently home to all of the qualia in the entire galaxy, maybe the universe. The rest is mostly rocks and metals and gases.

Several people tried to comfort me or reassure me, and it didn’t really help, because their qualia was still really far away and the universe still mostly not-conscious, but in several cases I let them comfort me anyway because I didn’t mind it and it seemed to be good for them.

A friend of mine recently remarked in a facebook comment.

I’ve occasionally wondered if, when a child (or perhaps even an adult) becomes violent when hurt and frustrated if this was simply the brain doing its best to transmit exactly how it is feeling right now to another person in the most direct way possible (by making them experience pain as well) and if this would go a good way to understanding violent tendencies.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and yet I think it ends up falling short of what was going on here. Others could see I was grieving, but I knew that they still were so far away from understanding what I was thinking about at that moment… and it made it hard to feel cared for. Maybe we need a more nuanced set of facial expressions?

Towards the end of Tycho’s set, I ran into someone else (who I later realized I’d met weeks prior in Berkeley) and I tried asking him what it was like to be him. He gave a brief but not altogether unsatisfying answer—I was at this point beginning to recognize that however easy or hard it was to give an answer to that question, it was definitely hard to succeed at sending the other person your inner experience in a receivable way. Then he asked me what it was like to be me.

I started thinking about what I could possibly say. All sorts of ideas came up, and feelings, and recently-formed memories, and patterns I was noticing in myself, and things I thought were unique to my qualia-texture. But at that moment, putting any of it into words felt impossible. He was looking at me with his head tilted. “It’s… really amazing,” I said, “I wish I could capture more of that, but right now I don’t know how.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

Tycho had performed his set from atop of the Dusty Rhino art car, out at the far edges of Black Rock City. I wanted to start heading back, so after pausing briefly to grab a piece of raw ginger from a tea cart, I started walking. I figured I’d head to the temple and then back to camp. I had a mix of what-it’s-like-to-be-Malcolm-thinking-about-all-of-this-stuff experiences and what-it’s-like-to-be-Malcolm-nibbling on a piece of ginger experiences.

Burning Man, at least for me, is largely about having experiences. And now I found myself wanting to preface the name of any experience with the name of the subject who would be experiencing it. After all, I was having a very particular kind of nibbling-on-ginger experience, and one thing that was particular about it is that it was my experience of nibbling on ginger. Somebody else would have a totally different experience.

Before reaching the temple, I found a piece of art. It consisted of a series of 1″ horizontal mirrors, separated by 1″ gaps. Plus two seats, on either side. “Oh,” I said out loud, somewhat sadly, “this art was made for two subjective experiencers.” I sat down anyway, and realized that there actually was a single-subject experience available… it was viewing half-me, half-playa, rather than half-me, half-someone-else. Neat.

Malcolm's face reflected in dozens of flat mirrors arranged in a dome.
(This was a different piece of art, but it suits this post.)

I moved on, and ultimately reached the temple. I was still really interested in this question of what it was like to be other people, but way less optimistic about ever getting a satisfying answer. After some of the volunteer temple guardians gently encouraged me not to climb on the temple, I found myself wondering: what’s it like to be a temple guardian?

I walked inside the temple and found another person with a guardian badge on, and just stopped and stood there and looked at her. She looked at me. The temple is often a place of mourning losses, so most people there are very caught up in their own experience of that. The guardian, at that moment at least, was there to hold space for others though,

Eye contact: another experience made for two experiencers.

After maybe 5 minutes of silent eye contact, we hugged, as if to say thank you, goodbye. But after the hug we just kept making eye contact. We held hands, for part of this. After probably 10 to 20 minutes, I said to her “I’m trying to get what it’s like to be you. Like I’m imagining it right now, but I really don’t have much to go on, aside from imagining the view you have.” With substantial grief, I added, “but I’ll never REALLY get to know what it’s like to be you.”

Sympathetically, she said, “Ohh, honey, it’s okay. You’re great yourself! You don’t need to be someone else.” I felt misunderstood, and said, “Oh, I like being me! I just… wish I could share others’ experiences more.” We made more eye contact, spoke a bit more, embraced a bit more, and then I left.

As I was leaving the temple, I passed a person. Likely in response to the tears on my face, he looked at me and said, “Heavy?”

I paused for a moment…

“Rich,” I answered. He continued towards the temple.

I was struck by the information density in what we just communicated about what-it-was-like-to-be-Malcolm at that moment: he poetically gestured at one cluster of experiences, a cluster called “heavy”. I considered that cluster, and figured that while it had some truth, it suggested more of an experience of loss… whereas I wanted to gesture at how much I was cherishing the experiences I had had inside the temple.

This two-word exchange gave me a new sense of how it’s possible to paint what you mean with words. I think that I’ve had a habit of trying to specify what I mean very rigorously and precisely, almost as if I need a formal, mathematical proof. But qualia don’t work like that. At least, we don’t presently have anything remotely resembling a system for doing that. So it’s more economical to paint with words: to recognize that what you’re saying is kind of a piece of art or poetry, that will get interpreted in all sorts of ways that are never exactly the thought or feeling inside you, because someone else can’t ever have that exact thought or feeling.

Stating this, it feels like an obvious point. I think what happened that day is that I got it, on a much deeper level than the descriptive thing I just wrote above.

I continued through my day, asking more people about their experiences, seeing more works of art and events and interactions through the lens of “insert N subjective experiencers,” where sometimes N was a specific number, and other times it was a fairly wide range. Tycho’s performance, for instance, afforded several thousand experiencers. The sunrise: as many as cared to look. Of course, a slightly different sunrise from each location, but still.

I found myself wanting a shorter word for “subjective experiencers.” Would I have to make one up? That seemed weird. This is an important concept… surely it would have its own word already. “Subject”? Hm, sort of, but not quite right.

After awhile of thinking about this, I concluded: “soul” will do.

I imagined the mirror art from earlier, with a little sign that said “Insert Two Souls”. It seemed fitting.

Around this time, while dancing, I ran into a couple who were a few hours into a psychedelic trip, and I found it really fun to cast myself as a character in their story. I started to more greatly appreciate how fulfilling it is to create experiences for other people… and I had a sense of why people make so much art for burning man.

The insight about being a character in others’ stories has also produced, as far as I can tell, a lasting improvement in my ability to assess a situation and enter it smoothly. When I used to walk into a room thinking that the story was about me, I’d tend to assume that whatever’s on my mind already is about to become the topic of conversation in the room. I didn’t always do this, but it was often present to a lesser degree, for instance in me not matching the volume of my voice with the rest of the people present. With this frame-shift, I’ve experienced a greater sense of situational awareness. I’m sure I still have lots of room for growth here though.

On my return to camp (which took much longer than intended because I accidentally rode an art car to the opposite side of the city then took the scenic route home) I found a trampoline.

I started jumping on it, then thought, “wow, I would really like a picture of myself bouncing on this trampoline.” I decided to flag down the next person to pass by with a visible camera. Not 20 seconds later, such a someone biked by. “Hey!” I called, “will you take my picture?” He stopped, and did, and then we got talking.

“My gift to the playa is the photos and videos that I take,” he said, and asked what I gave. I thought about it for a few moments, and said, “well, I’ve been trying to figure out what it’s like to be something that it’s like something to be.” He was briefly struck by that: “Huh.” I said “Yeah, I spent the last 10 hours gathering the experiences I needed to craft that sentence, which I made for you just now.”

He had said that he liked making videos, so I suggested we create a video of me bouncing on the trampoline. I titled it “Bouncer’s interpretation of what it’s like to be someone taking a video of someone bouncing.” As you might imagine, by this stage the idea that I might accurately convey that was kind of an absurd joke. A joke I took seriously though: I poured a lot of care into it, and tried really really hard to imagine what it might be like to be him at that moment, and then turn that into movements on a trampoline. But really?

When I got back to camp, after this long adventure, some friends asked me how I was. I began, dramatically, “I shall now attempt the bizarre and utterly impossible ritual of trying to transmit qualia through words.” And I threw some words out like a Jackson Pollock painting. Maybe some of them, somewhat, communicated something of what it was like to be me that day. But since I also can’t know what it was like for them to hear my words, I can’t ever fully know.

And the same for you, dear reader.

I hope you enjoyed this painting.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


Anne » 5 Oct 2015 » Reply

Great post!

It reminded me of a letter by Hugo Hoffmannsthal we read in highschool, titled “Letter of Lord Chandos”, marking a period of scepticism about the ability to express anything in words at all. (I thought there was an English wiki article I could link to, but could only find a German version)

The entire letter is long, but can be read in English here:

Here’s one exerpt I chose:
“It is not easy for me to indicate wherein these good moments subsist; once again words desert me. For it is, indeed, something entirely un­named, even barely nameable which, at such moments, re­veals itself to me, filling like a vessel any casual object of my daily surroundings with an overflowing flood of higher life. I cannot expect you to understand me without examples, and I must plead your indulgence for their absurdity. A pitcher, a harrow abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a neglected cemetery, a cripple, a peasant’s hut-all these can become the vessel of my revelation.”

The fictional Lord Chandos mourns that he has all these rich experiences, yet he is unable to convey them in their complexity, and he cannot to take part in the conversations happening around him because they’re on an entirely different level that he has no interest in.

He says,
“Even in familiar and humdrum conversation all the opinions which are generally expressed with ease and sleep-walking assurance became so doubtful that I had to cease altogether taking part in such talk. (…) Sheriff N. is a bad, Parson T. a good man; Farmer M. is to be pitied, his sons are wasters; another is to be envied because his daughters are thrifty; one family is rising in the world, another is on the downward path. All this seemed as indemonstrable, as mendacious and hollow as could be. My mind compelled me to view all things occurring in such conversations from an uncanny closeness. As once, through a magnifying glass, I had seen a piece of skin on my little finger look like a field full of holes and furrows, so I now perceived human beings and their actions. I no longer suc­ceeded in comprehending them with the simplifying eye of habit. For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be en­compassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back-whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.”

I remember that I understood (and still understand) that I can’t ever truly grasp what it’s like to be another person, or animal, though it didn’t fill me with the same sadness that it did for you. It might have, if I’d been in similar circumstances. But in everyday life, I forgot (just like everyone else) that there’s a rich and only somewhat accessible life in every other person around us, and it’s only in the small odd glimpses every now and then that we remember that. Your post reminded me of this.

Eric Honour » 5 Oct 2015 » Reply

I wrote a poem about this (what I think of as “the semiotic miracle”) a few months ago:

My body: life’s thought-thinker reified!
The mouth, the ear, the foot, the eye, the hand
And somewhere in the cavern of this shell
A fire rages, licks beyond its cell,
And sends its tendrils racing ‘cross the land.

And you: another, bearing human pride!
Another pair of ears and eyes and mouth
Another abstract-grasper caged inside
Another flame, a question to your self.

I – tumbling, stumbling – force out of my mouth
Some sembleance of the motions of my mind
Some word-clad shadow form of a
… –

The signifier and the signified!
The mouth, the ear, the heart, the brain, the soul
Some thought of mine released into the air
You grab or pluck or grasp and somehow share
Assembling scattered parts into a whole.


Also, regarding the parenthetical “(A brief aside: maybe someday we’ll have technology that makes this possible. I haven’t missed that point. But it’s hardly something I can count on.)” – that’s a big part of a novel I’ve been prewriting for recently. It hadn’t occurred to me until just now that that poem might actually be fitting front matter for the book.

    Malcolm » 5 Oct 2015 » Reply

    Whoa, I’m stoked about that novel! Love the poem and agree it would make fitting front matter.

    Have you read the Nexus series by Ramez Naam? It’s not quite *about* this, but there’s tech in that world that let’s people communicate brain to brain and to some extent experience each others’ senses, etc. I think it’s actually quite relevant, because even though you can get access to a ton of the person’s sensory data, and you get really close to being them, you’re still not them 😛

hamnox » 10 Oct 2015 » Reply

Now trying to get into your head with the words you wrote. You had such a different experience at burning man, and I didn’t think to imagine anything close from our brief interaction. I still don’t grok it.

Do you ever have a hard time getting into the perspective of your past self, like a small echo of the impossibility of experiencing other people’s inner lives?

    Malcolm » 10 Oct 2015 » Reply

    I mean, I didn’t spend my entire burning man like this 😛 …but yeah, a bunch of it followed this kind of thread. What was your experience of burning man like?

    I actually was thinking about that at one point during this story, though I don’t think I mentioned it. I was thinking about “what of this will I remember in a month? will it make sense to me?” I think it mostly did… but of course I’ve definitely lost a lot of fidelity on what-it-was-like to be the Malcolm who had the experiences described in this post.

Kim » 20 Oct 2015 » Reply

I don’t suppose you remember any other identifying information about the art piece you wanted to add the sign to? I’d love to check out the artist, and I bet they’d love to read how their creation played a part in your experience. 🙂

    Malcolm » 21 Oct 2015 » Reply

    Yeah I looked over the art map but haven’t been able to figure out what the piece was called or who made it. Could try asking around online a bit I guess.

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