A Sort of Non-Gravitational Super-Consciousness

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During a recent bout of sickness, I spent seven hours watching Killing Eve on BBC America, which means I also saw at least 30 rounds of commercials advertising the same four things: the May Maytag Sale (though May is over), some slim laptop championed by a fashion blogger, the overly sentimental promises of a mediocre hotel chain, and Microsoft AI's partnership with Iconem—a startup that digitizes sites of cultural heritage. The Iconem commercial has popped up before—during screenings of The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu, maybe even earlier somewhere else. It irked me from the start, but it took this recent cycle of multiple Dayquil-infused viewings for me to pinpoint the source of my disdain.

The ad opens with Common (Microsoft's newest spokesperson) describing how artificial intelligence will be the future of historical preservation. His voice narrates a documentary collage of ruins being digitally reconstructed before our eyes: a Jurassic Park-like glimpse into a history that deterioration has not allowed us to fully experience. Then another voice comes in: a western European accent describing in English the particularities of the software and the importance of this dialogue with history. "Eef you donne know where you come from, you donne know where you go."

Entré Yves: representative from Iconem that we see digitally photographing sites in the field and using artificial intelligence to "steetch them together" back at the office. The ad depicts Yves as sort of grungy metro-Euro chic: a tall, bony frame draped in v-neck tees and scarves, a dark beard with a few grays demanding we revere their presence, bedhead from here to Prague. I don't want to be presumptuous about how the real Yves carries himself; I only know that here, in this ad, he is the portrait of a very specific kind of manchild: obsessed with his work and convinced he is changing the world and—because of that—cocksure that not only can he get into your pants with little effort, but that you are going to listen to him talk about the significance of his work for hours just to grant him the effortless opportunity to do so. "I need to make eet possible," he says into a wobbly iPhone cam, "because eets so important to do eet,"

By the third episode of Killing Eve, I could no longer tolerate the sight of this man. Naturally, you'd think I'd been burned by this type, but my distaste is far more nuanced. In my mind, Yves is a composite of three men:

  1. In Type: A guy I met in a bar when I was 26 and went on a single date with at a Japanese tea room (his idea). He was a nature photographer and talked the entire time about his travels and aspirations.
  2. In Appearance: A bony Francophile I dated for a couple years who wore many scarves and talked about himself in the third person.
  3. In Essence: The Spanish foreign exchange student that Linda briefly dates at the beginning of Singles. He tells her his visa is up and he has to return to Spain, thus inspiring a fling he leads her to believe will turn into something more upon his eventual return to America. As a token of her devotion, she gives him her coveted backup garage door remote. Days later she sees him at a club, a scantily clad woman hanging off his shoulder. From a distance he shrugs at her as if to say, Sorry, babe, that's the way love goes.

None of these men (least of all the one that doesn't exist) have caused me a lasting degree of bitterness, but have evidently left a lingering repugnance that would cause me to so suddenly bristle at the idea of Yves, who is so definitively in my mind a particular breed of infantile, emotionally-unaware garbage.

This is not meant to be an attack on the real Yves, who may be a decent person. I mean to call into question the false heroism bestowed on certain kinds of men. When I try to imagine that same commercial with a woman in it, going through Yves's motions, I cannot. Either a woman would not behave like that, or an advertiser would not frame a woman in such a way; I do not know which is more likely or true. Perhaps women have to try so hard for their work to be considered important that they don't dare exude the assumption that it is.

Yves may be only part of my aversion. To a lesser extent, this is a stab at the practices of television streaming, which subject viewers to the same tiresome advertisements to a degree that could (and perhaps, should) drive anyone into a state of agitated scrutiny. Even a single hour-long episode of a television show is often interrupted 4-5 times with the same commercial—enough to render it meaningless in the way saying the same word over and over makes it sound absurd. Is this effective advertising? Is the effect subliminal? Is my agitation and ultimately this public response considered a positive outcome for an advertiser, because I'm responding at all?

I return to the ad for clarity. Over the course of 15-20 additional viewings, my agitation passes through a kind of numbness and I arrive eventually in a sort of non-gravitational super-consciousness, like the ether inside Don Draper's brain. From this place, Yves is a tiny felt puppet and Microsoft is an omnipresent superpower peddling the humility of its technology and the humanity of its mission. The ad closes with the Microsoft logo over the tagline "Empowering us all," as though tenderly stroking our powerlessness. I begin to wonder if Yves is an artificially intelligent replicant, or if our world has been destroyed and we're already living inside a universe constructed of artificial intelligence and this is ad is an SOS sent from underground rebels. Are you reading this? How do I find you? How do I join the movement against artificiality?

Come to think of it, though, this may all stem from the fact that I'm a Mac user.

We're nowhere near the end.

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I write this from the floor, laptop resting on the edge of a coffee table pushed into a corner and piled with rugs folded in half. We're moving and the house is the kind of empty that makes the creaks under our footsteps reverberate and the cats reluctant to move from the islands of home that have not yet become unfamiliar—stool by the window, carpeted staircase landing, bathtub ledge. I keep thinking of the last episode of Growing Pains when the Seavers share a pizza on the naked living room floor and then walk out the front door backwards. Carol leaves last and pauses in the doorway for a couple seconds before saying goodbye to her childhood home and, implicitly, her audience. I misremember her flicking off a light switch, which must have been featured in another touching series finale. I want to say sentimentality is a learned behavior. Perhaps I saw enough of it on TV as a kid to want to elevate the act of moving from one house to another into an epic change worthy of thoughtful pauses in doorways during which I visualize four years of memories in a matter of seconds. In reality, moving hardly allows for the luxury of nostalgic respite. What TV does not show us is moving's gruesome underbelly—the layers of grease clinging to the oven's hood, the awkward conversation about who bought the can opener, the lifetimes wasted on hold waiting to terminate service for the internet and the gas and the electric and the water and the trash. Art comes down off the walls and knick knacks make their way to FREE piles on the sidewalk; the familiar slowly begins to disintegrate. Your life gradually compartmentalizes into a series of boxes labeled with sharpie markers as you slip into a transient state, eating every meal with the same bowl and spoon from some unclaimed chair in the middle of an empty room, staring blankly at a rotating fan. Your home becomes an exotic shell of its former memory-filled self, the way a corpse cannot substitute for the person who once gave it life. By the time you leave one place your brain has already half settled into the next, if only to protect it from the emotional vacuum that has filled the space you have emptied. When you lock up that final time you are not thinking of your fondest memories. You are thinking: did I remember to take the shower curtain?

Of course, if I wasn't sentimental I wouldn't be writing this. But the sentimentality of moving hides in the minuscule details rather than the panoramic view of life's scattered finales. I found it while cleaning off the kitchen windowsill when I stumbled upon a ceramic eyeball that had once been attached to a novelty Halloween mug that belonged to my sister. The mug was in the shape of a head (vampire? monster?) whose eyeballs jutted out from its face on metal springs, the kind of impractical mug someone like my little sister would adore. One of the eyeballs popped off one day and we saved it with the intention of reanimation, but instead it ended up on the dusty windowsill in between an unidentifiable refrigerator part and a sun-bleached zine titled "How To Do The Dishes." When I rediscovered it I held it in my purple rubber glove remembering the mug and the loss of the eyeball; the year my sister lived with us and how she tried to persuade the reluctant cats into sleeping in her bed every night; the way we save broken objects with the intent of repairing them—a refrigerator magnet from Italy, a ring from high school with stars and moons engraved into its surface; the reality that these objects can never return us to the past they represent; that life disappears behind us like the interior of a room disappearing behind a closing door as we stand outside, staring into the fissure until we hear the sound of a bolt being latched.

When you hold these objects in your hands you are tricked into feeling connected. After Carol's weepy goodbye the Seavers close the door on their Long Island home (and their series), but Maggie rushes back into the empty house having forgotten a family portrait on the mantle. She picks it up and discovers a message scratched into the brick: MIKE SEAVER WAS HERE. She runs her fingers over the words searching for the moment in which they were engraved and hugs the framed photograph to her abdomen, savoring the bittersweet confluence of past and present before running out into an unknown future beyond the predictability of her staged living room. The camera pulls back. The score swells into a heartwrenching twist on the original theme. We are left with our nostalgia and a wide shot of a hollow living room, afternoon sun spilling onto the polished hardwoods.

If I were a Seaver I might have pocketed that eyeball, but it ended up in the trash along with a place card from a friend's wedding and a pair of worn out orange Nikes with no shoelaces and dozens of other peepholes into the irretrievable history of my life. There was a time when I was more of a Seaver, when I would have said goodbye out loud to a house that only settled in response, but that era has passed. When I exit my house for the last time I will stand in the doorway for a second, scanning the interior for overlooked scuffs, and I will think of the Seavers and of my nostalgia for a time when I was more sentimental. And then I will lock the door behind me.