There’s a certain level of awareness that people go without. It’s disturbing to me when I realize that my heart is beating. Blood rushes through my veins constantly, and I, like everyone else, go through the majority of my life not thinking about it. But sometimes, you lose that veil, you can’t help but see yourself the thing, rather than yourself the person.
I wouldn’t say I’m a gruesome person, I can’t stand gory movies. I don’t play violent video games. Quite the opposite. I am constantly gripped by my body’s fragility. I was driving through the mountains once, alone, and I had to pull over at a rest stop for a couple of hours because I couldn’t stop thinking about myself, about my own broken body desperately clinging to life, crawling a few meters by the side of the road, and dying, hopeless and alone.
My apartment building is the tallest in my neighborhood. By a lot, actually, and I live near the top. From here I can see most of the University Town, I can see out to the Central West End, I can see across the Great Park. Over the time I’ve lived here I have lost hours of my life just staring out my windows. I watch the city move. In the morning I watch cars driving downtown from the suburbs, and in the evening I watch the city exhale.
I work at a shared office space in the Central West End. But on rainy days, I don’t bother going and I just work from home. I like to sit in the corner of my living room, with my back to the windows. I swear I can feel the energy of the city behind me. I have a couple colleagues who I communicate with for my work, and I have a few people I talk to in my office, but I wouldn’t say I have any real friends. I mostly spend my free time reading or working on personal projects.
Today was one of those days. It was snowing, hard, and I was working. I went into a flow state and when I snapped out of it, it was 8 PM and I was starving. I started to fix myself a meal. I usually try to cook fancy meals for myself. Tonight deserves a hearty rabbit stew. While it was cooking, I packed my pipe with cannabis and went out on the balcony. Standing out on that balcony in the cold, wearing my slippers and a robe, and watching the snow come down on the city. It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen. The lights filtered through the snow, and the snow fell and obscured the lights. I thought about how complicated our little world can be. How things can interact with each other in such beautiful ways. I noticed a girl walking through the Great Park in the snow. She left a trail. I thought about what she was thinking about. What drove her to be out alone in the weather. She stopped and looked over at my building. There’s no way she could tell I was looking at her, and I can’t say for certain she was looking at me, but I like to imagine she was trying to understand what I was thinking about.
The girl kept walking through the snow.
I looked up Great Park Parkway and saw cars in traffic along it. I thought, does the city feel suffocated when its breath cannot travel along the byways? Does it feel pain when the river floods and wipes away the riverfront buildings?
“What is a mind?” John Doris asked me. Doris was a professor at the University. We frequented the same coffee shops and hash bars. Remembering some of my philosophy from college I responded “The thinking thing.”
Doris laughed. He was 7 feet tall, 225 lbs and wore a flannel shirt and a black panama hat everywhere he went. His laugh was famous for filling coffee shops and intimidating grad students. “You’re right of course, but what I really meant was ‘What part of the body is the mind?'” He took a sip of his coffee, a latte with cinnamon sprinkled over the top. “Why does the mind die when the body does?”
“Maybe it’s because I work with information systems every day, but I guess that maybe the mind is just part of a complicated enough system.”
“So, if we are to believe that, then we’d have to believe that you and I, and this whole city could be part of a complicated system, giving rise to another mind.”
“I guess, but that seems ridiculous. The system still has to be organized in such a way that conscious thought is a possible property of the system.”
“Well, how did it happen for humans?” As a professor, Doris was very good at asking leading questions.
“I guess, having consciousness was an advantage, survival-wise, so people with brains that were organized that way were more likely to reproduce.”
“So, if a city could make decisions on the large scale, if it were somehow an advantage for a city to have a consciousness, then wouldn’t we expect to see decision making happen at the city level?”
“This is getting crazy, Doris.”
“You’re the one who brought it up.”
“Yeah I mentioned that I felt in tune with the city, while smoking a bowl and being sleep-deprived, not that I felt like the city was actually intelligent.”
“Why couldn’t it be?”
I didn’t have an answer for this. The thing I was going to say sounded ignorant and old fashioned. It was something along the lines of ‘humans are special’, something that is shown to be more and more false every day.
That night I stood out on my balcony again. It was still snowing. I looked toward the University and located Doris’s building. I could see the light still on in his office. He confessed to me once that he spends very little time in his home. He’s probably just playing video games or watching TV in there. I saw him crack the window to smoke. “Ahh,” I thought, “That’s what he’s doing in there.”
I thought back to the celebrations in the Great Park when cannabis was legalized. I wondered how this affected the city’s mind. I realized then that my whole sense of self was entangled with my senses. How I couldn’t imagine how the city felt, because we have totally different bodies. Even when my mind is impaired by drugs or alcohol, this manifests by changing the information going into my brain. If 20% of the city gets stoned in the park, then that changes the way information moves through the city right? So maybe it does feel… something. The problem is, the perspective experience of physical changes is dependent on the environment that the mind evolved in. So it would feel good to do things that are good for the city, and bad to do things that are bad for the city. But then drugs hijack that. So maybe it depends on how the city’s reward system works?
There was a power surge, and all the lights in University Town flickered.
My head started to hurt and my toes started to freeze so I went back inside. I thought for a moment about how the city probably intentionally does things that aren’t so good for it. Just like how I sit here alone and destroy my body with drugs and alcohol instead of doing things I actually enjoy, like talk to people about how the city might be alive.
I sighed and collapsed on the couch.
I lay there silently for about thirty seconds.
I picked up my phone and called Doris.