How I Broke the Empathy Network

Of course I couldn’t sleep. Who the hell could sleep anymore?

The space between my upper lip and right eye twitched as I endured the water-drip torture of re-scripting the day, working out clever cutting responses that would have silenced that ass who rode rough-shod over my meeting, or shamed my uncle and made him reconsider posting that hateful ignorant meme.

The deep persistent anxiety rang out from the noise. Playing piano used to drown it out. But now it was late, and there were neighbors. The baby grand would collect another night of dust. I doom-scrolled my social feeds instead.

The ringing only grew worse.

As various headlines scrolled past—each ending in provocative ellipses—it occurred to me that I knew of everything, but not much about anything. I heard the rumor of events, saw the shadow of a place or the rough sketch of a person. I was like a starving man in a neglected corner of a restaurant, who sees and smells the food go by but who will never be served. I would never fill my belly.

An image of a woman slid into view. It was close-cropped to only show the left-half of her face. Her eye was closed and the skin around it was relaxed, youthful, and smooth. She appeared to be meditating. I suspected it was an ad for yoga gear. This made me mildly and abstractly annoyed. My finger was poised, ready to scroll, but then something about the quality and depth of her beauty registered. I felt a bit disappointed in myself as I relaxed into her image, but this tiny bit of her was intriguing, it was the middle of the night, and I was alone.

A logo and the stylized word, “emPath,” floated into view. Her one visible eye sprang open. I surprised myself by jumping and giving a feeble gasp. The eye was a vibrant, almost glowing green and the pupil an empty black well. I couldn’t help but feel she was angry or accusing. The image began to pull away and more of her face came into view. “Connect,” the ad said. Her intensity remained, but now that her face was fully revealed, her expression seemed to have changed from anger to recognition.

“Understand.” Now the image was pulled back enough to show all of her and the space she occupied.  She was sitting cross-legged on a mat in a clean modern space full of honey-toned bamboo furnishings. There was a plate glass window over her left shoulder. A small teal vase holding a single white flower sat upon an end table to her right. It is a fucking yoga ad, I thought before I noticed the scene outside the window was all fire and curling ribbons of black and white smoke.

Then the whole image was obscured by a uniform gray wash. A “Learn more” button condensed into view.

I clicked it. 

***

The emPath site was minimalist and vague. It wasn’t immediately clear what emPath was. Down in the tiny words of the footer—among the alternate language links, developer APIs, and contact information—I found “About”.

I learned that emPath was the pet project of one of those technology trillionaires who have finally grown bored with their wealth and have decided to give something back to the world. The same sort who start rocket companies, reimagine liquid fuel, or invest in high-rise urban farming. In this case, Ananda Buruchai decided she wanted to “bridge the gap between us”. That was about all it said.

Being of the vague opinion that gaps were bad and bridges generally good, I didn’t immediately abandon the site. In a world where everyone is shouting into our eyes from every surface, trying to convince us of something, or engage us just enough to generate a half-cent of revenue, there was something irresistible about this ambiguity. There were links to a few other pages. I decided to explore and see what else I could figure out. 

The site felt like a continuation of the not-yoga ad. It had the same color palette, same pseudo-spiritual phrases, the same soothing imagery. There were insinuations throughout that the outside world was in crisis and emPath was a sort of monastery atop a mountain. On every page, opportunities to sign up for the emPath beta were featured front and center.

I made my way to the signup page. This was a perfect replica of the room from the ad, but the woman was gone. Her absence filled me with an irrational panic, as though she were an actual missed opportunity. The table and flower were still there, and that terrible haunting window. Looking in on that room, my view framed by the edges of my screen, I understood that I was standing outside in the burning world looking in. I needed to come inside. I had to know where the woman had gone and whether I could find her. The “Join” button suddenly seemed like a doorknob.

I clicked.

Next, I was welcomed to the free emPath beta program and was thanked for my willingness to help them work out the kinks. I provided my personal information and checked some boxes attesting that I’d read the disclaimers and liability waivers which, of course, I had not. There was no request for payment information, which went a long way toward allaying my still-present suspicion that yoga-themed sales or credit card theft would eventually be involved.

***

A few days later I received a battered brown box in the mail. Inside was a sleek white cardboard box. The matte finish felt like warm potter’s clay, but when I touched it, my fingers came away clean and dry. I lifted the lid and it rose slowly, pulling in a thin whistle of air. Inside, fitted perfectly into the dense black foam, was an Octopus™ contact rig. The rig had eight long, multi-jointed arms which came together in a knot of wires under a clear protective carapace. The wires followed the legs like blue, black, and red veins. These terminated in hundreds of tiny hair-like filaments that protruded from the underside of each leg. A long tail of thick cable exited the body and ended in a universal plug. I thought “Spider” would have been a more fitting name for the thing, but that was exactly the sort of apt association marketing departments were paid to break.

I logged onto emPath and reviewed the welcome message. “On emPath, users don’t just share content, they share experiences.” In the Q&A section I learned that, “Sharing experiences is always initiated by the sharer, and is always under the sharer’s control. We will not access your memory. If sensitive information does cross your mind during a shared experience, we’ll detect the compromising content and block it. When you co-experience a shared moment, no information is captured or transmitted from you.”

I filled in some basic questions about my life: where I’d lived and worked and gone to school. The site provided a list of possible friends and their recently posted moments. I skipped through the false matches until I found a moment posted by an old friend from high school. The headline read, “Loving my life! At the beach with good friends.” Under the headline was a collection of pictures and a video of her at a rented beach house with a few other women and a dog. Beneath her content was the key, a gray stripe where emPath had stamped several icons indicating the sorts of emotions my old friend was feeling during her moment, and which I should expect to feel if I chose to co-experience it. There was a smiley face of course, then a thing that looked like an asterisk with balls on the end of each arm. A quick hover over this icon informed me it meant “connection”. There were the praying “blessed” hands, another face obviously expressing smugness, and a final face whose large eyes were looking down toward its tiny contrite mouth indicating shame or insecurity.

Following a quick “info” link brought me to a short Q&A focused solely on the key. I learned that “emPath no longer allows sharers to edit a moment’s key.” Reading between the lines, it seemed sharers had tended to add positive and remove negative icons. This annoyed a lot of users who expected to escape into a moment of proclaimed optimism and strength only to find themselves cast into the unfillable pit of the sharer’s need. It turned out that the emPath AIs were extremely insightful and accurate when teasing out and naming our emotions. I later learned that, once sharers adjusted to the AIs’ free—albeit brutally honest—psychoanalysis, it became one of the main reasons people turned their personal moments over to the network. 

I flipped through my friend’s pictures, not really engaging with them. When I got to the video, I paused, my indicator hovering tentatively over the “Experience” button. I was nervous and oddly titillated. She had always been friendly to me. 

I took the plunge.

The site noted that this was the first time I’d tried to co-experience a moment. It offered me step-by-step directions on how to get set up. I plugged in my new Octopus rig and settled it onto my head. It writhed wildly for a few seconds, the serpentine movements of its arms growing slower and more subtle as it adjusted to the contours of my skull. Then there was the tickling tingling sensation of the minute metallic hairs searching for optimal contact points. It would have felt like a swarm of ants crawling across my scalp had it not been for the teeny poof of pleasure I felt each time one of the connectors found its proper home.

Once the rig was settled, a green check mark appeared on the screen and below it the words, “All set!”

Once again, I pressed the “Experience” button.

My friend’s experience was indistinguishable from real life, except for two notable exceptions. First, my eyes were about five inches closer to the ground than I was used to. Second, I could not change my perspective. This wasn’t a virtual space I was invited to explore. It was a recorded moment I was experiencing from another person’s point of view. 

We were walking along the beach looking out to sea at giant wave-drenched guano-streaked rocks and the convection of birds that swirled over our heads. I became aware of a novel sensory channel accompanying the experience, a narrative thread that whispered hints, squeezed, and poked at my emotions. Once I was aware of it, it was jarringly obvious, like the bright yellow translations scrawled across the bottom of a foreign movie. But just like subtitles, I soon grew accustomed to it, and it blended in with the overall sensory pallet of the experience as though I’d learned to hear with my eyes.

There was a piercing appreciation for the transience of the sunset’s golden light. Our mind fumbled like a stuttering child to find the words to describe it. We fought the urge to snap a picture, fearing it would collapse the moment; knowing it would never do it justice. We wanted to bottle it up so we could pour it out for anyone who doubted it ever could have been this way.

Down the beach, our friends were making jokes and laughing. We couldn’t hear the punchlines over the crashing surf and lamenting birds, but that didn’t bother us much. The laughter was all that mattered. The sound of it reached across the interceding yards of sand and cupped our heart as though checking its fullness and weight. 

We were in love with this moment. We thanked whatever configuration of stars or circumstance had made it possible. But there was something else, a sad suspicion that this feeling was too powerful to be reciprocated. It could only ever flow in one direction. We knew instinctively that if we talked about it or tried to explain it, it would only make the deficit worse. 

Yet we felt compelled to connect and share. Our need overflowed the inadequate vessel of these immediate friendships. Perhaps if we let it flow out into the world, and if the world gave back even the tiniest bit, it might supplement and make tolerable our friends’ half-love.

Perhaps, if enough people approved of this moment, we’d know we’d been right to let the winds and prevailing currents of our life carry us. That the choices and the friends we’d made along the way had been good ones. That the dreams of our youth had been nothing more than arrogant pretentions. 

I repeated the moment several times. The more I co-exed, the more complicated my understanding of my old friend became. I found myself falling in love with her. Not romantic love, but a deep connection, an overwhelming desire to support her. Though it was doubtful anyone would ever use her last name when discussing a scientific theory or process, I wanted to reassure her that she’d done well. That she had nothing to be ashamed of. But I also knew she would never believe me.

When I finally closed her moment, I was spent. I switched off the contact rig and felt the probes disengage like a thousand tiny disappointed sighs. I was amazed to find that thirty-five whole minutes…and that only thirty-five minutes…had gone by. I noticed that a part of her moment clung to me. It was like catching the scent of a lover drifting up from your skin hours after they’d left. I still understood what it meant to be her, or more accurately the feeling I felt when I was experiencing as her. I felt that if I came across a similar woman—at a supermarket, perhaps, done up perfect and buying expensive water—I would know something about the anxious roots that fed the bright blue blossoms of her eyes. I might see her and say to her, “I get you, sister.” 

I would mean it.

***

As more and more of my friends began to appear on emPath, I made my way through their first tentatively shared moments. Being new to sharing, they were all nagged by a similar nervousness at putting themselves out there, like they were the new kid in class raising their hand for the first time. The other commonality was a compulsion, a need, to know if anyone else could ever understand them.

I wasn’t like the sharers. Even when I used to play shows, I was more a voyeur than an exhibitionist. I got my kicks from the audience’s reactions, not from showing off my skills. And since I’d given up performing, I seemed to have lost any remaining desire to be seen and known. I wanted to understand more than be understood.

One night before heading to bed, I had the idea to co-experience pornography because, of course I did. It was completely acceptable to share any legal moment on emPath, but pornography was surprisingly hard to find. The traditional ways one might search for and find it—using key phrases like, “ecstasy”, or “she’s into me”—didn’t return the desired results on a network indexed on the sharer’s actual emotions. At the same time, searching for “insecure”, “embarrassed”, or “lonely” and hoping to co-experience an enjoyable moment just felt wrong.

But I persevered.

At first, I did what seemed most natural to me and tried co-experiencing a moment shared by a male. 

As we looked down at the woman laid out before us, we could appreciate the dolphin-smooth lines of her. The contrived mess of her black hair splayed across the pillow and fitted sheet implied that some manner of passion had been involved. It looked plausible enough, so we chose to believe it. But we didn’t watch her face, and we didn’t look into her eyes.

Having become something of a connoisseur of emotions over the previous weeks, I found the ones from this sharer to be irredeemably lacking. There was the detached awareness that this moment, while following the same contrived arc as hundreds of previous moments, was still something of a conquest. The locker-room jibe “pics or it didn’t happen” was still whispering in the back of our mind, reminding us that a victory with no evidence was no victory at all. I was about to exit the moment when a tiny spark very deep down caught my attention. It was a question—a fear—that this was all there was. That this thing that was purported to be such an important part of the human experience was nothing more than this. And while there was the unmistakably pleasant ache and electric pulse where we were joined, it didn’t feel joyful. It never felt like returning home.

After co-experiencing that moment, I became curious to know how the woman must have felt. Once I realized the idea had occurred to me, I wanted to push it down and hide it. My efforts did nothing but draw more attention to it. And the more I focused on it the more difficult it became to ignore. Soon, I began to wonder why I was fighting it so hard. There was no one there to judge me but myself. In principal, I thought it better to live life curious than embarrassed. I frowned, shrugged, and began a new search. There was a little sticky glob of excitement in my throat, the same one I used to get when messing around with my high school study partner while her parents watched TV upstairs.

This wouldn’t be the same act I co-exed earlier, of course. It would ruin the moment to see the other person wearing a contact rig, sort of like seeing a boom mic drop into a movie frame, only more so.

I didn’t want the experience to be traumatic, so I filtered out anything that was tagged with “fear”, “coercion”, “hatred”, and the like. Then I reviewed the thumbnails of the few remaining moments looking for a man whom I hoped the sharer had at least found attractive.

Once the moment began, I was surprised to find we were experiencing excitement and gratitude, not at what was taking place, but at being blessed with our youth, vitality, and the body we inhabited. By some lucky accident, our bones and muscles and flesh had all combined into a form that others found desirable. There was power in having that desire out there in the world pulling at us. It was thrilling and a bit addictive. By showing ourselves to the world in this way, we ignited and fed a thousand fires in the lustful, delusional minds of men. To some degree, those fires kept us warm. 

And we were wickedly proud of our own cleverness. We had outsmarted millions of years of evolution. We’d found a way to harness the irrepressible aching need to procreate and ride its deep explosive release for pleasure alone. If in the process, we put our thumb in the eye of a culture that wanted to shame us for enjoying our body and sharing that experience freely, all the better. It was an act of radical self-empowerment when we thought about it that way. And wasn’t that really what it was all about? Creating our own power in a world that wouldn’t grant us an ounce of it freely?

But who was this handsome and overly eager prop we had welcomed into us? We didn’t recognize any sense of connection to him. We knew him. We were friends—more co-workers really. We would probably chat and drink coffee after the shoot. He would likely be professional and respectful. But he would not shine with that addictive desire. He would not surreptitiously touch our knee under the table, nor flash a suggestive hopeful smile. We would not bite our lower lip and look down at our steaming mug in silent acquiescence.

The thought of this lover who felt no love, introduced the acidic trace of fear into our emotional mix. In the back of our mind sat the niggling worry—which we tried to ignore like an oddly colored mole—that this raucous celebration of our body drew its meaning and power from the merciless arrow of time. That like all things finite, once we had spent our youth it would be gone. We suspected that all this frivolity and defiance was there to drown out our panic and desperation.

***

Over the following weeks, I did my best to spend my time on emPath co-experiencing moments from people who had different hobbies, racial or sexual identities, views on religion, politics, or art. I began to feel something resonating across all of them, a rumbling foundational note. I remembered sitting at the piano when I was young. I would hold down the sustain pedal, pound out a chord, and listen to it decay. Slowly, ghost notes would drift out like embers from a dying fire. In the same way, I began to perceive some essential similarity between all of these moments. As though I were catching snatches of harmonics rising up from some fundamental subliminal frequency.

***

EmPath wasn’t designed to reinforce opinions or advance agendas. In fact, it wasn’t about content at all. Instead, it homed in on and amplified the emotional channel that hummed along behind shared moments.  

A user could not co-opt another user’s moment and turn it to their own purposes. They couldn’t even comment on it. Outside of co-experiencing the moment, the most you could do was indicate that you liked, loved, disapproved, or that you were angered, saddened, or surprised by it. Your reactions made their way back to the original sharer, and presumably had some impact on the network’s affinity algorithms, but little else.

On emPath, if you wanted to express an opinion on a matter, you didn’t just forward a meme. If there was a news article, video, or image you wanted to bring on the network, there was no “share to emPath” widget on your phone or browser. Instead, you would slap a contact rig on your head, hit “Record” or “Livestream” and share the experience of reading the article, watching the video, or looking at the image.

If you had some original opinion you wanted to express, you wouldn’t just write a few sentences edited down to sound clever and biting. You would create a “talking head” moment where you sat down in front of a camera with an Octopus on your head and shared the experience of putting your idea to words. When you shared anything on emPath, you shared yourself.

This tended to soften and moderate the network. Trolls were too ashamed of their inner emotional state, and passable bots were far too difficult and expensive to create.

Moments showed up in your feed based on a combination of the preferences you’d set—I claimed to like happy, humble, heady experiences that inspired awe—the moment’s popularity within your circle of friends or emotionally similar users, its similarity to other moments you’ve enjoyed, and some hard to define notion of “most helpful”.

Still, for whatever reason, moments began to pepper my feed that dealt with people or subjects I totally disagreed with. I was disheartened. Three months in and my emPath feed was as lousy with radical political and anti-science conspiracy theories as every other network. But the emPath algorithm had never surfaced anything less than fascinating. Perhaps the system knew something I didn’t. Eventually, I began to wonder why moments which ran counter to my beliefs bothered me so much more than other moments I merely found distasteful. How were these worse than war footage, emergency room medicine, or the care and feeding of tarantulas? After picking apart my own stubborn refusal to engage, I found fear at its center. I was afraid that conspiracies—or more accurately the thoughts in the minds that produced and promoted them—might be contagious. 

Once I had named the emotion and understood its logic, it seemed silly. It was as though I had decorated the unexplored parts of a map with serpents and dragons and had come to believe my own doodles. My reluctance felt a lot more like cowardice than distaste. I sensed that closing my mind to anything, especially out of fear, went against whatever lesson I was learning from my time on emPath. And besides, if I went into a moment worried that I might come across some thought that would break my brain, wouldn’t my own wariness provide some protection? I’d just have to watch my thoughts a bit.

Still, I decided to play it safe. For my first foray into the uncharted waters of conspiracies I chose a subject that—if I became a convert—wouldn’t leave me talking to myself at cocktail parties. I found a “talking head” moment of a woman who was convinced that the Titanic never sank. I watched the video rig-less for the five or so minutes it took for her to explain her theory just so I’d be absolutely sure there wasn’t anything convincing in there. There was not. I took a glance at the symbols spread across the strip of the moment’s key and concluded it would be safe enough.

I returned to the start of the video, donned my Octopus, took a final here-goes-nothing breath, and pressed the “Experience” button.

The video repeated, but the point of view was totally different. Our image was mirrored back at us on the computer screen, but we could also see the borders of the screen, the dimly lit details of the surrounding bedroom, and the camera’s polished lens staring back at us. We narrowed our eyes and prepared ourselves to stare through that unblinking eye and travel down its optic nerve into a world that would judge and deride us, that didn’t want to believe us, that would react with an anger that was at once strangely intense and telling.

A tight heat splashed across our chest, flooded down to our arms, and seeped out through our sweaty palms. This was going to take audacity, clarity of mind, and whatever it was that statues of sea captains were always admiring in the middle distance. We silently repeated the mantra we always used to fortify our courage. “The truth longs to be free.”

Ever since the truth about the Titanic had landed in our care, we could feel it straining at the tethers of our better judgement and insecurity. It was like an animal terrified of dying in the lonely hold of our solitary mind. We had never been very good at keeping secrets. 

We remembered the feedback our first boss at our first job had given us after our very first presentation. “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.” With that simple advice in mind, we drew in a breath and began.

“The Titanic never sank.”

Now came the appeal to the audience’s common sense. “It all had to do with money and the massive insurance payout the White Star Line would receive for the Titanic.” We wondered for a moment if we should risk an aside here detailing our core conviction: that people—especially the rich—will do anything for money; that if you followed the slimy trails of profit leading up to and away from any disaster, you would eventually come upon a tiny back room furnished with a single naked light bulb, a psychopath, and a spreadsheet. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Spreadsheets could be traced, and in the case of the Titanic, had yet to be invented. Though there had been ledgers…But then we considered our audience (another thing our first boss had taught us) and more importantly we knew ourselves. We knew even a brief diversion into catastrophe economics would quickly devolve into a rambling list of cases in point and would play into the stereotype. We hated playing into the stereotype. The case for the Titanic would just have to stand on its own merits.

“We’ve all seen the photos and videos of the Titanic at the bottom of the sea. We know the history. We’ve seen the survivors’ accounts. Those photos and videos and accounts are real. A ship did strike an iceberg and sink. But…” Now came the thrilling instant of revelation, a refrain back to the moment when something had clicked in us; that exalted feeling when we came to understand this previously hidden facet of reality. Only this moment was better, because we were giving that knowledge back. This moment was a gift to the world. “…it was not the Titanic. It’s the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic.” A whole flood of feeling welled up from inside us. It overflowed our gunwales and swamped us. In the mix were emotions like relief, triumph, and even love. We were proud of ourselves. We had the strength of character and generosity of spirit to stand up for truth rather than cower behind our fears and self-doubt. And we wondered—not for the first time—if we were just the sort of person who would have hidden Jews from the Nazis. We decided we probably were.

But now, back to the Titanic! We reminded ourselves to speak with confidence. Be assertive. Thanks boss. “Here’s what happened. The Olympic was nearly identical to the Titanic. Same size, shape, layout, paint job. Everything. The Olympic had been damaged in an earlier voyage, and the owners wanted to scrap it. But if they did that, they were going to lose a lot of money. So, they decided to (air quotes)sink  the Titanic(air quotes) instead. It would have been the Titanic’s maiden voyage, and so the insurance payout would be much larger than for the slightly older, already damaged Olympic. So, they swapped the boats. They changed out the monikers on everything from the dinner plates, to the life rings, to the ten-foot-tall name on the side of the ships. Then they drove the boat out to the middle of the ocean where no one would ever find the evidence, and sank it hoping that all the witnesses would go down with the ship.” 

It was all so plausible that—once we understood it—it seemed impossible that it could have happened any other way. The accepted storyline, the one the rest of the world believed, seemed almost laughable, and certainly more boring, by comparison.

Then we continued adding in a filigree of evidence about the different shapes and numbers of the windows of the two boats, how there had been pictures of a carpeted room where there should have been tile, a bell with no name whatsoever, etc. All common knowledge really. We were just tying it all together with a bow for them.

Our irrefutable case having been laid out, we circled back and closed by restating the thesis. “And there you have it, all the proof you’ll ever need that the Titanic never sank.” We fought down the urge to bring up a few more points of proof that, even now, were coming to mind in support of our premise. But that ship had sailed, so to speak. Now it was time to press “Share”.

Once again, we experienced a moment of self-doubt. This wasn’t about the facts or the way we’d connected the dots. It was about whether it was worth it at all. What difference would it really make if the world finally knew the truth about the Titanic? Even if we were wildly successful, and a formal investigation were made, and the history books rewritten, not a single person would be brought back to life or to justice. And while we believed that the truth was its own justification, the headwinds against it were strong. If creating this moment were just about justice for the dead, those winds should have prevailed.

It had to be about more than truth or justice. It had something to do with the overwhelming complexity and impenetrable darkness of the world. About our anger at those who were high enough above the fray that they could see and comprehend it all yet chose to keep the masses ignorant and powerless with their contrived easy-to-swallow narratives. Sharing this moment was about who we wanted to be in the face of all of that. 

Every hero in every story, every standard-bearer for truth, started out as a lone voice shouting in the wilderness: ignored, then derided, then suppressed. Then proven correct. The adversity, the fear of judgement, the resistance we were feeling were like a compass needle. They pointed us in the right direction.

We hit the “Share” button.

I logged off and removed my rig. I checked my thoughts, curious to know if I’d come around to her way of thinking. I need not have worried. I was no more inclined to believe that there was a massive coverup surrounding the Titanic than to believe I’d been on a beach vacation with my old friend’s friends. But if I wasn’t swayed by the theory’s internal logic, I had gained an understanding of the sharer.  She felt a need to stand up, shine her light, and carve out a little truthful space in the encroaching darkness. I had started out baffled and annoyed, I ended up feeling pity and something unsettlingly close to recognition.

Having dipped my toe in and withdrawn it undamaged, I dove headlong into this fascinating new world. And so, more and more of the time I should have spent in front of the piano was spent in the heads of people I wholeheartedly disagreed with.

I knew there was no risk of believing the conspiracy theories I’d begun co-exing, but I made sure to sprinkle in a moment or two of science every day, just to be safe. I found that the emotional makeup of the two types of sharers were amazingly similar. The certainty of a conspiracy theorist announcing their latest dream revelation was exactly the same as a scientist announcing a discovery after years of experiments and data analysis. 

Both felt they were illuminating and enlightening an ignorant world. There was a shared smugness and a belief that they had pulled back a tiny corner of the veil and were revealing fundamental truths. And just below all that was the fearful whisper that they might be wrong. That the only way to judge the validity of their ideas was to share them and see if they took root in the hearts and minds of others.

I found the same was true of the deist or the atheist, the conservative or the liberal, the pacifist or jingoistic nationalist, even of my old friend walking along the beach.

I noticed the wobbly feeling of ideas coming together like someone slowly tuning strings to the same note. I knew it was an evolution of the same drifting harmonic feeling I’d had for a while, but I still didn’t know what the tone might be, or who was cranking the pins for that matter. Poking and prodding simply silenced everything like a hand across the soundboard. 

All at once it came to me that I should create my own moment, something that would help me draw out and express this rising epiphany. I considered how best to do it. 

I didn’t think my coming realization would be well-served by a moment of beautiful scenery, hanging out with friends, or petting a dog. I decided a thought-provoking setting would fit the bill, something with a bit of symbolism to help extract the idea and drive it home. The periodic table of elements came to mind and felt nearly right. I considered how I might use it and what sorts of conclusions it would help me draw. But it was so static, so dry. Any point I presented would be made too quickly. I wanted to give my emotions time to fully unfold the way they did in the more popular moments. 

Then my neglected baby grand piano floated to mind. I felt an internal lurch toward the idea. Playing the piano had all the trappings of a great moment. I knew I could explain my idea while performing a somewhat novel and theatrical task. There was the inherently emotional experience of playing music. That would be a draw in and of itself. And I was a master, having once packed halls on several continents in my younger days. Few have experienced the feeling of playing an instrument at that level. And lastly, I intuited that the keyboard would jibe well with this new understanding I hoped to share. The thing I thought would be most interesting was my experience of making these final connections, that awesome moment of revelation and epiphany. I knew if I thought much more about it, it would arrive prematurely, and I would lose the moment. I forced myself to stop overthinking it.

I took a deep breath and began following the instructions for “capturing and sharing a moment”. I would be away from my machine, so I had to set myself up for remote capture. I found the portable memory unit in the same box the rig had arrived in. I popped it from its indention in the foam and removed the thin film of protective plastic. It was about the size of a deck of cards and made of polished metal. The input jack took up most of its right side. I unplugged the contact rig’s cable from my machine and plugged it into the side of the portable. I placed my thumb over the power button, and it began to glow blue.

On the top of the Octopus’ central hub was a tiny slider. I used my thumbnail to move it to the little battery symbol, and the body of the rig began to glow with the same faint blue light as the portable.

I held my finger over the “Record” button on the portable and it glowed red. I slid it into my back pocket. Recording brought with it a new sensation. It was barely noticeable, but it was there. It felt like a tug in my mind, or like the pressure in the ears at altitude. But there was also an emotional pull, like the tell-me-more feeling you get from a friend as they silently listen and nod.

I was intensely aware that others might be co-experiencing this very moment with me but separated in time. Then I realized they would also co-ex that uncanny instant of self-reflection, and the hall-of-mirrors queasiness of it all nearly derailed me. I shook it off and focused on my moment. 

I stepped in front of a wall mirror, and—unsure of exactly what I was going to say—began speaking.

“I joined the emPath network about three or four months ago. Ever since my very first co-experienced moment, there has been this idea reverberating in the back of my mind. I can feel it there right now, like a chick pecking at its shell. I think I’m starting to see the shape of it, and I wanted you all to be there with me when I finally come to understand it and put it into words.” I could hear the childlike excitement in my own voice. I smiled at my reflection and bobbed my left eyebrow to show that I found the prospect intriguing. 

I walked over to the piano and sat down on the bench, shifting my weight until I felt comfortable. We all find ourselves naked and alone in the world. We do our best to make sense of it all. There are some guides and hints from religions, parents, and self-help books, but the advice they give never seems to apply exactly to the problems we face as individuals.”

I began to bounce my left ring finger on B flat an octave below middle C. “We each have a tune in the back of our mind that wants to be written, to be played out to the world, where it can land and make a nest in someone else’s ear. But we only have our instrument, what little training we’ve received, and whatever albums our older brother forced us to listen to as a kid. So, even if we all heard the same tune, is it any wonder our songs come out so different?”

I started fingering chords and doing runs of soft arpeggios. “Over the last few months, I’ve co-experienced hundreds of moments. The first thing I noticed is that there are no bad actors, not really. I know that’s shocking, given some of the horrible things people say and do. But I’ve made a point to sample the best and the worst, the most mundane and novel moments I could find. I’m now convinced that every single one of them believes they are serving some greater good or higher ideal.

“The other, slightly less obvious, thing I’ve noticed is that most folks are a little bit worried that they’ve fallen for their own myth.” I could feel the thing coming into view as though the tide was rolling out and I could see the spires and calcified riggings of a shipwreck emerging from the waves. “Everyone realizes they are at the center of an internal structure their mind has made, but they’ll never be certain if they’re the hub of a wheel or the spider in a web. And so, they share. They turn themselves inside out and reveal what they’ve built to the world, and—whether they know it or not—they hope for someone outside of themselves to say they are right, to tell them they are good.”

And then there was no more tug, no more impulse to dig. I knew that the realization I’d come to was true, whole, and complete. But it hadn’t been as marvelous or insightful as I’d expected. As though, once the tide had finally ebbed, my Spanish galleon had just been a pile of rocks all along. Still, I felt like I’d learned something true, and there was value in that. And there was the bit with the piano playing. People might enjoy that. It was probably more interesting than a walk along the beach, and dozens of people had co-exed that. All in all, probably not too bad for a first moment. 

I stopped recording. I sent the moment from the portable back to the machine and hit the “Share” button. I made myself some coffee while it processed and compiled and uploaded. 

When it was done, I sat back down at my machine, and there on my feed was a three-second loop of my hands moving over the piano keys. I had shared a thing with the world. I felt proud of it, a little embarrassed as well, but it was precious to me. I was suddenly overcome with curiosity about how others might co-experience my moment. I wondered if co-exing your own moment would be like hearing your own voice recorded and played back at you. Would I recognize myself? I plugged the Octopus back into my machine.

There we were, standing in front of the mirror, excited, uncertain, wondering how to start. Then we just started. “I joined the emPath network about three or four months ago…” As the words came out of us, we wondered if we could pull this whole thing off. We worried how the world would perceive us if this all fell flat. Were we kidding ourselves that there was anything of value lurking just beneath the surface of our minds? But then we heard the childlike excitement in our own voice, and we refused to let ourselves care. We knew at that moment that the nagging fear was the very thing we were struggling against. That was our oppressor. 

The tug came back to me then, that feeling that there was some revelation about to breach the surface of my awareness. I stopped my moment and stared at the blank section of wall above my screen, giving this new idea the space it needed to emerge. I could feel it coming. I had a ridiculous idea I wanted to try before it arrived. I acted quickly, making sure to hold onto the sense of the idea, the way one might focus on a dish of sloshing liquid as they moved around the kitchen opening and closing appliance doors with their feet.

I spawned two browser windows. I put them both in secret mode so that neither could know about what was going on in the other. I placed them side by side. In the right window, I opened emPath’s recording studio. I selected “live feed” and clicked “share”.  In the left, I rewound to the beginning of my moment, and clicked “Play.”

We were once again standing before the mirror, childlike, insecure, and defiant of our own insecurity. 

We moved over to the piano bench, hoping that our years of improvisation would loosen up some part of our brain and help let this thing out. We all find ourselves naked and alone in the world…” We were sounding cliché, like the words of a television commercial. We thought that maybe that was where we picked up the phrase. We hoped no one else would notice…

We began to bounce our finger on a key and there was a moment of impending victory, we could feel it coming up to the surface! “We each have a tune in the back of our mind wanting to be written…and whatever albums our older brother forced us to listen to…” the big brother line surprised and delighted us, we weren’t expecting it. It made us chuckle. We wondered if our big brother would ever co-ex this. Would he find it funny, or would he think we were trying a bit too hard? There’s the fear again. Ignore it. This is important. Keep playing. Keep talking.

“…There are no bad actors, not really… every single one of them believes they are serving some greater good or higher ideal…” As we played the piano and talked, we could feel the revelation swelling and rising to the surface. The blooming sensation was magical and beautiful. 

And then it was delivered: our epiphany, small and pink as a newborn kitten. Even if the conclusion was somewhat mundane, we felt the truth of it. We had been right to share the moment. 

Then my original moment was over, but I was still livestreaming. I glanced over and noticed that others were co-exing my live feed. Ten, then forty. As I watched, the number grew to over one hundred. I didn’t really register this, because I could feel another revelation boiling up inside of me and the tugging sensation persisted.

Then it came. I was the same. Beautiful, noble, petty, ugly, brave, fearful, magnanimous, and lonely. Every impulse I’d seen in everyone else was in me as well. My inner life was the same continual struggle between the “I am” and the “am I?” taking turns making proclamations and interrogating the world.

The co-ex counter was spinning up faster than the page could refresh. Within a minute, the last three digits were replaced with a “k”, and the numbers began updating more slowly.

I imagined myself falling down a dazzling white well. My withering sense of self was attempting to form arguments and make assertions about my individuality. I saw these affirmations like nets stretched across my path trying to halt my descent. I fell through them all like they were cobwebs or smoke. 

And still my co-ex counter crept upward.

The walls of the interminable shaft drifted away from me until they disappeared entirely. I found myself suspended in a monotonous gray. I had no bearings, and no way of knowing if I was still falling. I realized that each of us were just circumstantial fluctuations in that fog. That we were unique in the same incidental way as drifts that have randomly arisen on a vast snow-covered field. We have been gathered into selves by the mittened hands of circumstance, habit, and the nearly mathematical processes of our minds. 

I could no longer distinguish myself from the rest of humanity. I could no longer comprehend individuality. I could no longer pass judgement on another. 

I was paralyzed. 

I was terrified. 

I was ecstatic.  And that is how I violated the emPath terms of service and broke the network. 

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