This week, the podcast and show Invisibilia examines the nature of reality, with a Silicon Valley techie who created apps to randomize his life, a psychologist who trains herself to experience the world like dogs do and a wildlife biologist who thinks bears aren't dangerous.
In San Francisco, the life Max Hawkins lived was arguably perfect.
He was employed by Google, surrounded by friends and had his routine nailed down. He woke to artisanal coffee, biked to work along the beautiful Embarcadero waterfront roadway, lunched on Google's famed free food ("like four different kinds of kale" level) and — possibly the true mark of a successful millennial — got invited to many happy hours.
But something was missing.
Sometimes Max would lay awake at night pondering what felt so ... wrong.
"I just started thinking about these loops that we get into," he says. "And about how the structure of your life ... completely determines what happens in it."
Max's once beautiful routine suddenly seemed unfulfilling. He felt like he was growing closer to people in his own bubble and becoming isolated from those outside of it.
"There was something ... that just made me feel trapped," he says. "Like I was reading a story that I'd read before or I was playing out someone else's script."
As any computer developer would do, Max turned to technology to craft his way out — a series of randomization applications.
Max started small, with an app that integrated Uber. It starts like a regular ride-hailing app: He would press a button in the app and a car would arrive. But then, a twist: He couldn't select a drop-off location; the app would choose a spot within a range without disclosing it. The only thing the rider had to do was enjoy the journey — and hope for a good destination.
From there, Max's applications became more complex. He built an app that used a Facebook search function for public events to find ones near him. Then the app would randomly choose which event Max would attend.
At first, he was nervous: What if people wouldn't let him in? But, as a kind of unassuming white guy, he actually didn't have this problem. (And Max acknowledges this privilege.) Once Max explained how and why he had arrived at these events, hosts usually welcomed him, often with only a few questions asked. Most of the time, people were taken by the idea of Max expanding his bubble.
One night, he got to drink white Russians with some Russians. Another, he attended acroyoga (as in, acrobatics + yoga). A community center pancake breakfast. A networking event for young professionals. The algorithm chose; Max attended.
Most of these events were something that the nonrandomized Max would never have thought to try. The computer was breaking him out of a life driven by his own preferences. He was suddenly seeing the world in a whole new way, and he really liked it.
"If I went out myself and said, like, 'I want to see the world!' I have an idea of what I need to see to do that," Max says. "But when I'm turning that over to a random algorithm, it has its own different idea. You're taking on the computer's view of the world, and because that's not human, it's likely to be completely different from your own."
One year, Max decided to use the Facebook-event generator app to choose where he would celebrate Christmas. It came up with a party at someone's home in Fresno, Calif.
With a pie and a friend, Max drove for three hours and showed up on the doorstep of a retired psychologist, Karena Beasley. Karena was celebrating with a handful of friends and family — and now, also two 20-something strangers.
"She was completely not fazed," Max says, describing the moment they met Karena. "She didn't miss a beat. She said, 'Oh, wonderful! We love Facebook, I'm so glad you're at the party. Welcome.' And it was like instantly we were friends."
Max says he and his friend stayed at the party for five or six hours. In a video from the night, the group sings carols to guitar and Max looks as if he is right where he belongs.
Max lived a randomized life for the better part of two years. In fact, he went global. He created an app that chose the places he would live, travel and eat. When he traveled, he continued using the Facebook events app to find random activities.
Would the old Max have chosen to attend a socialists' rally in Berlin? Or a meetup for bloggers of central Iowa? Max's randomized travels sent him to Vietnam, Germany, India, United Arab Emirates, Slovenia. He met people whom he would have never encountered inside his own perfect prerandomization bubble.
Max's app accounts for the costs of the globe-trotting style. "It knows about my budget," Max says — he can set price parameters. He freelances as a developer on the side. And, if he needs a break, he just turns the app off. The computer isn't entirely in charge, yet.
In fact, these days, Max has silenced the app. He is taking time off and living in Los Angeles (by choice, not randomization) and finalizing his suite of randomization apps. He hopes to introduce them for public use in the upcoming months. He has also created a Facebook group that encourages people to attend strangers' publicly listed events and offers tips and tricks for doing so. He shares updates on his projects on his website.
Maybe what Max is doing can be called art. And maybe it's a lifestyle that few would want to live. But one thing is for sure: His new bubble is fluid and ever-expanding, capturing new bubbles, other people's bubbles, and changing how he sees the world.
Micaela Rodríguez is the project assistant for Invisibilia. You can follow her @mikayrodr.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
NPR's Invisibilia has returned with a new season. And this week, they're investigating the way we look at reality - whether we can ever really see it and how we often have very different views of the same reality, which naturally brings us to reality bubbles. Invisibilia co-host Alix Spiegel found a man who devised a clever solution for breaking out of his reality bubble and pushing his way into new ones.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: This is a story about the prison your preference builds you, and it starts in a bubble in San Francisco with a young man named Max Hawkins. For a long time, Max loved his bubble because almost everything in it conformed to his notion of ideal.
MAX HAWKINS: I loved everything about my life in San Francisco. I thought it was great.
SPIEGEL: Max worked at Google. And every day, he would wake to artisanal coffee and then make his way to work in an eco-friendly manner.
HAWKINS: Ride my bike to the San Francisco Embarcadero, just this beautiful view.
SPIEGEL: In the morning, Max would work on a variety of creative and fulfilling projects and then break for Google lunch.
HAWKINS: They had, like, four different types of kale. Oh, man. It was good food.
SPIEGEL: At night, he'd return to the Mission, meet up with friends at a bar to talk ideas.
HAWKINS: Yeah (laughter).
SPIEGEL: So as bubbles go, not bad.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SPIEGEL: But then one day, Max was hit by a thought.
HAWKINS: I was lying on my bed, and I was looking up at the ceiling. I just started thinking about these loops that we get into, about how, like, the structure of your life completely determines what happens in it.
SPIEGEL: You work at Company X, which is Y miles from your home. You must commute from where you live to where you work, which puts you on a path that limits your exposure to people outside that path.
HAWKINS: The people inside the bubble get closer to you, and the people outside get further away.
SPIEGEL: It was a beautiful bubble. But still...
HAWKINS: There's something about that that just made me feel trapped, like I was reading a story that I'd read before or I was playing out someone else's script.
SPIEGEL: And then a liberating thought.
HAWKINS: I remembered that there's this feature on Facebook called Graph Search.
SPIEGEL: Now, for most people, Facebook's Graph Search function wouldn't necessarily leap to mind as an instrument of liberation. But what the Graph Search feature did was identify all of the public events in your area listed on Facebook, just the normal, everyday events that people post because they want their community of friends to know about them.
HAWKINS: And so it occurred to me that if I wanted to get out of my bubble, then I could just sample that list randomly.
SPIEGEL: So Max built himself an app, an app which identified all the public Facebook events in San Francisco and then randomly chose one for him to attend. And the great thing about this app he built? It was happy to send Max to any building in any neighborhood in all of San Francisco, like this one event it sent him to at this huge apartment building in the Marina section of the city.
HAWKINS: Showed up and then rang the buzzer for the number listed on the Facebook event. They said, oh, who is it? And I said, it's Max. And they're like, OK and then rang me up.
SPIEGEL: But once Max got to the apartment door, there was a lot of confusion.
HAWKINS: It was this group of probably seven Russian young professionals, and they had no idea who I was.
SPIEGEL: They'd misheard - thought he'd said Matt, M-A-T-T, a friend of theirs, not Max, M-A-X, a complete stranger sent to them by a hacked Facebook feature which randomly selected Friday night events to attend. But once Max explained...
HAWKINS: They thought it was so funny that they just let me stay and poured me a White Russian. And we got super drunk together.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SPIEGEL: So Max began to use his hacked Facebook app all the time. As a sort of unassuming, thin white man...
HAWKINS: Yeah, I think had that privilege.
SPIEGEL: ...He could enter all sorts of situations.
HAWKINS: Community center pancake breakfast, open house, salsa dancing events, acroyoga.
SPIEGEL: And as he did all this bubble-hopping, it started to become clear to him how much of modern American life is organized around preference. What do I want to eat? Who are the political leaders I believe in? What do I prefer? - is the fundamental question our consumer culture encourages people to ask themselves. So many of us do ask ourselves that question over and over, and the answers literally determine our lives, narrowing our path.
But this new computer program - it was a way out of the preference prison, a way for Max to get to new worlds he didn't know about because they were outside of the set of experiences provided to him by his preference. It was a completely different way of thinking.
HAWKINS: Like, if I went out myself and said, like, I want to see the world, I have an idea of what I need to see to do that. But when I'm turning that over to a random algorithm, it has its own different idea. You're taking on the computer's view of the world. And because that's not human, it's likely to be completely different from your own.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SPIEGEL: And then came Christmas.
HAWKINS: I decided not to go home.
SPIEGEL: Instead, Max had Facebook choose a Christmas dinner for him to go to. It chose a party in Fresno, Calif.
HAWKINS: There wasn't a lot of information on the event. I think there were maybe 10 people attending.
SPIEGEL: Max says, when he got to the doorbell, he was deeply freaked out.
HAWKINS: Terrified. I was about to run, like (laughter) - but then the door opened. And Karena, this - the host, opened the door and said hello, welcome. Who do you know?
SPIEGEL: So Max explained that he had a Facebook app that had randomly selected her party.
HAWKINS: She was completely not fazed. And it was, like, instantly, we were friends. I ended up staying for five or six hours. Their friends came over. And in the evening, we all sang Christmas carols together.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Laughter).
SPIEGEL: There's actually a video. They all look happy and at home together. If you didn't know, you would never guess that the tall, gangly 24-year-old standing near the older woman was a complete stranger, a computer programmer sent to this scene by an app he'd devised to break himself out of his beautiful bubble. It wouldn't have occurred to you in a million years.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good?
HAWKINS: I think we're good. (Unintelligible). Happy Christmas.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible).
SPIEGEL: Leaving your bubble - sometimes it's not as scary as you might think. Alix Spiegel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.