Today I realized that the theme of my webcomic, GravityRoad, has been largely inspired by a story from antiquity that I must have learned about while taking art history as a student long ago.
The old legend I am referring to is the Tower of Babel. In short, the tale speaks of a time in humanity’s history when we all spoke one universal language. This ability to communicate with ease resulted in humanity using this power to construct a tower to reach heaven. God, of course, didn’t like that humans were conspiring to do this, so he hindered humanity’s progress by forcing us to speak different languages.
By similarities, I don’t mean the “what happens” or “why it happens”- rather, some of the symbolism is the same. Specifically: the symbol of the endless mountain and the theme of communication.
GravityRoad is a story about the machines humanity left behind speculating why humanity felt compelled to create “art”. Throughout the story I show how art functions as a visual language used to communicate complex ideas. The setting of the story takes place on a mountain of garbage which the characters define as “having no summit”.
While the symbol of the mountain has slightly different meaning between the story of Babylon and my own, the theme of language as a monumental force of power is much the same.
I went on a major pilgrimage last Fall to exhibit art at the ARS Electronica festival in Linz, and during my time there a couple major thoughts about the world coalesced through my experiences. One of which was set in motion by an interview. Since my relevant work has to do with my robot, NoodleFeet, they asked me questions about humans and our relationship to technology. Once the segment was edited weeks later, I saw that they went with a different angle than I had expected:
I had said more or less: “I think the main difference between AI and humans, is that in order for humanity to grow, we have the added challenge of communicating with one another. Machines don’t have that obstruction. Communication is perfect and instantaneous. Humans on the other hand have to do crazy things to express what they think and feel… which is why we make art.”
Also exhibiting work in Linz for the festival was my friend and peer, Artist Takayuki Todo, who is the one humans I’ve met so far during my time on Earth that seems to have specced all of his talent points in the same areas as me: robotics, fabrication, philosophy, and calls themself an “artist” by profession. The horrible disappointment about this friendship is that we don’t natively speak the same language, and struggle to communicate meaning with clarity.
It feels like we have a lot we could talk about with one another, but it just can’t happen- and I hate that. The frustration is such that the first thing I did up returning from that trip was pick up a subscription to Rosetta Stone to see if it was at all possible to force my adult brain to learn a new language.
Takayuki isn’t the only interesting person I wish I could have an in depth conversation with. There is a whole host of other artist and philosophers kicking around ARS Electronica who hail from different parts of the world. Everyone has a decent enough grip of English… enough to get by. But it’s hardly enough to talk about anything deep or complex.
In GravityRoad, I describe the experience of being human as living on an island alone. You’re doomed to be the only one who ever gets to know exactly what it’s like on your specific plot of land in the sea. Your eyes are the only eye that will ever see the plants, and sand, and trees to know them in a personal way. The closest you can come to showing another person what your experience is like, is by going through the trouble of sending out a message in a bottle, then hoping that it’s not only received, but interpreted correctly as well.
When I see the way modern humans communicate their feelings and emotional states on the internet with ironic memes, or thought provoking paragraphs stamped on triggering imagery then tossed hopefully into the infinite, I see that it’s obvious I’m not alone in feeling this way. Other humans suffer with the continuous drive to find those with similar thoughts and feeling, similar imagery on their island.
The older I get, the more I realize how much my life and my personal decisions are guided by a desire to relate to other people. This is the force that has driven me to learn how to draw, write, and make robots… all of which I do to better communicate to others who I am and what I think.
Art is largely my attempt at connecting with others. The things I make are grounding rods in a storm, or like fishing lines cast out into the ocean. Some people will pick up on them and connect with me- and my reward is feeling less alone in life for a moment.
The video that triggered the realization that my comic was likely inspired by the story of Babylon’s famous tower to heaven, was this:
The creator makes the argument that in order for humanity to reach its full potential, we must get along, and in order to get along, we must be able to communicate with one another. He is referencing language specifically.
As an artist, a wizard of visual communication, I second this notion.
Then key to getting along and building a tower to new heights, is empathy. We have to embrace that just because we are stuck on our own little islands, this does not mean other islands don’t exist. There are other people in the world. One person’s prosperity is linked to the people they’ve effected in order to achieve it. If I shit in the pool that we are all stuck swimming in, this makes it bad for everyone.
BUT- How do we foster empathy in the world?
I think it’s reasonable to say we do so by connecting. We have to fight fiercely to explain our meaning, so that we can truly understand not just the ins and outs of our own little islands, but how it might look on other peoples’ islands as well. After all, part of human nature seems to be: the more you understand something the more you care about it. That’s the law of personal investment.
Why is all this important enough to write about at the drop of a hat on Wednesday night? I think humans are at a critical point; not just in the US, but all over the world. We are being held accountable by the environment for how irresponsibly we’ve treated it. We are creating massive amounts of human suffering because we choose to exploit others and then disassociate ourselves from the consequences of our action. Humans are choosing to lack empathy, because communication is hard and complacency is easy because it feels reasonable and anonymous.
Regularly in my news feed I see messages in bottles, adrift on the social media ocean that asked- or beg, “How do you explain to someone why they should care about other people?”
This is the test we’re walking into right now. We embrace our superpower and put it to good use- or we squander it and wait patiently for our demise while watching it all unfold on social media. The superpower: empathy fostered by communication.