I look about my room from the corner of the closet that I have cloistered myself in, and see a room filled with furniture that is not mine. The bed, nightstand, mirror and dresser were a matching set that my parents decided that they did not want after all. My own furniture was thrown away to make room for theirs. On top of the dresser are pictures of relatives in China I’ve never heard of, moved to my room from my parents’, to make room for a new television that no one ever watches. The stares of these strangers do not bother me, however, as I have turned the frames face-down in a rather pathetic show of defiance. I have an immaculate, white room with white curtains. The bed is made, and there is nothing strewn about on the floor. Only a collection of vinyl records and an unused napkin with words written on it indicate that anyone sleeps here at all. To find any mess at all, one must open the closet door, behind which lay nearly all of my “valuable” possessions. In one corner is a large comforter, supported with sweaters to form a sort of makeshift chair. In front are a few knives, an old, broken, needle, an old bloodstain or two, a laptop with a cracked screen, piles of books, a gallon jug of ghetto juice, and a few packs of playing cards. I enjoy curling up here when I am tired of my parents demanding that I go to bed hours before my classmates do the same. The walls are thin enough that I can hear anyone’s approach, and the closet door prevents any light from escaping. And so, while perhaps my parents have imposed upon me their legacies, I believe I perhaps may be able to eke out my own place.
In a fancy dinner atmosphere, one would take the napkin to their left. A famous man once said that this idea, though well-accepted in our world, is wrong, in a larger sense. The worth of money, the frequency of radio stations, the modularity of the numerical system, and even the qualifications for beauty were not arbitrary; these values were decided by one person, whom the populace simply followed. The decider of values is given a permanent place in history, affecting and effecting the decisions of ages to come. The one to take the napkin first can be ascribed the qualities of a god.
From across the hall, my dying grandfather’s oxygen machine’s constant roar spreads a calming atmosphere over my austere sleeping quarters. My grandfather leads a pitiful life. He once wished to go to his homeland, but my parents overruled him, stating that perhaps the stresses of air travel would kill him. And so, now he languishes in a land he does not know, surrounded by strangers. What seems patently obvious from this example is that a certain chance of death is definitely acceptable; a human life has a finite value. As a famous man once said, having sex with someone and making a baby is no more a miracle than eating and making waste. What is truly priceless is the connection to others a life can create. Better to die in a happy reunion with people from your homeland that to slowly rot in a lifeless hospice, bound by self-centered children clinging to the last of their Asian-ness. But if he did leave, then I would no longer have the comforting call of his oxygen machine to lull me to sleep, and that would make me sad.
At the Singularity Summit, a thought struck me. What would happen if some defiant person, some übermensch, suddenly began using different values to guide their life? I was suddenly filled with the will to dissent, and a flame of determination I had never before known was kindled within me. With an old mantra spoken by some forgotten famous man running repeatedly through my head, I sat down excitedly at a dining table, making sure no one else was yet there, and took the napkin to my right. And the faces of Aubrey de Grey and Stephen Wolfram and Peter Norvig and Rodney Brooks and thousand other geniuses turned to me condescendingly until I replaced that napkin and submissively took the one to my left. And, while they irritation was quickly assuaged and I was once again accepted into the fold, for some reason, I was sad.
In my room, the floor is spotless. Stains and spills are quickly cleaned with surgical swiftness and precision. All of my clothes are folded well, and my dresser is arranged by clothing type and age. It is the sort of bedroom you see in furniture catalogs, sterile and forbidding. But my closet is comfortably filthy, with random objects arranged in an organized chaos. I feel a brief sense of superiority over my fellow classmates. “Look!” my mind shouts defiantly, “My place is so much messier than yours! And I don’t even have to clean it up when there are visitors!” As a famous man once said, “If you cannot join them, beat them”. But I know that, for now, at least, I will not be able to mess up anything that matters, and that is quite saddening indeed.
Shocked at the rules of society, I looked sadly at my napkin and pondered the nature of the universe. Perhaps the napkin thesis was wrong; perhaps one would have to be respected and powerful first, and then pick their napkin. After all, if the President chose his right napkin, others would also take the one to their right to avoid offending him. And if Jesus Christ took the napkin on the right, everyone would look upon his decision as divine mandate. Knowing my powerlessness in the face of truly great men, I left quickly, never getting around to using my napkin. I kept that napkin as a permanent and prominent reminder of that day and that thought process, etching upon it the overconfident mantra running through my head: “We Must Dissent”.
Next to my Dissent Napkin, my window lies open at all times; I cannot be bothered to draw my curtains shut, and in fact like the idea that I could gaze at my window at any moment and see the world outside. From this window, one can see a modern Levittown for the wealthy: there are cookie-cutter mansions, each with the exact same, well-trimmed lawn. I wonder if perhaps there is another person thinking the exact same things as me in my neighbors’ houses; sometimes, I feel as if I were the only one truly alive in a picture-perfect, standardized world. The mailman comes, and I race down to see my mail before my mother intercepts it. Some college letters, a paycheck, some merchandise I purchased from e-bay, a Businessweek, and a letter from the SET organization are all I am rewarded with. Opening the SET letter, I see a re-invitation to some educational facility my mother signed me up for two years ago. She wishes for me to take mathematics and science courses for three years straight, wanting me to become a nice professor that won’t bring shame to the family, and would use quite a bit of coercion to get to her means. But I don’t want to go. And so, I dramatically rip up the letter, crumpling the remains in my hand. But then I remember I don’t actually have anyone around to see my one moment of dissenting coolness, and that makes me sad.