At SXSW 2018, I was invited to take part in a four-day immersive story experience called a SimuLife. Mounted by the Austin-based creative lab Interactive Deep Dive, SimuLife is meant to blur the line between fantasy and reality by letting me interact with the story as part of daily life. It’s like David Fincher’s movie The Game, executed in the real world. Other than those broad edicts, I wasn’t given any advance information about the experience. I’m documenting my journey through the story — wherever it leads.
The story starts with Part 1: I’m a transdimensional dopplegänger.
I’ve taken part in various immersive experiences over the past few years, so I’ve been able to try a lot of outlandish things. I’ve been blackmailed, fought vampires, visited Westworld, and even crawled through the storage space of recently deceased family member. Throughout all those experiences, I’d like to think I remained a good, morally centered person, one who wouldn’t let a sense of power or delusions of grandeur get into his head.
It turns out that when more than a billion dollars is on the table, that internal moral calculus can change awfully quick.
From the very beginning of my SimuLife story adventure, Monday had been flagged as a big day: the moment where the conglomerate Cooter & Cooter would try to finalize its acquisition of tech company OpenMind, and bring my transdimensional doppelgänger back into the fold. But there had been some hiccups along the way. I’d learned about a resistance group that strongly opposed the ethics of a device that could read people’s minds, and discovered that Bishop’s wife Faith had her own misgivings about the technology, given that it had irrevocably damaged her husband’s mind.
But I still wasn’t sure what the right way to handle such a moment would be, nor if I’d even be sucked into the alternate timeline to see it go down in the first place. But before I could even get there, things took a quick detour Monday morning when I got a call from Paige, The Verge’s intern-in-waiting. She was crying and wondered if I was available to talk.
We met up outside the hotel where I was staying. The day before, she’d admitted to me that her parents didn’t know she was in Austin, and she’d lied about her visit because they didn’t support her ambitions to become a writer and journalist. It was clearly bothering her, so I suggested she come clean to her father when the time was right. She had — and it didn’t go well.
I did what anyone would do for a friend: I tried to talk her down. I told her that her parents might be angry, but she could cut her own path through life, no matter what they wanted. And if she wanted to write, she just had to write, making time for it every day until it became part of her daily routine. That seemed to help calm her, and she suggested we do another round of blind walking — only this time, in busy downtown Austin. Then, her phone rang: it was her dad, and she quickly ducked inside the hotel to take the call where it wasn’t so noisy.
That’s when it happened — wub-wub-wub-WHOOSH — that now-familiar sound that told me I’d swapped into the world of OpenMind.
Almost immediately, I heard the two Cooter & Cooter executives I’d met when this whole thing first began. They rushed toward me, telling me I was late for the big meeting, and that they were there to make sure I got there on time. I looked around and tried to stall. The day before, I promised Nikita from the resistance group that I would let her come to the meeting to gather intel. But the two execs wouldn’t take no for an answer. They led me through downtown Austin, bragging about the big numbers they were seeing on E*trade as the markets got wind of the fact that the creator of OpenMind might be rejoining the company.
We arrived at their building and took the elevator up to their offices, full of open-floorplan working stations and floor-to-ceiling windows. Our destination was the conference room, where the head of Cooter & Cooter and the board of OpenMind waited.
The room was filled with apprehension and awe; some members of the board couldn’t believe Bishop was there, while others worried about what would happen next. A woman — I believe her name was Hayden; it was a lot to take in — approached me and quietly told me how happy she was that I was back. The decision to kick Bishop out of OpenMind had been hers alone, she acknowledged, but she hoped we’d be able to work together moving forward.
In an earlier chapter, I mentioned that immersive experiences afford audiences the opportunity to act outside their comfort zone and do things they normally wouldn’t. A side benefit can sometimes be unexpected self-illumination — a peek at the parts of your own personality that you’d rather keep under lock and key. When I found out that Hayden had been responsible for Bishop’s ouster and realized how much leverage I would have at this meeting, it sparked a desire for something totally unexpected: an exercise of raw power.
Bishop’s wife Faith arrived, quickly checking in to ensure it was me, not her husband, with a code phrase we’d established Saturday night. Then we sat down, and the C&C executives made their pitch. The conglomerate was excited about the potential of OpenMind, but there was a public-relations problem: people wouldn’t trust the technology in the hands of a megacorp the same way they did when it had been run by Bishop. So they wanted the company, and they wanted him — well, in this case, me — to the tune of $1.29 billion. As part of the deal, Bishop would become chief visionary officer of Cooter & Cooter.
I didn’t want to talk about the ethics of using OpenMind, and I didn’t want to discuss safeguards or implementation details. I didn’t even bother negotiating better terms. In that moment, I simply wanted to break something because I could. I told them I’d agree, on the condition that Hayden step down from the board.
It was a cruel thing to do, but on some deep level, I think I just wanted to know what it would feel like to have that kind of sway, if only for a moment.
Everyone readily agreed, of course. Faith suggested we announce the news the following day, at the Austin Central Library, and after a quick photo to commemorate the occasion, she and I were off — I thought to discuss what we were going to do with our new windfall.
But Faith was less than enthused; she was outright confounded. She couldn’t see why I would give up the technology so eagerly, and to a company with so few scruples. I explained that I thought it would buy time, to let us keep control of OpenMind until we’d been able to destroy the device and stop the interdimensional swapping. “Chief visionary officer?” she scoffed. “You’ll be a figurehead.” And she was right. I’d let the allure of fleeting power cloud my overall judgment, and now we had a problem to solve.
We went to a nearby coffee shop to discuss our options. I shared what I’d learned about Kai Goodwin and the resistance group, and then it was Faith’s turn to confess: she’d been secretly funneling information to Max and his group this entire time, in an effort to undercut her husband’s efforts with OpenMind. The press conference would give us a platform to take some kind of action, we figured, but we would need some help. While she called Max, my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize: it was Nikita, wondering why I hadn’t made good on my promise to bring her to the meeting.
I told her where we were, and shortly thereafter, she and Jules arrived. If we were going to try to take down OpenMind, I said, we needed to do more than just stop this one deal from happening. We had to poison the very idea of OpenMind in the public’s eye so that no other company could come around and pick up the pieces. That came down to convincing people of the real human costs: the people who died because of OpenMind, the families who lost loved ones because of OpenMind, and the harm it could do to specific people as individuals — best exemplified by Bishop himself.
I asked Nikita if she and her group could bring protestors and find anyone who had been hurt by this technology and get them to show up at the press conference in force. I would then start the press conference, I explained, acting like everything was on course, before pivoting to the reasons we couldn’t move forward with the deal: OpenMind simply wasn’t safe. Then I would turn the presentation over to Faith, who could talk about how the side effects of the technology had ruined her marriage. I would tee it up, I said, but she would make the audience feel the real cost.
We all had our marching orders. My three cohorts left, and soon thereafter, I heard the strange noise. I was back in my timeline like nothing had ever changed, but I had some work to do.
Join us for the next installment of The SimuLife Diaries, where I learn how Ruben discovered OpenMind had bled into our world, and have a delightful home-cooked meal with a completely fictional family.