The Cinema's Moral Necessity

Plus UFOs, robots, and brains in the lab

Hello readers. This week's essay covers one of my favorite topics, the movies, and why the cinema is a cultural monument we must preserve in a post-pandemic world. The coming months will have more original essays covering a wide range of topics like free will, so stay tuned, subscribe, and follow us on social.

The Cinema’s Moral Necessity

The lights go down. The voices cease. The crunching gets more pronounced. These are the sights and sounds of the movie theater, the epicenter of immersive storytelling. With the pandemic entering its second year, the shuttering of movie theaters has led many to question the future of the cinema. The industry's long-term prospects may seem trivial, but in fact, its survival is vital to a prosperous future for our species. 

Before the age of the coronavirus, I thought I loved movies. I'd see a film in the local theater at least three times a month, even if it was one I only had a mild interest in seeing. My father was often by my side, my most frequent movie companion, but other times I'd be with a friend. Most often, though, I'd be alone.

Solitude. It's a chilling thing. A classic psychology experiment showed that some people would rather zap themselves with an electric shock than be alone with their own thoughts. Sitting with yourself takes courage, as you see the inner workings of your mind. At the cinema, you don't need to do that. You can be alone with the thoughts of another, escaping into the silver screen, letting it swallow you whole, submerging you into its song. And yet, although you may be alone in one sense, in many ways, you are one with the crowd. There are moments in the theater that bring a room of strangers together: shared moments of laughter, tears, cheers, gasps.

So what I've realized is that it's not the movies I love most, as I only watched a few during quarantine. It's the cinema experience. This paradox of solitude and shared humanity, fused together during one moment in time, imbued with the power of the human imagination.

To truly appreciate the importance of the movie theater, let's examine its antithesis, social media. Unlike movie theaters, social media is filled with opportunities to encounter any idea you want at the tap of your finger. Yet, despite all the positives entailed in this digital space, the social landscape is currently undergoing a reckoning given its tumultuous involvement with disinformation, filter bubbles, and toxic cultures. Social media platforms entrap you with short-term dopamine hits, while cinematic experiences are sustained escapes. Without the cinema, our media diet is shifting in uncomfortable directions.

During these polarizing times, it seems we’ve forgotten our shared humanity. The fact we each exist as a complex miracle. We need more sonder. Coined by John Koenig in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, it means:

“n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you'll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

In the cinema, you can lose yourself in the sense of sonder, empathy in the strangers around you. In a world that is losing a bit of its soul, movie theaters can once again be a sacred place of healing from social media and the polarization it's helped fuel. The cinema’s recent absence in our lives has awakened us to its moral necessity. A brighter future for our species is one where we all spend more time in this temple, where we can be alone, together.

Image by Joshua Eckstein

Multies: 👽My Favorite Alien👽

UFO hunters may be in for a year of revelations, starting with the CIA's release of a trove of documents related to the alien ships that many believe are cruising our skies. I wrote about UFOs in one of our first newsletters and expect to in the future with the government passing legislation that requires the Pentagon to share more information on these unidentified objects. Although it seems this phenomenon can be explained by human psychology or technology, it remains a compelling subject that connects to the broader search for life in the universe.

While on the topic of UFOs, it's worth reading this recent piece in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes about Avi Loeb and his declaration that an unidentified object in our solar system a few years ago, called Oumuamua, was of alien origin. Although some have criticized Loeb for his claims, the mystery remains up for debate. In her piece, Kolbert also discusses the Kepler telescope, which has been used to identify 2,600 exponents in our galaxy. Scientists are now taking this to mean that life, once thought improbable, is almost certain to exist elsewhere in the cosmos. In Nautilus, Alan Lightman nods to Kepler in a poetic plea that asks us to find meaning in our rare existence, that even if we don't have souls, we still have the privilege of being alive in a mostly dead universe. Lightman ends the piece with an optimistic tone of universal commonality:

"And given our existence, our universe must have meaning, big and small meanings. I have not met any of the life forms living out there in the vast cosmos beyond Earth. But I would be astonished if some of them were not intelligent. And I would be further astonished if those intelligences were not, like us, making science and art and attempting to take stock and record this cosmic panorama of existence. We share with those other beings not the mysterious, transcendent essence of vitalism, but the highly improbable fact of being alive."

🧠Bonus Brain Bits🧠

Our Robotic Reality

Both robotics and virtual reality are likely to transform society over the coming decade, so seeing them work in tandem is a tantalizing glimpse of our near future. Enter 'Reachy,' a robot that someone can control through virtual reality. The video at the link shows a glimpse of how someone in VR can use different motions to guide the robot to follow their lead, such as opening a microwave or pouring a drink.

Brains in the Lab

As we zoom into the future, scientists and ethicists must work hand in hand, a need which can be seen clearly when one examines the implications of Assembloids, "free-floating brain circuits—that now combine brain tissue with an external output." Shelly Fan gives an excellent overview of this biotechnology in Singularity Hub, explaining how Assembloids work, the promise they can bring to medicine, and the ethical questions we must ask about them, such as if they can develop sentience in the future.

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