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Technological Love/Fear: Reflections from CHI’17 Conference

This week, I attended the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’17) in Denver and saw many excellent and thought-provoking talks about the interaction(s) and relationship(s) between humans and technology. CHI is a yearly international conference that attracts ~2000-3000 attendees from academia, industry and beyond who come to share and learn about the latest research in the area of Human-Computer Interaction. Many of the attendees are also presenting their own research and so it is a wonderful chance to connect with other researchers, practitioners, and thinkers in this area.

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CHI conference

This year, I presented a short paper that described a case study about how to engage youth in engineering education through hands-on maker activities, a poster about a novel wearable interface for therapists administering Sensory Stimulation Therapy, and a workshop paper about gender, e-textiles and Mayan weaving. It was a wonderful event and also extremely stimulating with ideas, social interactions and complex emotions (towards our collective future). In this post, I will share a few subjective highlights and reflections about the conference and its themes.

Challenging Boundaries

For me, the conference started with a pre-conference weekend workshop called HCIxB which was planned for researchers who work in the field of Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD). Many years ago, I was lucky to attend a course taught at CHI by the late Gary Marsden, who was a pioneer in this field. His enthusiasm and clarity inspired me to try to learn more about this area and conduct several research projects in Bhutan, Mexico, and Kenya.

At the workshop, there were many researchers from Pakistan, Namibia, Mexico and other countries. This year, the new travel ban had caused extra challenges for the CHI community and many participants from the listed countries could not attend the conference in person. One way of bypassing this problem was to attend the conference via telepresence robots.

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Telepresence Robot with very long legs!

In addition to questioning the lines drawn between countries, many of the participants at this workshop also challenged lines drawn between research and practice. Listening to the presentations, made me think about some of the hard lessons I have learned in my prior projects where I tried to cross these lines myself and found it really difficult to both stay true to the goals of my projects and also make a lasting impact in the communities I was working in. This brought many questions to mind: How can researchers create sustainable, scalable projects to impact many people? Isn’t this role better suited to governments, NGO’s or even private companies? While questions of sustainability and affordability are really important and should be taken into account in every project, isn’t it too ambitious for HCI researchers who are often not trained in economics or industrial engineering to tackle them?

A solution that is adopted by many researchers in this area (including myself) is to collaborate and work closely with local trusted practitioners, NGOs or government agencies to translate research results into lasting products or services. Additionally, working with multidisciplinary teams helps with broadening the impact of research by incorporating diverse points of view. Of course, I have a lot of respect for researchers who have the capacity to put on practitioner hats in projects, and there are many who navigate multiple roles really well. I just think it is helpful to clarify that the main role of an academic researcher (at least in my mind) is the creation (or co-creation) of (hopefully relevant) knowledge and the communication of this knowledge to others (students, the research community, the public). This activity might result in societal impact or more importantly provide the ideas or impetus for others to make a large impact, but it is not the main focus of research.

Performance as Inquiry

Right before going to CHI, I saw an incredible immersive theater performance in Baltimore called, “The H. T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum“. The play took place in the first purpose-built museum in the United States which the theater group had turned into an exhibit of imaginary objects from an imaginary land. The play progressed through several parallel plotlines that were both entertaining and also cleverly disguised a sharp criticism of colonialism and “Othering” that was at the heart of much European “discovery” of exotic lands and people. I deeply enjoyed this play and it made me think of the power of performance as a form of inquiry.

On the bus to CHI, I met a colleague who reminded me of a play she and her colleagues ( Jackie Cameron, Mike Skirpan et al.) had produced last year and I had attended at CU Boulder.  The play entitled the Quantified Self Data Experience invited audience members to experience a performed future scenario that raised questions around privacy and personal data. It utilized personal data collected from the participants prior to the play to give a sense of our vulnerability when we mindlessly interact with algorithms.

At CHI, I came across two other exceptional projects that talked about performance as a form of inquiry. One is a project called The Question that comprises of a theater performance for blind and sighted audience members that takes place in an entirely dark space. Through listening to sounds and interacting with a tangible interface, audience members get to learn about the narrative and explore the performance space.

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Tangible object used in The Problem

Another project in the design fiction track, “On Speculative Enactments”, by Chris Elsden and colleagues, described an approach in which they invited participants to “interact with, and experience, speculation”. Participants would use design probes (e.g., quantified dating cards) and interact with actors in role (e.g., a datagrapher for a wedding) and would describe their experience/feedback about the scenarios to the researcerhs. The presenters claimed that the approach allowed for a better understanding of users’ receptions and attitudes towards future designs.

This really made me think about the potential of using performance art more formally in HCI research (I am aware that this is already an established practice in other fields). The nature of digital systems are changing: rather than monitors with keyboard and mouse that one individual uses at a time, a lot of new systems are embedded in objects, the environment, or even on people’s bodies and are used in social contexts. Doesn’t it make sense for procedures that investigate and understand these systems to evolve so that they are sensitive to the complex dynamics that they embody? How can we learn about these systems without simulating or previewing them “in the wild” (i.e., in the real world, outside of the lab)? Further, what if prototypes did not only consist of research artifacts but of whole interactions (complete with performers, scenarios, and narratives) that could be performed? This approach is not new and as I mentioned above it is already being used (especially in the area of ubiquitous computing and in methods such as “Experience Prototyping“), I just think there’s more room to formalize it as a rich way to understand complex social interactions and to get informed not only by intellectual input from users but also emotional and affective input from them. Also, I really like the idea of having performer/actors as design/research partners.

Additionally, if a key part of research is the communication of ideas why are we in the research community still so obsessed with the written form as the ultimate form of knowledge output? Of course, writing might be the most precise and appropriate form for many forms of knowledge but for others, new media such as video, images or even performances can best capture and communicate knowledge. There is already recognition for this idea in many HCI research communities, including CHI, UIST, and TEI that highly encourage the submission of videos accompanying papers and DIS that has a whole pictorial track. One of my favorite (not limited to HCI) initiatives is the Dance your PhD competition! I hope that I can incorporate some of these ideas in my future research projects.

Technophilia/Technophobia

In the controversial opening keynote of the conference, MIT artist and researcher Neri Oxman challenged the boundary between the natural and artificial. She described her vision of a future world in which humans co-design with nature in an intimate way. Some examples included orchestrating a large number of silkworms to weave a human-sized cocoon and creating a novel 3D printing filament out of shrimp shells.

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A tent-sized cocoon that was woven by silkworms

Additionally, Oxman showed impressive 3D printed masks and clothes for artists such as Bjork and David Bowie that were designed specifically for their anatomy. Of course, many ethical and practical (sustainability, anyone?) questions arose during the talk but I believe there was much creative power in the visions that were presented. Additionally, there was a strong sense of optimism in the potential of technology and design to move us into a dreamlike state where anything is possible.

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Bjork’s 3D printed mask. “As a designer, I am a lover of nature, we learn from each other, shape each other and look into each others’ images, until we wake up with each other’s faces.” – paraphrased from the opening keynote by Neri Oxman

This optimistic theme of technophilia was present in several other talks and presentations. In a fascinating talk about “grinders“, DIY cyborgs who self-modify their body, Lauren Britton and Bryan Semaan, described how members of this community aim to move beyond established constructed social divisions and use their bodies as a site of social experimentation where embedded devices are used to reimagine a new society where the lines between (for example) citizen/scientist and man/woman are blurred. In other talks, Fabio Morreale and colleagues discussed how a new hardware platform supported the creation of a maker community, Thomas Ludwig and colleagues described the increased social interaction around 3D printing, and Shaowen Bardzell and colleagues explained how maker innovation can lead to policy changes that support creative economies. In offline discussions, representatives from Keio University‘s Superhuman Sports Academy described their vision of creating a new brand of superhuman sports. Of course, these views are reminiscent of the pioneering work of artists such as Stelarc in whose (in)famous words, “the human body is obsolete” and will be “constantly interrogated by technology”. For a thought-provoking (and shocking) talk by Stelarc see here.

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Grinders with embedded lights

In contrast, the closing plenary by author Nicholas Carr was full of warnings about the dangers of automation and how it distracts and takes away control from human agents. He described how the Internet is negatively impacting our short-term memory because we don’t have to remember things anymore, and how using self-driving cars will deteriorate our ability to drive and control a vehicle.

On a similar note, in a fascinating conference presentation entitled, “Us vs. Them: Understanding Artificial Intelligence Technophobia over the Google DeepMind Challenge Match”, Changhoon Oh and colleagues described the feelings of fear and despair that were experienced by audience members watching a five-game Go match in Korea between Lee Sedol, a former world Go champion, and AlphaGo, an AI Go program developed by Google DeepMind. After the talk, an audience member asked the presenter, “How would we feel if we were sitting in an audience looking at a robot presenting a paper at CHI? Wouldn’t it be threatening to us?”

Finally, in an excellent alt.chi talk (a conference track that is specifically for non-traditional work), entitled “Design for Existential Crisis”, Irina Shklovskif and colleagues, described the challenges of staying optimistic (and productive) in the face of real threats to human existence. Drawing heavily on the work of Viktor Frankl (among others), they stated how important it is for us to find meaning in life in order to survive future threats. They warned against what they termed, Bovine Design, which results in “tools that encourage passivity, rote-behavior, and a blinkered existence at a time of great uncertainty and change”. They encouraged designers to stop thinking of users as “them”, either the distracted masses or the elite waiting to sit in an Arch on the way to another planet, and instead think of users as “us”, the whole of humanity.

“Who am I? Who are you? Where are we going?”

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These were all extremely thought-provoking and made me reflect on my own stance in relation to technology. Obviously, the choice is not only to love or hate technology but to move on a dynamic spectrum of views that assesses each technology in context with respect to our think a lot about where I stand in the chasm between technophilia and technophobia. It is easy to try to think which one is really liked this talk as in some of my past work I have also tried to challenge the boundaries between digital and living media.

I think there is even a more meta-process behind the scenes (I’m inspired by Mark Blythe‘s work on plot and storytelling in HCI research). These extreme love/fear feelings towards technology are reminiscent of previous narratives around the role of God and Nature in making sense of the world. Doesn’t our relationships towards God and Nature and how we revere, fear and try to control them say more about ourselves? Aren’t our feelings of fear and love signs that we are trying yet again to project our responsibility into a mirage of future technologies?

I can appreciate and understand feelings behind technophobia (e.g., fear of automation, fear of Artificial Intelligence and even the more existential fear of technocratic domination and its milder sibling techno-paternalism, etc.). But I am also concerned that this fear does not recognize that we are not separate from technology (or nature) and thus cannot give up our responsibility to take control of how we use and abuse it. I do believe (after Marshall MacLuhan) that technologies are extensions of us and that drawing artificial lines between the natural and the artificial is a dangerous alienating practice (as Donna Haraway has warned in the Cyborg Manifesto). I am talking about technology in the original sense of the word where our clothes, pens, and books are also forms of technology. The fear of the end of the world is not new (see Umberto Eco‘s interview in Conversations about the Time).

This search for meaning is perhaps an essential part of human life (as Viktor Frankl would say) and it takes many forms including despair and confusion. But is it really wise that rather than looking inside and finding out for ourselves, we ask of Technology the essential questions of “who am I? who are you? and where are we going?”. It seems Technology and the Future are filling a gap left by religion and traditional dogmas that were weakened in the 20th century. My hope is that we can stop blaming yet another external entity for our existential misery, take responsibility for our being and live authentic, heartful and fearless lives (as long as they last).

Baltimore Stories: Warm up

I first heard about Baltimore at a PopTech-affiliated conference in Brooklyn, called The City Resilient (which I wrote about in another blog post). In a short heartfelt talk, Ali Smith of the Holistic Life Foundation described how he had learned Yoga at a young age in Baltimore and found it extremely useful to calm his mind and control his feelings when growing up. Ali, a tall black man with a shaved head and urban clothes, thought the most important part of yoga for his kids was its usefulness as a tool for self-regulation that can increase one’s resilience. He was not talking about fitness, enlightenment or bliss; he was talking about survival. That talk stuck in my mind and I thought about the place where he had come from, its perils, its potentials.

FullSizeRenderAt that time, I never thought that one day I would become a resident of Baltimore City and experience this resilient and gritty perspective first hand. Shortly after I finished my PhD, I found an opportunity to work with a very inspiring researcher on several projects at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). When I was considering accepting a postdoctoral research associate position there, I did not know a single person in this city, I had my doubts about the political direction that the country was going towards and I felt unsure about what my next career move should be. After some consideration, I decided to plunge into the unknown. I can’t say I am sorry! In the past few months, I have met many people, mostly colleagues who I work with closely and are amazing, I have also kept contact, mostly from afar, with my partner, my family, and a few intimate friends. However, I have spent most of this time in conversation with myself, my full-time companion and witness!

My experience so far has been rich, overwhelming and nothing like what I expected. In fact, there has been so much to absorb since I moved here that I haven’t really had a chance to write anything on this blog about it yet! However, I feel ready to start writing again and in the next little while will slowly reflect back some of the faces I have encountered in this large beautiful scary rusty antique cracked shiny mirror.

Bologna, Florence and Venice

Bologna is an underrated Italian city with a tumultuous recent history. It is known as “La dotta (the learned), la rossa (the red), and la grassa (the fat)! The first nickname is given to Bologna because of its well-respected university. Founded in 1088, many intellectual heavyweights, Dante, Petrarch and Thomas Becket among them, have frequented this institution. There is a tradition among the university students in Bologna to climb one of the very tall towers in the city. This tower should only be climbed after you graduated, as tradition says that if it is climbed before you might never finish your studies! Finishing my degree a few months back, I felt qualified to torture myself on the endless stairs with no view until I reached magnificent views of the city on top: an experience not unlike doing a PhD!

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Bologna

The strong intellectual tradition of “la dotta” probably supported alternative and progressive ways of thinking that gave the city its second name: the red. While this name was initially given to the city because of the red roof tiles used throughout, later on it became to denote the Leftist tendencies of the citizens. Bologna was a major center of partisan resistance against the Fascists. Being a transport hub, it was bombed extensively during the WWII and was the scene of much fighting. It was the hometown of the controversial director, Pier Paolo Pasoloni (of Salo and Accattone fame), who was viciously murdered by fascists in Rome. Judging from fresh wall graffiti about ISIS and Kobane Resistance, the movement is still strong here. When growing up in Iran, I used to watch Fontamara, a TV series based on the work of Italian Leftist author Ignazio Silone. I later read the novel, and also another one by Silone, called Bread and Wine, and was deeply affected by the pain and suffering that he described. Walking under the cool porticos of Bologna, I think of these books and how we have now forgotten how large parts of Italy were once overridden by poverty, which brings me to the next nickname of Bologna, la grassa.

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In my opinion, the beauty of Italian cooking is (for the most part) that it is focused on feeding ordinary people. Many of the best dishes are made with cheap but high quality ingredients. This is apparent in Roman cooking, Carbonara and the Roman Rigatoni con la Pajata (and the many dishes that use the fifth quarter), and also in the excellent food of Bologna, Ragu alla Bolognese (the mother of all red pasta sauces) and Tortellini. Bologna is the center of the Emilia-Romagna Region (of the Parmigiano Reggiano fame) and is close to Modena with the best balsamic vinegar in the world. In short, a visitor will have a hard time staying fit in this area!

For more fun info about Bologna, check out this Italy Unpacked episode.

Florence

Florence has been the home to many famous people: Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, …It’s streets are full of history and a simple stroll through its central part (if you don’t mind the heat and crowds, especially in July/August) is rewarding and rich.

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My favorite part of the city was the Piazza della Signoria, which houses amazing statues (in Loggia dei Lanzi), provides excellent people watching and is the gateway to river side walking. A hidden gem is a water fountain that offers free delicious lightly carbonated water!

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I enjoyed several excellent galleries in Florence, but two contrasting highlights stayed in my mind. The Uffizi Gallery, perhaps the most popular gallery in Florence, houses an exquisite collection of Renaissance art. One of the greatest experience for me was to see many austere but beautiful Middle Ages and Early Renaissance artwork before coming face to face with the fantastic Botticelli paintings that brought back the celebration of humanity from the Greek and Roman art and put them in a new context.

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In contrast to the Ufizzi Gallery, the San Marco Monastery was quiet and pensive. Visionary paintings by the legendary Fra Angelico graced bare-bones monk cells. It is a good reminder that despite Italy’s sensual reputation

Venice

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Getting lost in Venice is an essential experience. I walk around at least for an hour before finding my hostel. Venice is extremely touristy which makes it a bit hard to enjoy. But if you persist and walk through the crowds and the heat, there are magical spaces here and there: Marco Polo‘s home, a Vivaldi museum with ancient and exotic instruments, old buildings turned into exhibits and little islands that are suddenly empty and feel like medieval mazes.

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I take the 6 am water bus which is empty and passes through many great buildings: the old castle in which Wagner died and is now a famous casino, the Muslim and Jewish areas, St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs (which connect the palace to a prison).

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In a few hours tourists start trickling into the city (from huge cruise ships and via the train station) and the city becomes really full. At first the heat and the crowds make it hard to continue enjoying the sights and then I realize this is part of the experience too. In fact, the “siege of Venice” by tourists is quite controversial and has been blamed for pushing locals out of increasingly expensive real estate. See this documentary for more information about this topic.

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Italy is touristy, there’s no denying that. Before modern tourism became accessible to everyone, aristocrats from Northern Europe would travel here on what came to be known as the Grand Tour. On an itinerary that often included Rome and Florence and often ended in Venice, young aristocratic members of society would seek Classic history, art and culture. The purpose of this trips that sometimes took months was more than sightseeing. Often young aristocrats were accompanied by a tutor or learned man and were trained in the Classics, History, Languages, …. The idea was that this privileged experience would get them ready to hold high positions in their society. Of course, an essential part of the trip was socializing and partying with other elite which often happened in Venice in masked balls (from which the concept of Masquerade comes from).

This tradition, which started in the 18th century, continued well into the 19th and 20th century and some would argue the “Gap Year” concept is a modern democratic version of it. Later travelers on a Grand Tour included the Romantics, English poets Shelly, Keats and Byron, and later on the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt who was inspired by his travels to compose his famous Annees de Pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) piano album. I often had this piece from Liszt in my head when traveling in Italy.

Given the Romantics fascination with nature as a source of inspiration, later Grand Tour itineraries often included natural scenery, such as the Alps in Northern Italy and Switzerland and more secluded parts of central Italy (for example, the Cinque Terre, which was secluded then but is overrun with tourists now!)

Bonus: Epilogue

At some point during my stay in Italy, I decided to take a break from large cities and spent a couple of days in the medieval village of San Gimignano. This beautiful hill town is set in the rolling landscape of Tuscany and is surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. It is also a popular destination for pilgrims as it is on the Camino di San Francisco di Assisi that connects Florence to Rome.

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During my stay, I went for long walks in the surrounding area, tried some local specialties (olive gelato, anyone?) and stayed at a quiet monastery. I also visited an unexpected exhibit about the work of Robert Capa in Italy. Robert Capa was a Hungarian war photographer who  captured many historic moments in photographs, including the Allied landing in Normandy. Capa’s life was one of sacrifice and tragedy. He was in love with the first female war photographer, Gerda Taro, who was killed while covering the Spanish Civil War. He also saw many colleagues and friends get injured and die during the five wars he covered. He famously said, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough”. Unfortunately, he was once too close and blew up on a mine in Vietnam.

San Gimigano.pngWalking around San Gimignano was delightful and I spent a few full days walking beside vineyards and farms and enjoying classic Tuscan landscapes. I once met a fellow traveler who told me about an Italian tradition of planting rose bushes next to vineyards. He said the roses usually catch pests earlier than vines, giving farmers advance warning to save their crops.

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Thinking about Time in the Eternal City

Funny how as we get older, we try to compensate for our lost years by contemplating our achievements: titles, possessions, family, experiences. We think of the money we made, the degrees we earned, the children we raised, the loves we felt, and after a time of reflection, we like to think, “Time flies, but I have lived!” But what is time? And what is the value of a life? What is the meaning of this coming, being and going? You know, the usual heavy-weight existential questions!

I am walking around Rome and, of course, it is natural to think of these thoughts here.  In the presence of seemingly timeless monuments of empires and religions and lives, lived in the same physical location but in a distant point in time and with inconceivably different frames of mind, many artists, philosopher and thinkers have thought about the fleeting nature of life in the Eternal City. Shelly pondering the death of his young poet friend, Keats, said, “Go thou to Rome, at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness”. And I have come!

In my backpack, I have a copy of Boethius‘s Consolation of Philosophy, a number of mental postcards from Michelangelo, Liszt and Spartacus among others, and a series of existential questions of my own. In Rome and the Vatican (and in many other parts of Italy), I am standing on a stage that has been the set for many serious plays. The performers are long gone but the props are still there. Take the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. It was once carved to guard a tomb in ancient Egypt. When Caesar defeated Cleopatra it was brought to Rome and placed besides the Colosseum. There, for hundreds of years, it witnessed gladiator fights and possibly Christians being thrown to the lions. With the Roman Empire‘s decline, it was moved to the heart of Catholic Christianity, the Vatican City. It has been there longer than any pope and has outlived civil wars and world wars, and is still standing there now that I’m visiting for a fleeting moment. The history of Rome is very rich and full of intricacies and nuances. If you are a history buff, check out the History of Rome podcast (Warning: it is pretty detailed, so be prepared for many hours if you are planning to listen to it!)

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Colosseum

Ideas are liquid and can transcend time and space, and yet, some aspects of a civilization have to be experienced in specific locations. While it is possible to get a sense of a painting by looking at a representation, it is almost impossible to experience a sculpture by looking at pictures or even videos of it. Virtual reality might change that in the future but for now you need to go to the Vatican Museums or the Villa Borghese to experience the masterpieces there. Similarly, it is hard to simulate being in a special architectural space, for example looking up to the ceiling of St. Peter’s Basilica or around the Pantheon‘s sacred space. And then, there’s just some spaces that are pregnant with energy and emotion: the spartan meditation cells of the San Marco monastery that house luminous Fra Angelico frescoes, or the Sistine Chapel, with its backbreaking ceiling masterpiece and breathtaking Last Judgement painting. It is quite an experience walking through the endless corridors of the Vatican Museums, up and down stairs, tired and hot and suddenly turn a corner to be face-to-face with the End of Time! Famously, when Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, saw the Last Judgement, he fell to his knees and said, “may God forgive our sins!”

When growing up in Iran, I learned a lot about the pinnacles of Western Civilization: the paintings of Leonardo, the philosophies of Socrates and Plato, the music of Beethoven and Bach. But with limited access to Europe, my relationship to the West was like having a pen pal that you have never met in person: you can learn a lot about them but not experience their presence fully. In the last few years, I have visited this friend repeatedly, finding out more about their temperament each time. In Rome the the first masterpiece that blows my mind is the sculpture of Laocoon and His Sons. How can stone capture the anguish in the man’s face, the scream of “we exist!” in his pronounced muscles the moment before they will be crushed by snakes, and the poetry of Humanity in the grip of Fortuna? This Greek masterpiece was excavated in the 1500’s and paraded through the streets of Rome after being hidden in dirt for almost a millennium. It was a sensation and shook the art world at the time. Among the people who saw it and were changed forever, was a young polymath, Michelangelo.

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Laocoon and His Sons

Michelangelo only saw the Greek sculptors of the past as true masters and did not consider his contemporaries in their league. Famously, he was fond of a badly damaged Greek sculpture known as the “Belvedere Torso” (at display in the Vatican Museums). Of the figure that was once whole, only part of the torso is left. Michelangelo used to touch this figure for inspiration and when Pope Julius II requested that he complete it by attaching hands and legs to it, he declined, saying it was too beautiful to be altered.

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Belvedere Torso

Michelangelo is, perhaps, best known for his more dramatic works, for example David, but he was fully capable of bringing out the most tender feelings out of stone. Later on that day, I looked at his Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. In this work and other masterpieces by Caravaggio and Raphael who paint the same subject, I feel the timeless sadness of loss of innocence in the face of ignorance . Artists are often the conscience of humanity. Looking at the  contrast between the Christian images of suffering and the Roman symbols of triumph, sometimes placed next to each other, I also think of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality in which he contrasts Roman and Christian values.

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Deposition by Raphael

Out on the street, Rome is like a piping hot bowl of spaghetti with a rich sauce: chaotic, unexpected, full of character and ultimately wonderful! In a 15 minute walk from the Colosseum to a restaurant, I walk through the backstage of a Hollywood gladiator flick, a Fellini movie set, and into a scene from a Mario Puzo novel. Inside the museums, I am face to face with timeless masterpieces. In the National Museum, I look into the empty eyes of a Boxer at Rest who has been resting for more than 2000 years!

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Boxer at Rest

In the Villa Borghese (or more precisely the Galleria within the villa), my mind is blown again: this time by Bernini‘s masterpiece the Rape of Proserpina. I can’t believe that the artist could capture such raw emotions through stone: the anguish of Proserpina, the lust of Zeus, the madness of his dog, all literally bare naked for us to encounter! I walk around the statue and look at how Zeus‘ fingers dig into Proserpina‘s flesh and how her hair flows: unbelievable! This brilliance is repeated in other masterpieces: Apollo and Daphne, Bernini‘s David, and Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius.

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Rape of Proserpina

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Detail from the Rape of Proserpina

Another idea blow my mind in Villa Borghese: When looking into the eyes of wild drunken Satyrs on the roof of a large gallery, I am suddenly face-to-face with drunken saints of Rumi! I remembered his ecstatic poem from Divan-e Shams (my translation):

“I am drunk and you are mad, who is going to take us home?

I told you a hundred times drink less, my friend!

I don’t see a sober man in this whole town,

Each worst than the others, mad and drunk!”

It suddenly occurred to me that maybe the mystical obsession with wine and drunkenness (as a symbol of divine unity and ecstasy) in Persian Sufi culture is related to the Cult of Dionysus. In fact, given the ancient history of wine in Persia, it is conceivable that wine was introduced to Greece (and later Rome) via Persia (and Egypt). Wine later became a sacred sacrament and an essential part of Dionysian Mysteries. Perhaps, later on it was re-imported into Persia as a symbol of the path to divinity. To go a step further, maybe Persian mysticism was a resurrection of Dionysian Mysteries, with an Islamic flavor but with the same symbols of ancient Greece. With these far out ideas, I decide I need to learn if anyone has looked into these themes before and also to learn more about Dionysian Mysteries in general. I also remember Nietzsche‘s poetic descriptions of the tensions between Apollonian and Dionysian elements in Greek tragedy (in his Birth of Tragedy) and how art, and specifically tragedy according to him, aimed to resolve it.

Dizzy with these thoughts, I walk down a wide Roman street at night towards my hostel. I pass a dodgy park where drunk young men are throwing empty beer bottles at each other! As I walk by, I see posters on the wall of a museum. They are quotes by a philosopher. I read: “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. Loneliness for the soul, is like food for the body. If one does not know which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” The final poster reveals that the quotes are by Seneca. The wise words echo the wonderful book I have been reading: Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. In addition to the visual arts of Michelangelo and Bernini among others, I have been sitting at the foot of  wise men who can tell me which port I should set sail to.

I found the Consolation in a free book bin on a Toronto curb one day and decided to keep it for future reading. This year as I was getting prepared for my trip to Europe, I decided to bring it along and read it on the way. As I started to read the text, I started to feel that the book was talking directly to me and I hungrily read it from cover to cover!

In the last year, I have been thinking of the questions I started this post with: What is the value of my life? What is the meaning of life and how does that translate into my next practical steps in life? As I am getting older, I feel these questions are becoming more urgent. In the past, I have looked at various spiritual traditions and social movements for inspiration but in the last couple of years, I have felt a bit depleted of direction. Additionally, recently, difficult situations have happened in my life where I have lost contact with some dear friends that I still miss and reconciling these events with my life has been challenging. Finally, I have become disillusioned in some of my ideals, but still firm in others. In short, for me, it has been, and still is, a time of questioning and reflection. I sometimes miss my past youthful passion and happy-go-lucky spirit of inquiry!

Boethius was a 6th century scholar and statesman with a brilliant mind. In addition to serving the Roman empire, he was a philosopher who was particularly interested in the philosophy of the Greeks (especially Socrates, Plato and Aristotle). At the height of his power, Boethius was accused of treason and was sent to jail to await his death sentence. He wrote the Consolation when waiting to die in prison. Given this grim setting, it is not a surprise that the beginning of the book is pretty dark. In jail, Boethius is visited upon by Lady Philosophy who after asking a few questions proceeds to “heal” him from his despair by means of Reason and Truth. The mood slowly moves from Despair to Joy, which given the circumstances is incredible!

In an early passage, Lady Philosophy states:

“He is in no real danger. He merely suffers from a lethargy, a sickness that is common among the depressed. He has forgotten who he really is, but he will recover, for he used to know me, and all I have to do is cloud the mist that beclouds his vision.”

When I read this passage, I was shocked by how relevant it felt to me. I wanted to have the clouds removed from my eyes. I read on. According to Lady Philosophy, a wise person should not put their trust in flighty Fortuna. Good and bad fortune come and go, and more often than not, they disappoint. History is full of examples of people who were “fortunate” and lost their fortune and vice versa. In the face of this flux, it is important to find an anchor, a Northern Star to guide one.

During the last few months, the world has seemed very random to me. My days seem to have been ruled by chance meetings and good and bad events that like waves have washed up against my shore. Lady Philosophy advises Boethius (and I listen carefully) that if you find your inner Truth, you will become free of your reliance on Fortuna and will gain knowledge of your next steps in life.

Again, I am astonished by how these words are similar to Persian Mystics that I am familiar with: Hafiz, Rumi and Khayaam. I know that the Persian poets were influenced by Greek and Roman philosophies but my intuition is that this went beyond “influence” and was more like a “reminder” of a Truth that they both knew. I read on. In my interpretation of the next passages, I understand that the only thing that is worth pursuing in the world is True Happiness, which unlike achievements, falls outside the realm of Time.  Truth is the one drop of eternity that we carry within and that lights our path in the world from one tiny step to the next. In the face of adversity and change, the one constant is the Truth in our heart.  Like a blind person following a silky rope, we will know our next steps in life if we follow our heart and see how it resonates with Love.

I have to say the combination of these ideas and the art I have experienced in Rome turned out to be a powerful eye-opening cocktail! The Consolation is full of other great ideas (including excellent discussions around the questions of free will and predestination) but for me its best gift, its greatest “consolation”, is its reassurance that I should trust my inner voice again, and walk within the world but free of it. I will strive to do this and aim to step on my path again, a path that has to be discovered and lived anew, every moment.

Sisyphus in Mauthausen

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“Stairs of Death” at Mauthasen Concentration Camp

Touched by kisses,
Covered with bruises,
My body is a chain,
A snake eating its tail.

Step by step,
These endless stairs,
My life is a short sentence,
Written again and again.

Looking at a blind sun,
Talking to a deaf moon,
My tears are drops in a flood,
Evaporating before they hit the earth.

You won’t remember me,
And I don’t remember them,
The ones before and the ones after,
History, a silent heavy rock on our backs.

But I’ll live in your bones,
Sleep in your dreams,
Look through your eyes,
I’ll be the revolution under your skin.

I’ll push you forward and I’ll push you within,
Because we have to find out, we have to know,
What is on the other side of this coin, the meaning of this toil.

If we can’t ask life, let us ask death, and if he is also silent, we will ask our hearts, for they will know:
where do we come from and where will we go.

Note: I wrote this poem after visiting the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp Memorial. For more about my visit and the camp please see this post.

Mauthausen

The country road from Linz to Mauthausen is beautiful and peaceful. My bus stops at small villages and picks up polite and quiet passengers. The landscape is green and hilly. It is hard to imagine I am so close to a place that, for close to a 7 years, was the site of profound human suffering. I’m on my way to the Mauthausen Memorial.The Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp was one of the most infamous Nazi labor camps. During its operation between 1938 to 1945 between 120’000 to 320’000 people died there.

The bus stops. I get off and follow signs up a side road. On the walk up the hill to the gate of the memorial, I pass several beautiful country houses. Later, I find out many of these were built by slave labor for the families of Nazi camp supervisors. I hear a stream flowing beside the road. The sky is grey and I can hear birds chirping before rain. I walk past a beautiful field of wheat. The stalks are dancing in the wind. I see a small red bicycle beside a farmhouse. Life goes on.

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Field of wheat, close to Mauthausen Memorial

Austria’s cultural landscape is shifting. This is my second time in Linz. I first came here 6 years ago to attend the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (ICCHP). I am attending the same conference again. Since the first time I came here, I notice many more refugees and immigrants in Linz and the villages that I pass on the way to Mauthausen. Here and there, I hear Farsi Dari (from Afghanistan) and I see a large Turkish flag on top of a cafe with mustached men sitting at the front drinking from small cups of strong tea.

I go up the country road and after a few breathtaking minutes see the camp. Mauthausen is located close to stone quarries. Linz was one of Hitler’s favorite cities and he planned to turn it into a center of Nazi culture and art. In his demented vision, his empire would last thousands of years, and so he wanted the best stones that last forever for his neoclassical imposing buildings. The camps were set here, then, as the perfect site of slave labor that would help build the empire. This changed later on and slowly even this absurd vision was lost. Towards the end of the war, the main purpose of the camp was to kill, especially Prisoners of War (POWs), through labor, deprivation and despair.

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Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial

At the memorial, I join a small group of people for an English tour. Our guide is a German schoolteacher with sensitive eyes who looks a bit like Alain de Botton. His presentation is heartfelt. While he is informative and accurate, more than anything he helps us reflect:  how is this possible? He would not offer explanations for people’s motivations and a few times when people try to over simplify things, he gently reminds us that, “we don’t know”. At one point, when reading the description of the sleeping quarters, he pauses and says, “sorry, I can’t read this. Please search for it online.  This is all documented.” I appreciate his silence: this is a memorial and not a museum.

There are many questions about the people who lived in the surrounding areas. They must have known what was going on here. How could they bear it? Our guide is patient and says there was a range of responses. A few complained, some collaborated (most infamously in hunting down more than 480 Russian POWs who had escaped in what became known as the “Rabbit Hunt”) but mostly people were silent. This silence is easy to judge from a distance. A few days after my visit, I found a short video with interviews with some of the local residents years after the war and they described how they felt about living in such an infamous place. Sometimes a better choice than blaming or dismissing is to stay present.

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Stairs of Death

We look down a high hill which is on top of the stone quarries. Prisoners were made to carry stones (sometimes as heavy as 50 kg) up a stairway infamously known as the “Stairs of Death”. Many people lost their lives here. I later walk down the steps and look at the tall silent stone wall. Sometimes prisoners were thrown off this hill to their death. Often SS officers and sometimes the kapos (prisoner functionaries who supervised other prisoners) forced the prisoners to conduct pointless exercises, such as running. Many prisoners died from exhaustion.

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Shower Rooms – Many prisoners died of exposure while waiting stark naked and wet in the snow for “hygienic showers”

In the basement of a large building, we visit shower rooms, gas chambers, ovens. In the airless concrete rooms where many spent their last moments, I feel a profound void. Rather than the presence of evil, I feel the absence of God. A place empty of love, light, humanity. Often, people talk of the mystery of God and love, and how mystics seek to experience that. I am in the presence of another mystery, the mystery of darkness and absence of love. This mystery is also part of our existence, the other side of the coin or the shadow of our collective self. Perhaps, to really experience love, one has to experience the lack of it too.

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Names of prisoners who died are written in the rooms where formerly bodies were kept before being burnt

Now I know why I am here. I feel an old pain deep in my heart: the pain of encountering darkness and having to incorporate it into your vision of the world. Like many others growing up in the Middle East in the 1980’s, I was exposed to war, revolution and extreme sociopolitical  pressures when I was a child. In a society where most people have experienced these, you don’t think of them as “traumatic”. They are part of “ordinary” life. I did not get exposed to the worst experiences directly: I did not see death first hand, did not get injured, did not disappear. But I was close enough to the people who did experience these to get second degree burns. The idea that people disappeared randomly and that there were other people out there who wanted to invade and kill us was a reality. I am far from being alone in these experiences and worst ones, as this memorial testifies. Everyday in different regions of the world, but especially in the Middle East as I am writing this, thousands of people face the harsh realities of violent human suffering: the darkness of lovelessness.

I survived. I grew up. I left. I forgot. Or so I thought. Years later, I still feel something painful deep inside: a hidden wound that you don’t know exists but hurts and makes you look for relief in the wrong places, a spell that pushes you towards an unknown point in your destiny, a quiet voice in your ear that says, “everyone you love can disappear in a moment!” These elements have created tremendous pressure in my life. Rather than making me give up, they have forced me to run forward. They have made me thirsty for life, but also afraid of disappearing. They have made me feel grateful for what I have but also afraid of losing it. And this fear is something I would like to leave at this memorial. I am tired of running and want to sit down and rest.

I start to make my way out of the memorial. I start to feel a strong bond with the people who have suffered here and with the ones who have suffered in other places and in other times: a bond of common human pain. I remember a book called “Man in the Search of Meaning” by Viktor Frankl who was a Holocaust survivor and a psychologist. Upon encountering tremendous pain and suffering, Frankl identified the search for meaning as an essential part of the human condition. Until we realize that the “unexamined life is not worth living“, we are like Sysiphus dragging the burden of our meaningless existence up the mountain of time. Perhaps our task is to face the mystery, search and find a meaning, the meaning, to our existence.

When walking in the middle of a dark cold night with sadistic guards hitting him with rifle butts, Frankl suddenly had a realization. I quote his book: “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be if only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” Frankl looked his heart in the face and found his meaning. In the midst of emptiness, he was able to see the one thing that was left and could not be taken away from him. I am inspired by this idea and I also realize that this meaning is something one has to find, to experience, to live, oneself:  while the “song of many poets” are previous road signs, they are not the destination or the road.

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As I walk away from the gate, I come by a statue that rises out of the ground by the side of the road. A series of stone human heads are silently peering forward. They are surrounded by growing grass and small fragile flowers. Drops of rain start dropping from the sky. I continue to walk. The essence of the river is to flow.

To live is to love, to feel, to hurt, to hate, to seek, to know, and to love again.