Modern Melting Pot

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Can an Environmental Computer Game Save the World?

The Internet taps into the genius and goodness of crowds!

 Because of my involvement with The Planet is Dying (originally, The Bay is Dying), a multimedia Internet novel-as-a-game, I meditated on the 11/02/2013 Huffington Post headline:

          ZUCK: INTERNET WILL SAVE THE WORLD!  GATES: 'IT'S A JOKE'

Meditate is the exact right word. Meditative or holistic thinking is a good way to be "mindful,"  to have my attention not just on the thoughts but also the emotions, impressions, premonitions, and sensations occurring in the present moment.  As a novelist who writes nonfiction I never really believed that the world could be known fully through analytic, totally fact-based thinking.

And now that I am working with a lot of Millennials, holistic thinking, spiritual thinking, or mindfulness, whether they call it that or not, seems to have some decided advantages amid the data saturation that digital devices have brought into everyday lives.

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Gates analytic mode of thinking (which is the way I was taught to think) breaks down complex questions into small steps that can be dealt with fully. Holistic thinking uses simultaneous searches (as a computer does), pulling stuff from everywhere, often without dealing with anything fully, because nothing can ever be dealt with fully.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, 29, a Millennial, asserted that Internet connectivity is a primary humanitarian concern. Microsoft billionaire, Bill Gates, 58, who has put billions of dollars into improving healthcare and fighting poverty in developing countries, argues that saying Internet "connectivity is more important than, say, finding a vaccination for malaria . . . As a priority? It's a joke.'"

The difference between Zuckerberg and Gates may amount to nothing more than each seeing the same thing, but knowing it as each generation has been taught to know.   Malaria is an important symptom but the underlying disease our species faces, a Millennial like Zuckerberg seems to imply, involves the entire human ecosystem.

Malaria is connected to mosquitoes, and mosquitoes are connected to global warming, and global warming is connected to, well . . . . everything else in the universe.  

This made me pull up for meditation a Spiritual from the American tradition into which I was born—the African-American tradition:

                  De toe bone connected to de foot bone,

                  De foot bone connected to de ankle bone,

                  De ankle bone connected to de leg bone,

Finding a vaccination for malaria may be like healing the thigh bone. Important! But what might most need healing is our human connection to the entire natural, social, and constructed world, a Millennial way of thinking implies.  Only when everything is connected can there be a cure and  “Dem bones git up and walk aroun'. Dem bones git up and dance aroun' “

Zuckerberg’s millennial dream of universal connectivity is the dream of holism. The dream is older than Ezekiel, who in the Bible story of 600 BC, was brought into a valley of dry bones; and when asked can these bones live, Ezekiel said: Sovereign . . . you alone know.”  --Ezekiel 37: 3 New International Version

Certainly the Internet comes closer (far closer) than anything ever has to being capable of pulling all the bones together into oneness, which will at last, we dream, allow us to walk out of the valley of unconnected dry bones.

However, if the dream is too narrowly focused on technology, it is connected bones without flesh. A cure for malaria is flesh on dry bones.  Some of the flesh is in the human ecology movement, represented in projects like those at places like Earth Island Institute (EII).

There are thousands of technology incubators.  I've not seen nearly enough incubators like EII "for start-up environmental projects. . .”, for:

 “. . . grassroots campaigns dedicated to conserving, preserving, and restoring the ecosystems on which our civilization depends. . .

. . .giving crucial assistance to groups and individuals with new ideas for promoting ecological sustainability

. . . making its members more effective together than they could ever be apart. . ." -- Earth Island Institute

The Pollination Project gives $1,000 every day, often to environmental project, so that as each project seeds other projects endlessly. This is part of the dream of connectedness. So also are networks like Care2, with 27,029,312 members, claiming to be  the world's largest online community for good.

These are all Millennial efforts that  reach toward holism.  John Muir, the great ecologist and founder of the Sierra Club, once wrote "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe".  Ecology is connectedness.

Back when advances in the use of printing presses made possible the mass production of books, novelists used stories to create universes. Stories of an era may be as close as we can come during that era to the consciousness of universal connectedness. Ezekiel would probably say that was what he was talking about-- a Millennial Temple dreamed of over 2,500 years ago.

The rage to achieve a holistic vision of the world we live in, to grasp everything at once, was “the madness” of Leo Tolstoy with War and Peace, George Eliot with Middlemarch, and Charles Dickens with A Tale of Two Cities. In fact all great novels were once propelled by this rage.

Then, historically, with the dawning of the sense of our individual separateness, the modern novel became preoccupied with the drama of the small, disconnected, self against the world. One simplistic complaint against Millennials is that for them the Internet has become the communication medium of the individual, isolated self—MySpace. My Facebook profile, My network, etc.

But, paradoxically, the farther we go into the digital age, the more the Internet reveals itself to be the medium of the inner-connected self.  And with this being so,

maybe the novel writer’s madness for the present generation can only be expresses by use of the Internet to create an inner-connected novel, a collaborative novel. This explains my fascination with The Planet is Dying.

Most of the writers involved with the project are not Millennials. They range across all generational modes of seeing reality. However, it is the Millennials who I am constantly asking:: “What are we doing”?  Cathy's remark was a good example of the answers I got:

It’s not that we don’t care, we just don’t know how we can have an impact on such colossal problems, so we turn it off in our minds. But The Planet Is Dying is an approach to pollution that’s like nothing anyone else has ever done because until recently in our history the technology didn’t even exist to pull together a world-wide collaboration like this.

Solutions are no longer people “somewhere else” trying to save the world. Fixing problems is now a million (okay a billion, a gazillion, the more the better) people all doing it together. One person is no longer just one person. We are a crowd of people, a humongous crowd that is making change happen through the novel-as-a-game. You want to get involved because when you do you’re actually in the dynamic of change, not just hoping it gets done by other people. The Planet is Dying is a living, changing story of how we, the big WE, created a movement that you were a part of. -- Cathy Adams.

Into my meditation was bound to come some impressions from Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. It seems to me that digital technology broke reality, or at least our sense of reality, or the truth of what reality is:

 Reality is like truth, and truth is like humpty dumpty. We used the Internet to break the truth into a million pieces and now everyone can express their truth. -- Brandon Myers

The world seems overwhelmed by a million different points of view. There is no story that holes the facts together.  The way to fix it, McGonigal says is through cooperative games that millions of people around the world can play.

Everyone likes to play games on the Internet and in social media, right, and everyone loves a gripping story. What if there was a game that would have millions of players doing things to win points and prizes that help save the planet.-- Dana Wilson

Okay, yes, suppose the game was a story featuring mysterious real-life characters living in one environmental hot spot after another?. How will the characters survive becomes the question about how will we all survive.  That is the suspense and intrigue that can pull players into a universal story. Players’ get involved in the struggle and win points and prizes, and gain many of the other satisfactions of game-play by helping the characters avert environmental disasters, which are now accelerated by climate change.

In this novel as a game players fight environmental disasters in the game-world and are then pulled by game mechanics into the real world around them to fight the same dangers. That is the plan for the game.

Our  interactive, multimedia, multiplatform, group-authored, Internet thriller begins in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, just below Washington DC. But through branching narratives the story spreads to wherever in the world human life is under siege by abusers of the environment.

I asked Justin: “What are we doing”?

Who are we? We’re a group of people from across the world who decided to work together to create something special, with the ultimate goal of making people really see the impact pollution is having on the planet.

We’re musicians, writers, gamers, teachers … and we’re also you. Because The Planet Is Dying doesn’t work without you (the players). Your interaction with us, with it, brings this interactive, multimedia, multiplatform group-authored Internet novel-as-a game to life.

Look. It’s real simple. We’ve been witnessing pollution for so long, dealing with spills and leaks and haze for so many years, that most of us don’t even notice it anymore. Or, if we do, most of us assume there’s nothing we can do. One person can’t change the world . . . right?

That’s where The Planet Is Dying comes in. Hear me out for a minute.

First, there’s the argument side, one that everyone outwardly agrees with. More than that, though, is an obligation we have to act on this common belief, to do the right thing for ourselves and for future generations and each of us do a small part in protecting the planet.

The other side, though, has to do with the story, with the artfulness of what’s unfolds here. The Planet is Dying is a novel, it’s a game. It’s a world-wide, creative collaboration, which you, along with us, can make into a movement. --  Justin Nicholes

The Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University in the UK agreed to help us by using their knowledge of digital creativity, gaming technology, and education & semantic web, and cross, social & interactive media storytelling to turn the chapters of the text-based novel into multimedia.

We Baby Boomers always looked upon “nerd” as a pejorative term; but out in the middle of America there is a Company that calls itself the Nerdery –400 nerds working under one roof—who are standing by to put the multimedia content into the story code needed to publish it online, or streaming, as a game/novel.

 One of them said:

 The game (we build) will clearly appeal to folks who care about the environment, because of the content. Our job is to make it appealing to people outside of this audience as well. -- Nick Slanga

I noticed that each one the nerds is a co-President of their company, not a single CEO as Bill Gates was at Microsoft. The pull now days is toward the inner-connection.  The basic human urge toward connectedness expresses in the Millennial generation as inner-connected ways of doing things, in Meetups and Hackathons, for examples.

In meditation I keep in touch with the older mystery writers in our group so that this project  doesn’t get too virtual, " not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so," says Wikipedia, which doesn't exist anywhere but exists everywhere.

Keeping it real, in the old-fashion sense, one of our mystery writers wrote:

Florida is an  environmental nightmare. Climate change is stealing our shoreline. We're losing the Everglades and so many native species. Pythons, lion fish and other invasive species are destroying our ecosystem. THE PLANET IS DYING is a game, but the stakes are death. And that's real.-- Elaine Viets

Watching it all makes me end my meditation by paraphrasing Ezekiel, “Sovereign, you alone know. “ This is true no matter who anyone among us understands the Sovereign to be, Amen!”

 George Davis, as creative director of Quest Digital Worldwide, has assembled a world-wide team of volunteers and Strategic Partners to build an interactive, group-authored, Internet novel-as-a-game-for-good. The game-novel, The Planet is Dying, is about a global struggle to save the environment

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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