Do we achieve a better sense of self and others by interfacing with our machines? Or are we just losing the true essence of humanity?
The question of whether technology will bring us closer together or tear us apart is front and center in DEINDE, a new play by August Schulenburg at The Secret Theatre in New York. This theater is playing host to a residency of smart science fiction on stage that is on its way toward sparking a future-facing theatrical renaissance.
DEINDE explores these themes through the time-honored tropes of artificial intelligence and the terrors of unbridled tech, matched with clever dialogue and soul-searching ruminations on life and love. Produced in our time of iPhones and SIRI, DEINDE feels prescient, as well as connected to science fiction's past.
"Only in the realms of science fiction and Singularity are the forward borders of consciousness explored," Schulenburg notes in the program. "My mind began to wonder how far we could take human consciousness before it became something else...One path seemed particularly possible and therefore worth exploring. Memory, emotion, imagination, empathy: what will they look like when we can think directly into our beloved iPhones and iPads? What will iSapiens look like?"
DEINDE is set in a not-too-distant world that feels close enough to our own, since nostalgias of past futures are still present: characters watch Star Trek: The Next Generation via hologram, and name-check Battlestar and Star Wars. But in the year 2051, technology is being advanced to keep pace with an apocalyptic threat: a mysterious virus is killing off scores of the population daily.
Inside QuamBi lab, a team of brilliant but flawed quantum biologists are at work on a cure. A breakthrough arrives in the form of Dr. Daniel Nemerov (Matthew Trumbull) and his secretive DEINDE project. The artificial intelligence system (which stands for "Dineural Entangled Intelligence Network Device" and means "next" in Latin) has the potential to enhance the doctors' calculations and thought process to machine-speed when they "loop in," providing the chance to perfect their work. As the good professor explains:
"Your memory, your cognitive capacity, will be entangled on a quantum level with the computer, so that when you have a difficult equation, one that may have taken a day to run, months to understand, you will simply think of the question, the answer comes, and you understand it intuitively."
They need only abide by DEINDE's strict Terms of Service:
Rule #1, when using DEINDE do not think of anything other than work.
Rule #2, DEINDE does not leave the office.
"Rule #3, do not use DEINDE to communicate with each other. We have erected a firewall to prevent this, but, the reality is, with your enhanced intelligences, you could evade if you wanted to. I cannot stress enough, do not do this."
"Now you can imagine #4, and this is more important than all the others; do not use DEINDE to access the world online. Again, there are firewalls, but you are all about to become very, very smart. But it does not matter how smart you are, your brains cannot handle what is out there."
As soon as these are established, we know as an audience it is only a matter of time before the rules are summarily violated. It is testament to the compelling nature of the narrative and a strong acting ensemble that we are eager to discover exactly how the bright-eyed scientists unravel under the influence of the machine.
Schulenburg has created a pantheon of distinctly actualized characters: the team is headed by steely-smart Nabanita Ghosh (Nitya Vidyasagar) as clear-eyed a leader as one could want, even as her feelings for one of her employees makes her all too human; Malcolm (Ken Glickfield), Ghosh's wise, rascally mentor whom we learn is 95 and has seen enough to be suspicious of deus ex machina miracles; and Cooper (David Ian Lee), the would-be heartthrob instead saddled with a conflicted heart and a bitter wife (Alyssa Simon) who's dying of the virus.
The youngest team members, energetic, awkward Mac (Isaiah Tanenbaum) and whip-smart "prodigy" Jenni (Rachael Hip-Flores), are the first to take to DEINDE, embracing the system with an enthusiasm that mirrors the youthful trust and immersion in new technology later generations are more wary of. In many ways this is Mac and Jenni's story to tell, as they are drawn deep into DEINDE and saving the planet while their supervisors remain blinded by personal conflicts and warring egos. The sight of the two speaking, moving and working in networked tandem is a feat of acting and staging that is chilling and electrifying to behold.
You wind up caring about all the main characters, and the handful of subplots that are shuffled deftly in the clean, minimalist set design by Will Lowry, where clear plexiglass is a fine stand-in for futuristic tech and futuristic guitars, and black walls covered in chalky scientific equations show the work of human hands and minds. Director Heather Cohn corrals the many characters and revolving scenes with fluid ease, and the action can transition from pitched violence to poignant romance to mathematical humor in the blink of an eye.
If there is a problem with DEINDE, it is that we never know enough about the world around QuamBi labs, nor the circumstances that set in motion a worldwide pandemic. This presents a lack of immediacy and grounding at times, with the rules of society less clear than the rules inside the DEINDE project. The ambiguity appears partially deliberate, however, and we do get some hints here and there that point to complex world-building.
Online, you can read press releases on the vaccine project, view warning posters on how to handle the virus, browse the blog of Jenni's free-spirited artist girlfriend Mindy (Sol Marina Crespo) and explore the musical stylings of "The Dungeon Masters" band Mac plays in with his best friend Bobby (Matthew Murumba). The information adds a rich emotional layer to "DEINDE's" plot and relationships that we could wish was further incorporated and unpacked onstage.
The fact that we want more exposition and backstory out of DEINDE is also a sign of its strength. The play clips along at a good speed, but has us invested enough in the characters to wonder at their origins and past motivations, which are more vague. We are hungry to know what shaped a future where society is so close to extinction it would risk its own sublimation in largely untested technology to save it.
While exploring many of the common ideas that come attendant with our fascination with A.I., from Borglike interfaced brains to 2001-esque god complexes, DEINDE is particularly focused on two aspects: how to return to being "normal" after experiencing superhuman intelligence, and how, or if we should, return from the experience of being deeply networked with one another. Would we forsake enhanced intellect or profound psychic connection, once felt?
"You think you know what love is?" interconnected characters ask. "I love you more than you can possibly know... But you will know... If you just loop in... Connection, intimacy... We have that, ten thousand times as strong."
It's a tempting proposition. Never being alone again is a central concern of DEINDE, both to regular people and those who have hacked into being something more. But the question that remains most pressing for the story, and for fans of the speculative and the current state of humanity, is how far we can take our ongoing obsession with technology until dangers outweigh advancement.
DEINDE's ultimate impact lies in that its threats and promises are never beyond the realm of possibility or indeed very far away at all — they're as close as the phone in your pocket and the screen you're reading this on. We are already interconnected, and it's only a matter of time before Nemerov's Rules could be coming bundled into iTunes.
DEINDE, presented by the Flux Theatre Ensemble and the BFG collective, runs through May 12 at The Secret Theatre in Queens. Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets ($18/$15 students) at www.fluxtheatre.org. Photos by Justin Hoch.