Rick & Morty, the premiere goofily nihilistic adult cartoon has invaded popular culture like a plague. The show follows Rick, a mad scientist type and self-proclaimed smartest man in the universe, and his adventures with his stupid grandson, Morty. Rick’s claim to genius is typified in the teleportation gun he invented, that enables him to travel through space and time at will to multiple universes. It’s popular for a variety of reasons: the humor and writing is unique and intelligent, and the animation is distinct.
However, I offer an alternate theory for it’s pervasiveness– that Rick & Morty is popular because it demonstrates a cultural mythology that is all too real. That there is a thing such as a multiverse, that we all have access to with portal guns of our very own. But instead of being invented by a parody of a doctor from an 80’s comedy; his name was Rob Stothard, and it happened in 1992.
The world’s first smartphone, Simon, was a combination of a cell phone and PDA: in a metamorphosis so successful that the parents almost immediately fell into antiquity. 26 years later, the world carries handheld computers in our pockets.
Now I know what you’re thinking; we haven’t invented teleportation yet, therefore my metaphor has no physical weight. But the multiple universes I am referring to are not those we can touch in a tangible way. They are the ones that are embedded in our very DNA.
To have any knowledge of what it means to be a human, we created story. In the words of one of my favorite authors, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Although this quote functions metaphorically, as a framework in ethics and morality, it also is literally how history went.
For centuries, story was passed down, often orally or through drawings, through family and neighbor alike: of who we were, who were are, and who we want to be. And as human consciousness grew and became society, we had to learn to amplify our message, and infuse it with power. Not only that, but if Berger and Luckmann were correct in their assertion to the social construct of reality, then as we grew, our stories did too.
If humans in groups create, over time, concepts and mental representations of each others actions, and these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by actors in relation to each other, we thus create a social script: where certain interactions lead to reward, and others to punishment. And the rules change, depending on social class, gender, or race. So, if our reality is constructed by not only the stories we tell, but also the groups we are apart of, and our portal guns are our smartphones– how do we enter another universe?
Well, first let’s go back to where we were a paragraph ago. As we amplified our message, and infused it with power, we created moderators, or gatekeepers, to decide what stories were told and which ones were silenced. These gatekeepers went by a variety of names: preachers, public speakers, kings, emperors. And then evolution took us to Johannes Gutenberg and the groundbreaking printing press– in other words, a way to widely disseminate a cultural message that can be re-used throughout its existence, only needing an active participant to consume. Thus, we created a way to enter the universe of another at will. But only certain groups were allowed literacy, and the education and presence to teleport in this way.
So society advanced further, with it’s stories told through photography, radio, and film– and soon cultures were relying upon the things gatekeepers created and allowed in the public sphere for ways to define themselves, their roles, and their lives. But then came the internet: the communication revolution that changed everything. Information that was at one time only accessible by the elite few became accessible to anyone with an internet connection. And so the tower of Babel came crashing down.
Now modern society has absolutely benefited from diversity, intersectionality, and the constellation of cultural rhetorics, especially in the age of the internet. We are absolutely in a time where originality and multiplicity should shine and be rewarded. But a cultural diversity of story thrives when gatekeepers of popular culture are able to recognize the validity and value of perspectives that contradict their own, and hold both with equal weight. And the gatekeepers we used to have were of the dominating sort– the new gatekeepers capable of doing so have yet to be found.
So, surrounded by our mass of near identical information, we are in a hyperreality of our own creation– one in which we are incapable of distinguishing the existent from the simulation. So, lost in a sea of data and desperate for control, we return to what we’ve always done– the scripts and stories we tell ourselves. But this time, we’re getting our stories from the computers that live in our hands.
These “scripted” robots on which we read the news, check our work schedules, our bank account balances, arrange our calendars, text our friends and families, do our homework, watch tv, even record our thoughts and experiences– also allow us to share or store in a “cloud” all our information, a hypothetical mass of wires and electricity that holds the very data of our lives. Thus, we have replicated our lives in the digital sphere– our identities performative in how they interact, and who they interact with, on the world wide web.
In our individualistic and capitalistic society, we are told we have the freedom to create and choose our own paths. And with each of us having our own portal guns, we all have this freedom. But with this freedom, comes a great cost– with the ability to pick and choose the information and knowledge I consume, learn, and believe to construct my own reality, I run the risk of never fully sharing reality with another being again. Thus the hyperreality is split– and we all inhabit universes of our own creation.
Maybe, the truth is we never were in the same world– that the nature of consciousness is to be an individual mind. But in a time where political rhetoric is vitriol and tribalistic, and global catastrophe appears imminent, the need for a universal story is more urgent than ever before.
But perhaps now that we know what we’ve created, we know what we must do next– locate the true core of the human experience, the one that can pierce through the dissent, and offer the story that we can all share a role in. Until that day, we are all but digital zombies, slouching towards Bethlehem.