Interview With Stephen Toutonghi, Author, ‘Join’: Nobody Dies Alone

 

Stephen Toutonghi is the author of Join:

What if you could live multiple lives simultaneously, have constant, perfect companionship, and never die? That’s the promise of Join, a revolutionary technology that allows small groups of minds to unite, forming a single consciousness that experiences the world through multiple bodies. But as two best friends discover, the light of that miracle may be blinding the world to its horrors.

Chance and Leap are jolted out of their professional routines by a terrifying stranger—a remorseless killer who freely manipulates the networks that regulate life in the post-Join world. Their quest for answers—and survival—brings them from the networks and spire communities they’ve known to the scarred heart of an environmentally ravaged North American continent and an underground community of the “ferals” left behind by the rush of technology.

In the storytelling tradition of classic speculative fiction from writers like David Mitchell and Michael Chabon, Join offers a pulse-pounding story that poses the largest possible questions: How long can human life be sustained on our planet in the face of environmental catastrophe? What does it mean to be human, and what happens when humanity takes the next step in its evolution? If the individual mind becomes obsolete, what have we lost and gained, and what is still worth fighting for?

In this interview, Toutonghi and I discuss evolution, consciousness, and a complicated relationship with death.

Unbound Worlds: I’m wondering if you can possibly explain the technology that’s at the center of Join.

Stephen Toutonghi: The central conceit of the novel is that a technology called “Join” has been developed that connects minds in a way that changes the boundaries of individual perception. A device called a ‘caduceus’ enables the change. It’s surgically implanted beneath the skull of at least two individuals, and after complimentary adjustments, it creates the possibility for the individuals to share awarenesses. Additional systems in the caduceus and a short therapeutic protocol employing hallucinogens facilitate development of a stable gestalt state in which multiple minds behave as a single mind.

One consideration of this imaginary tech is the ability for the joined mind to operate multiple bodies simultaneously across spatial boundaries. I did a lot of research to decide whether I thought such a thing might ever be possible, reading about the ideas of people such as Christopher Fuchs, who says things like, “Quantum mechanics is a law of thought,” and many physicists who are exploring consciousness as a possible fundamental element of reality. The relevant stuff gets complicated very quickly, and I’m not capable of compressing even my rudimentary understanding into a paragraph or two. As a result, I wouldn’t quibble with someone who described the ideas behind Join as magic, but I also don’t believe that considering it a distant possibility is too much of a stretch either. Right now, I don’t think anyone really knows what’s possible in this area. There are certainly many people who know a lot more than I do, but they seem to disagree with each other about important things.

If such a technology were possible, it’s not difficult to imagine at least a couple of ways in which it might benefit our species. For example, a deep experience of another person’s life might promote empathy, and greater empathy might help people make wiser decisions. With regard to addressing the urgent concerns of our species, however, any crisis brought on by our current concerns would certainly happen before a tech like Join might be developed. To me, that makes Join and most related ideas sort of a red herring, fantasies whose real use is to stimulate interesting lines of thinking.

UW: How can I live multiple lives simultaneously and never die?

ST: A good starting point for thinking about that is the idea that all of the mental capabilities of each person who joins are preserved through the join procedure. As the book says, “nothing is lost.” Even a sense of individual identity is preserved for each individual (in the book, characters say “perspective coheres”). Each individual’s experience is that he or she becomes a being with the memories, experience and physical presence of multiple people. If three people go through the experience, then each of them feels as though they are the result.

This might seem contradictory—i.e., how can you have a multiplicity add up to an individual? But I think that, to some extent, a similar experience is already a part of many people’s lives. At the most basic level, there is a simple analogy to the process of making a decision. How can we support internal disagreement? What, inside us, is representing each of the contesting points of view? At a slightly more complex level, most of us have memories of feeling differently—in some ways we have memories of being different people—at different ages. Similarly, as actors move in and out of character, what are they doing? They may “feel” differently about things, but they’re also always themselves.

To take the next step—when three people join, the resulting individual has three bodies, and each of those bodies has specific characteristics. For example, a body that possessed physical skills such as martial arts expertise, or surgical skill, or skill with a musical instrument would maintain that, but other bodies wouldn’t automatically gain it. They’d gain some access to the associated intellectual processes, but physical skill has physical requirements. Awareness may be unified to some extent, but bodies remain differentiated. I think handedness might be a good analogy here. A right-handed person can do some things with their right hand that they can’t do with their left. (I often thought about how joined bodies might work by thinking about how my limbs work.) So, the body maintains a degree of independence—and there are other dimensions to that independence that are explored in the book. The joined individual then lives multiple lives simultaneously through its multiple bodies.

As for immortality, let’s continue with the example of that join with three bodies. Maybe those three bodies were all forty years old when they joined. Forty years later, that individual has three bodies who are all eighty years old. Say it meets another join who has two forty year old bodies. Those two joins then combine. Now they are a single person with five bodies, three of whom are eighty years old, and two of whom are forty. As the eighty year old bodies die, the individual survives in the remaining bodies. This could continue add infinitum, making the joined individual effectively immortal.

UW: What does it mean to die if I’m part of a collective whole?

ST: After joining, there are two kinds of death: death of the body and death of the individual (every body in the join). That is, after you join, you have multiple bodies. If one of them dies, you still continue to live, even if the body that has died was originally your body.

The book assumes that the fear of death is still triggered when a join feels that one of its bodies is in peril. As one of the characters says, “Our relationship with death is complicated.”

For joins, it’s even more complicated, and a lot of the story explores the question of what death might mean for joins.

UW: If I’m joined with a group of other people, am I still an individual or am I now something bigger, much in the sense that cells are parts of a larger organism? Maybe we’re all already part of a larger organism?

ST: For me, this question evokes a lot of what’s appealing about the concept of join. Thinking in detail about the idea raises questions about the nature of identity or individuality that I think are already a part of the background cultural noise that many of us experience from day-to-day. People in the book believe that no person who joins experiences a loss of individuality. Rather, they have the experience of gaining many more years of living history in different bodies and different circumstances. Those gains are added. Does that change the original person’s individuality? Absolutely. But is the joined person something fundamentally different than they were? Maybe. Probably. But I think that question is a bit more difficult to answer because I don’t think we really know what we are, fundamentally.

Like most boundaries, the boundaries of self are heavily influenced by culture, which implies that answers are context dependent. From a certain perspective, we might already perceive ourselves as part of a larger entity—a country, for example, or a species.

Along those lines, it seems worth asking why any individual should care whether the human species ever colonizes planets orbiting a distant sun? No one living on earth right now is likely to have any awareness of an event like that. So why do so many of us have an emotional response to the idea? I think the earlier question about the meaning of death is also interesting to reflect on while thinking about these questions of identity.

UW: Clearly, it’s going to be impossible to read this without thinking of our current social media platforms. I’ve often wondered when or if I should start considering my online presence as much an extension of me as my hands or voice. In the same line of reasoning, are our hard drives and smart devices just add-on brains? It seems like we’re getting into the same mind-body problems 19th century philosophers grappled with. Thoughts?

Yes, these questions were very much in my mind as I wrote. The concept of Join probably starts in a mental model that includes a mind/body split, which has well documented problems. I tried to be aware of that as I elaborated the concept, tried to be cautious and look for ways to think around the issue, but it’s an influence.

There are many stories about different forms of integration between digital and biological systems—so many, in fact, that for me, the crazy strangeness of those possibilities was becoming difficult to connect with. The stories were beginning to feel familiar.

I think it’s possible to read the concept of multiple bodies as a metaphor for any kind of enhancement or extension of physical presence, whether videos storing memories, search engines retrieving shared knowledge, drones giving us a kind of flight and remote presence, social networks deepening cultural connections, or whatever. One distinction that seems interesting to me is to think of physical presence as defined by the direct limits of an individual’s decisions. So, for example, a remote control temporarily offers the ability to act directly through radio waves. Maybe that ability could be viewed as an extension of self. Though that kind of extension might feel familiar, “multiple bodies” and the “joining of individuals” feels challenging in a way that recovers some of the deep strangeness that is a authentic part of living with enhancements like these.

UW: Tell me about Chance and Leap. Are they happy with the world around them as it is prior to having it disrupted by your antagonist?

ST: Just before the story starts, Chance is pretty happy, and is a generally happy person. I think Chance feels as though it’s contributing to the world, learning interesting things and leading a meaningful life. Chance isn’t numb to life’s remaining mysteries but is maybe satisfied with the opportunities it has to explore them.

Leap, on the other hand, has a more difficult history and is struggling with some internal conflicts. Leap also doesn’t really trust the direction of social and cultural development, but hasn’t examined that distrust too closely. It’s still living with some faith that things will get better.

UW: The environment is a big part of the book, and I’m wondering if perhaps you consider technology a distraction to issues like climate change? If so, is it always a distraction? Can it be useful? Should we abandon it and try to live in a pastoral environment?

ST: I think technology, like capitalism and law, is a tool. Like all tools it’s well suited for some uses and poorly suited for others. I don’t think technology is itself a problem. I’m very concerned, however, with what appears to be a tendency to place faith in the development of new technology. We have the technical means to solve our environmental concerns now—and also, I believe, many other seemingly intractable issues—but we seem uncomfortable with, or incapable of effectively asking, the questions required to address those issues.

Maybe it’s easier to place our faith in something that seems to be outside of us, something like technology. It may be that as a species we’re simply not capable of asking, answering and acting on the questions that are most necessary for our continued survival. Perhaps, despite the seeming wonder of our cognitive abilities, we’re governed by the same merciless principles that govern populations of yeast. In any case, technology will definitely have a part to play in any solutions to large problems that we do develop.

As for a pastoral environment, I think we should be focused on solutions that work for us as human beings, and human beings are animals and part of the system of living things that the earth sustains. Perhaps our best solution for the near term would actually be a pastoral environment, one facilitated by technology. I don’t really know. What is a pastoral existence? If it means that our culture focuses on balance and the longterm care of limited systems rather than on heroic transcendence, then maybe it would be a useful change, and would give us the time we need for the ethical and moral development of our species to catch up with our technological capabilities. But, I do think that if we wanted to enable a pastoral lifestyle, technology would be one tool that we’d use to achieve that aim.

UW: I’m curious about your “ferals”. That’s a relative kind of label, isn’t it? It reminds me of how people sometimes look back on their ancestors and consider them primitive, when in fact they were just as intelligent but didn’t have access to the knowledge that we’ve been lucky enough to inherit. Some of them might not have wanted it, I reckon. Things like GPS tracking have been mixed blessings. Anyway, who are these ferals? Are they dangerous?

ST: Yes, it’s definitely meant as a relative term. I thought it would be easy for the story to convey the dislike that some characters feel toward the join technology, but I wanted to be clear that there was animus going the other direction as well. That is, joins have some animus toward people who haven’t joined. It just seems like a realistic result of differences.

In the world of join, the term “feral” has a valence of “scientific” justification. The idea is that people who go off to live in their own discrete communities are rejecting society as well as join. To the joins they are, in a sense, living in the wild. It’s generally recognized as a derogatory term, but it’s a word that people bend to their own purposes.

I was thinking there would be a wide variety of ideologies that would get lumped together as feral. Some might reject technology broadly, some might embrace technology and technological change but reject join. It’s a big tent, so to speak.

UW: Let’s end with a big question. What do you think our next big evolutionary leap will be? Will it be organic at all?

ST: I’d like to think that the human species will survive to experience some additional evolutionary changes, but honestly I wouldn’t take that bet right now. I think we need to be far more focused than we are on doing the right thing in the next five to ten years. Our decisions during these years will be critical in determining whether our children have an opportunity to live their full, natural lives. We hear a lot about global warming, raising awareness about that is a good thing, but global warming is a symptom. I think the jury is still out on whether or not the underlying condition is actually us, or simply our behavior. And, to avoid ending on a depressing note, I’ll change my mind and go ahead and take that bet. But I do so with an awareness that it’s a very large bet, and I have no real choice.

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