Elliot Leeds is on a plane to Osaka. As his body streaks through the stratosphere at nearly supersonic speed, he is rehearsing a speech via satellite video link to his wife Melanie, who is at home, her feet firmly planted on the ground, her mind on her “fertile window” which will open the day Elliot returns. Elliot is a tech billionaire. Melanie wants to start a family.
A month after Elliot and his plane are lost in the ocean on the way to Osaka — a fitting “tech FAIL” to introduce this tech fable — his best friend and business partner Ben pays Melanie a friendly visit. She is inconsolable. He is disconsolate. She is now a majority stockholder in Paradigm, the tech company Elliot and Ben founded, but she would trade it all — the billions of dollars, the super high-tech house Elliot built just before his death — to hear his voice again. Ben expresses his sympathy, but his overtures are spurned.
After Ben leaves, Melanie finds a package from a lawyer. Inside is a disk, and on the disk is a post-it note in Elliot’s handwriting. “Play me,” it says to her, and like Alice staring down the rabbit hole, she follows it to the unknown. We soon find out that Elliot had been planning the ultimate exit strategy for years. All his thoughts and feelings, all his gestures and expressions, have been saved on servers around the world, and when Melanie presses “play” their super high-tech house becomes inspired with its designer’s invisible spirit. Elliot becomes the ghost in the machine.
Though wrapped in a sugary-sweet love triangle, Two Point Oh is a very clever play about some of the most important ideas of our time. Philosophers like Daniel Dennett get perverse pleasure from arguing that the mind is only an epiphenomenal emanation of essentially chemico-physical brain processes. You and I, our feelings, sensations, memories, hopes, imaginations, fears, fictions, myths and epiphanies, are only an illusion generated by synaptic firings in a evolutionarily conditioned context. Or as Professor Waldman says in Frankenstein (1994) “the human body is a chemical engine run by electricity.”
Elliot’s experiment with immortality and its effect on the organic humans he once called his wife and friend tests an understanding of the mind grounded in reductive materialism that analogizes brain and mind to computer hardware and software. In the first half of the play, Ben is convinced that Elliot 2.0 is just a trick of technology, a philosophical zombie, a complex illusion that Melanie wants to believe in to assuage her loss. He argues with Hubert Dreyfus (following Merleau-Ponty) that artificial intelligence of the kind Elliot 2.0 promises is a long way off.
In the first place, computers perform algorithms, complicated, perhaps infinitely complicated tasks; but they don’t reflect on those tasks by considering them abstractly. They may modify the tasks to perform them more efficiently, but they don’t pose philosophical questions about what the tasks are meant to accomplish. They don’t think in abstractions and symbols; they don’t learn in the sense humans do. In the second place, computers, specifically the networked computers of the Internet Age don’t have bodies like all other forms of organic consciousness. What is time to a computer? What is space?
Philosophers since Aristotle call the space bodies require “extension,” and for Descartes extension of bodies and the limitlessness of mind is the grounds for his famous dualism. Is Ben just jealous that Elliot dies but keeps the girl, or is the play subtly presenting us a paradox? Is the analogy of mind-body to software-hardware a materialist position, or in the Internet Age, does it bring Descartes in through the back door? Without giving away the ending, let me say that Two Point Oh complicates our unexamined notions of what it means to be a thinking creature in a world that runs on immutable, universal laws.
The author, Jeffrey Jackson, deftly situates Two Point Oh in the conversation begun by Mary Shelley nearly two hundred years ago. After Elliot the electronic ghost has appeared on the monitors in the house Elliot the man built, he spends hours with Melanie reciting works of classic literature. At the beginning of one scene we catch a snippet of reference to Ingolstadt and Clerval; the former is the university town where Victor Frankenstein created his monster, and the latter is the best friend the monster destroys. Jack Noseworthy, who stars as Elliot, plays the typically arrogant, overreaching scientist cum social engineer with a double dose of boyish charm and homicidal entitlement, a charismatic hybrid of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.
The success of this production rests on the very clever technical work of the design team, in particular DJ Haugen and David Bengali, who designed the multimedia. The Greek-chorus-style commentary provided by newscaster Jerry Gold (Michael Sean McGuinness) is as seamlessly integrated to the main action as a design geek with season tickets to all TED events could want. That is to say, the artificiality is so extreme it looks natural. And even though Elliot himself only appears on stage in the flesh when the actors take their bows, his presence throughout is visceral. Two Point Oh is a play about the creation of the human through technology that works on every level.
Through October 20th at 59E59th Theatre