Reality Tinkering

“What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit in a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep.
How? Where? When? Why? ” 
(Perec 1973)

Reality around us is flexible and blurry in many different ways. We are ignorant of the location of the fine borderline between reality and fiction because of varying reasons: consider, for example, the amount of metaphysical theories arguing about the nature of reality, the restrictions posed by human perception and cognition, and the variety of images media feed us. We can never know what really happened between the two presidents or in a fallen airplane. We cannot even objectively know what happened in the situations we attended by ourselves. 

As humans, we are responsible for making up a huge amount of our reality by ourselves – we are the crafters of society, knowledge, practices. All this cultural weight causes an illusion of ‘normal’ to emerge from the familiar reality. Because of myriad reasons, our everyday reality is organized one way instead of another, familiarity causing us to consider this order as ‘normal’ – and letting us to forget that our ‘normal’ could as well be completely different.

Reality tinkering strives to momentarily break down the normalized flow of daily life by focusing on subtle anomalies, tiny situations resisting the default logic of life: a stranger giving a precious gift, an alien plant growing amongst the ordinary ones, a peculiar object found in one’s pocket.

Puu-ukkoReality (defined at this point as the environment surrounding us independently of our thoughts, but at the same time moldable by our actions) is made of details. Our knowledge about it is often partial or fuzzy, but the real objects are obliged to have exact measures and locations (Rescher 2010, 34). Reality is inexhaustible in detail, which is beautifully shown in Georges Perec’s novel Life – A User’s Manual, taking place in single Parisian apartment house: in every room of every apartment there is plenty to tell: the furniture, paintings in the wall, whole life stories hidden in the small souvenirs on the shelf. Although the details are described with considerably more effort than in average novels, they are far too numerous to be all covered. Because of the importance of the details, by manipulating them it is possible to manipulate the realities as well. By providing anomalies in the system of normal it is possible to attack straight into the details.

Reality tinkering aims to find concrete ways to render visible the myriad realities hovering within reach from our highly automatized everyday life. It utilizes the fleeting moment, when one suddenly gets confused in the middle of her ordinary tasks, encounters an anomaly in the pattern of everyday. As a method we use anomaly-promoting reality adjustments, acting ‘wrong’ without an explanation. The  confusion often lasts only for some seconds, but offers a long-lasting effect. These moments make visible the nodes of the branching reality, revealing simultaneously multiple possibilities and working thus as a bridge over the gap between those realities.

Basic assumptions of reality tinkering:


1) Everyone is an active modifier of everyday reality only by living in it. “Reality tinkerer” is somebody who deliberately works for bringing more improbable realities into the level of everyday.

2) Everyday life is not the only reality although sometimes one can get stuck in it. At times our life becomes so automatized, that we are not able to question the overwhelming everyday reality anymore. There is still no reason to consider that temporary situation as the default condition of life.

3) The amount of realities is endless (c.f. the discussion for instance in the field of quantum mechanics, psychology, sociology, philosophy and art). It is irrelevant, which theory one selects to believe, if any. The possibility to renew the everyday reality is independent from the theories, although they can give much inspiration. Some of the realities are nearer, others more far away, some may be “good”, some “bad”. We are not interested in searching for better “other places” in the sense of religious mythology or idealism. For reality tinkerers, the question of the ultimate nature of reality is not important (although interesting, still). Because we accept that our lives are as much “real” as they are “fictive”, there is no use to try and distinguish these two modes of being. It is impossible for an average citizen to find out the truth behind, for instance 9/11, so accepting the possible truthfulness of all (conspiracy) theories can be seen as the most healthy option. Reality tinkerers work for making the multiplicity visible – because, accepting the official “truth” as a single one – that is something dangerous. Most important is that we have possibilities to mold this reality/simulacrum around us. So, the question of free will is considered here very practically: if one is able to select between cereals and toast, there seems to be agency. That practical everyday agency is enough for our approach – we happily leave the question if it is only an illusion, after all, to more theoretically oriented thinkers.

4)  An anomaly can work as a bridge between branches of reality. Using confusion as its tool, an anomaly reveals simultaneously the different outcomes. The moment functions like the famous Schrödinger’s cat, which could be at the same probability dead or alive at a certain moment. The status is not known before the observer confirms it. Similarly, all the endless possibilities hovering over every action are invisible until the anomaly (an error making the observer to pay attention at last) makes it possible to see the unfitting probabilities.

One of the best analogies of reality tinkerer’s work is the practice of grafting trees. Both the base and the added materials are there already – the tree is interesting as such, offering plenty of possibilities among its forking branches. But by adding branches from other trees, making new combinations, we can make the tree even more interesting, surprising and fun.