August 15, 2019

Escape Rooms

When I came back to work after vacation, I found that a telephone-booth-style office for one had been installed in the hallway, in front of a window I used to like to stand at and look out of sometimes on my way back from the breakroom. It instantly felt likea metaphor for something, and I posted a picture of it to Tumblr. I guess it was a metaphor, in part, for that impulse to post — it’s when I am trapped in my own bubble that my desire to post things on social media becomes strongest.  Tumblr, though, feels more like a secret hiding place than social network these days. It’s less a glass cube in the corridor than a kind of thought tomb.

The official thinking behind the booth is likely that it offers a place where one can have a videoconference without disturbing anyone else. It repudiates the open-office plan, and the idea that physical co-presence matters for collaboration or productivity. Who needs an open office when there is Slack to cajole interaction among workers where it can all be monitored and preserved? The “real” workspace is now distributed in real time across screens; the booth is an optimal portal to that space. The rest of the office is vestigial.

The solo conference room seems a concession to the perceived limitations of email, described in this recent New Yorker article by computer science professor Cal Newport. He argues that email use in offices was a “mistake” — an attempt at solving coordination problems that had the perverse outcome of multiplying them. In Newport’s account, big office buildings brought with them endless games of phone tag, a situation that seemed fixable through a reliable system of asynchronous communication: “a way for me to send you a message when it was convenient for me, and for you to read that message when it was convenient for you, all at speeds less sluggish than that of intra-office mail.” But it turned out that in trying to facilitate everyone’s convenience, email inconvenienced everyone. Instead of freeing people to attend to logistical concerns on their own time, it made them have to spend all their time monitoring email to keep up-to-date on interminable conversations. Rather than consent to be present on other people’s terms at face-to-face meetings, everyone instead hovers in a state of compulsive semi-presence, not really there with anyone but not really away from work.

Newport is optimistic enough to believe that email’s all-consuming nature was a bug and not a feature, that there is some stable distinction between “real work” and the constant availability to management signaled by the constant email checking. It may be that email is a means for extending the work day while compromising workers’ autonomy — that its whole point in office bureaucracies is to overwhelm and enfeeble and disempower.

To fix email, Newport suggests some “solutions” that are being implemented at tech firms. “Recently, the founder and CEO of a publicly traded technology company told me that he spends at most two or three hours a week sending and receiving e-mails; he has replaced most of his asynchronous messaging with a ‘regular rhythm’ of meetings, which allows him to efficiently address issues in real time.” If you are the boss and everybody has to take your meeting when you say so, this is a great solution. Another approach Newport champions is “Scrums”: daily 15-minute team meetings to coordinate everyone’s efforts. “The idea that a quarter of an hour of structured synchrony is enough time to enable a full day of work might sound preposterous, but, for more than twelve million software developers, it seems to be working,” Newport writes.

The video-conference booth seems like it is meant to facilitate the kinds of face-to-face meetings trending in the tech sector without surrendering the surveillance capabilities of email — a Scrum-in-the-box. It portends a new optimization of office space in which isolation becomes the prerequisite for the preferred form of collaboration, where everything is documentable under your user name and all conversations are squeezed through a limited set of interfaces so they can be monitored and recorded and exploited. Workers can thus be alone together, in structured synchrony if not in perfect harmony. You are the best sort of team player when you are mentored by your screen.

The booth distills what’s become of the “social factory,” in which our productivity depends as much on our isolation and visibility as it does with our propensity to collaborate. I often wonder whether I am more valuable to the world as an object of surveillance than as someone who tries to make things or do work, whether the data and information and connections I produce inadvertently are more useful to the world than what I try to put out there.  But it is becoming harder to even maintain the distinction between the work I try to do and what Mark Andrejevic called the “work of being watched.” It’s all just flows of attention.

All week I’ve been thinking about sitting in the booth to see what it actually feels like to be in there, alone with my screen, maybe screaming my head off to test its soundproofing. But I am still feeling too shy to try it. It seems too conspicuous to self-quarantine that way, like I’m showing off how much I cut myself off from the people around me. So far, in fact, I have yet to see anybody in the box. This makes me think its function is more admonitory, like a town-square pillory. It’s a stark reminder of where you will end up if you can’t get your email and Slack game together.

The box is there to try to make me forget that I’m always already in the box, all day every day.




When I was on vacation, staying off Twitter and checking my email only occasionally, it seemed like maybe I was outside the box. But that makes it sound like I’m on vacation every time I put my phone in a drawer. Is it still possible to set the bar higher?

One of the places we visited was Ape Cave, a several miles-long underground lava tube carved out by a Mount St. Helens eruption a few thousand years ago. Unlike limestone caves, which might have stalagmites and stalactites, different chambers, and irregular passageways spurring off and meandering in different directions, a lava tube is just that: a hollow channel, like a giant subterranean drinking straw.

At first, we entertained the idea of trying to hike the cave with just the light from our cell phones. But when we saw just how little light they shed when it was truly dark, it became clear that this wouldn’t work. (This also felt like a metaphor.) We had to go back to the ranger station and rent two of their car-battery-size flashlights. Back in the cave with these I felt a bit like I was in an episode of Scooby Doo. But no matter how much we swept our beams around the walls and the ceiling, we didn’t turn up much to look at. The “lower” cave becomes pretty monotonous pretty quickly. I spent a lot of time watching my breath, as it is always about 42 degrees Fahrenheit in the cave, no matter what it’s like aboveground. Ultimately, we trudged forward expecting nothing but the walls to eventually close in.

Still, it was weirdly thrilling to walk in a cave without supervision — even one with that offered no choices, no discoveries, no possibilities of getting lost. There were lots of other tourists down there with us, including what seemed like an entire summer camp out on a day trip, but even if we got just a few yards of separation from them, we could turn off our flashlights and be in total darkness again. In those moments, the cave seemed completely private, a damp and chilly sensory deprivation tank. That feeling of muting the world with a switch flip was as exciting as anything we could look at. It was like we were getting away with something, or just getting away, even though we were essentially trapped in a tunnel.

In this article about escape rooms, Rachel Sugar argues that “an escape room, it turns out, is nothing like being trapped in a cave.” And if the appeal of escape rooms is, as Sugar claims, their narrowing the world to a set of solvable problems designed to be figured out, then that’s true. “You don’t know what the pattern is, but you can rest assured there is one,” she writes. “For one hour, if you think hard enough, you get to live in a world that makes sense.” Standing in the dark in Ape Cave was in some ways the opposite of this. There was nothing to figure out, but the darkness somehow made that feel okay.

Caves evoke the possibility of hiding out — one legend has it that Ape Cave is named for the sasquatches who allegedly have sheltered there — as well as the promise of adventure. I wasn’t twelve feet into the cave before I found myself thinking about Dungeons & Dragons. But unlike with escape rooms, there was no dungeon master. Escape rooms, the essay suggests, are about a particular kind of escape, from the chaos of a purposeless, meaningless world. It may be that all escapism works that way.

Sugar quotes heralded escape-room maker Victor van Doorn making this remarkable claim for his art: “If you don’t do stuff, nothing will happen. You feel more empowered than in the undesigned world.” Apparently, we need someone to limit our possible choices and pre-invest them with meaning in order to feel “empowered.” It’s like the logic of predictive algorithms and pre-emptive recommendations: It can feel “empowering” to be told what to want or who you are. And likewise, it feels deeply impotent to want nothing, to not be sure if there is a point to figuring anything out, to be in a cave with nowhere to go.

“An escape room is a world that has been designed expressly to be navigated,” Sugar points out. So is the internet. Nothing happens until you click. Perhaps the entire terrain of algorithmically filtered media could be understood as an escape room of sorts: If you can solve the puzzle of why you are being shown certain things, you escape the maze of your own personality. But in the meantime, you can enjoy the feeling of being propelled by the assurance that there is an answer; that there really is an intelligent design to the world you’re being shown and being invited to experience.

But isn’t there an escape that could be premised on escaping the “designed world” — of pursuing the possibility that anything can happen even if that risks that nothing will? Escapism is the most common thing in the world. Sugar cites geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who writes, “What is there in culture that is not a form of escape?” Everything that is framed as an escape structures the demand for further escape, casting less mediated experience as more intolerable.

Wouldn’t a true escape be from escapism? What would that be like? Vacationing in a lava tube? Embracing random drift? We’re trapped in a web of narratives, insulated by layers upon layers of design and societal structuration. Who knows what the undesigned world is even like? I don’t know what it means to want to escape for its own sake. You run into hard limits: You’re trapped in your body, trapped on this overheating planet, trapped with your own internal monologue.

Escape rooms, Sugar suggests, are a way to escape from screens: “They require you to exist, in real life, with other real-life people, in the same place, at the same time, manipulating tangible objects. But you only have to do it for an hour!” While you are in the escape room, you can’t use your phone, which allegedly sharpens the experience of face-to-face human contact. Sugar quotes another “immersive designer,” Peter Droste, who tells her his “thesis about experience design”: “We spent the second half of the 20th century getting acclimated to a lifestyle that included screens; the screens became more pervasive, and then people figured out how to make those screens addictive. And unconsciously we are crying out for human connection in a way that we did 1 to 2 million years before screens showed up.”

But it seems telling that escape rooms are becoming, as Sugar notes, popular corporate bonding exercises — the recreational version of a Scrum. They don’t model some purer version of human connection in real space but a particularly intense version of compulsive collaboration that can be made to occur anywhere there is a task and a deadline. To view an escape room as more real than screen life is to first define “real” as goal-oriented productivity and then to overlook how much phones partake in that.

Being in an escape room isn’t like being away from phones; it’s like being implanted entirely within their logic — after all they are derived from video games. Phones and screens enfold us in a “designed world”; they situate us at the helm of various interfaces that make our behavior seem purposeful and impactful, but mainly they spy on us and channel us into predictable flows. If anything, the escape room re-enchants the very ordinary condition of having our lives administered. It’s there to try to make us forget that all of life is already an escape room.




At the end of Ape Cave’s walkable trail was a sort of catch basin for its visitors; lots of people lingered there, contemplating whether to get on their knees to eke out a few more yards of tunnel or to head back up toward the surface. A teenage boy was posing atop a boulder for a photo; his friends all pointed their flashlights at him as he tried to frame up a suitably dramatic selfie. I wondered if they would all take their turn on the boulder or if it was some type of dominance game for the group leader, but we started back before he was done posing.

At the cave mouth, a few park rangers were stationed to warn visitors about “white-nose syndrome,” which has been killing North American bat populations since it was introduced here from Europe in 2006. It’s caused by a fungus that thus far had not infiltrated Ape Cave, although it had spread to “more than half of the United States and five Canadian provinces,” the Park Service reports. The rangers were there to try to make sure everyone who entered and left the cave cleaned their shoes at one of the wire-brush stands that had been erected for the purpose. I was impressed that the rangers had not given up hope and were going to such lengths to protect the bats, none of which were to actually be seen in the cave itself. Bats are thought to visit the cave, but they don’t sleep there, possibly because of the amount of human traffic through them. Apparently, biologists don’t really know where the bat populations in the area vulnerable to white-nose syndrome actually hibernate.

According to a local article about the issue, “the Forest Service wants to maintain the area’s fungus-free status, but that goal could conflict with Mount St. Helens’s increasing popularity. So many people are visiting the monument that it’s starting to impact the quality of the visitor experience.” I couldn’t tell from that account what the nature of the conflict was: Is it that people are concerned that having to scrape one’s boots will degrade their “visitor experience,” or is it that the growing numbers of visitors will inevitably destroy the habitat they are ostensibly coming to see? Relatedly, if biologists did know where the vulnerable bats hibernated, would that make the bats safer?

Humans have become a more or less permanent part of the habitat of Ape Cave, not ghostly transcendent visitors peering in on a nonhuman or posthuman environment. The rangers are there protecting the humans of that habitat from themselves or other humans like them, targeting some optimal equilibrium number of human visitors that can sustain the site as a desirable human destination: just enough visitors to warrant its designated protected status but not enough to turn that protected status into a spiral of transformation and obliteration.

Meanwhile the bats in this region have escaped, for now. Elsewhere they are going extinct.