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Carrier Bag Theory of Non People
I like going to my local coffee shop and witnessing the same routine every day. I see the barista there more than my friends. This has become uncomfortable because I've to make up increasingly elaborate stories when she asks, "how's it going?". Even my mom has not cared about my well-being so much. Once I grab my coffee and walk deeper into the rectangular space, I see all the familiar faces. There is the couple at the bar enthusiastically yearning for the approval of the cabal of baristas who decide what and who is cool in here. The people who come here to read and talk about the bible are always shepherded to the same corner spot by divine forces. In the past year or so, the new archetype that I've seen is the girl reading the book Attached about attachment styles in relationships. All of this makes for a rare set of predictable patterns of behavior in a city that is lacking in public spaces.
NewYork, on the other hand, is infinite such components of predictable behavior stacked together. Even the random conversations that I overhear on the street feel predictable, such as walking by a woman yelling on the phone, "If he had a problem with that he should have broken up with me," or the dad telling his toddler, "Feelings change and evolve, and that's okay." If you spend too much time online, then you'd derogatorily call this being a Non-playable character - a real person who behaves like a programmed or scripted character in a video game. As friend of the sletter Drew Austin writes (paywalled), NPCs enhance public spaces:
"Anyway, I've started noticing NPCs all over my neighborhood. In a good way. I don't mean this in the usual demeaning sense—I just mean there are a lot of people here who always seem to be located in the same place. Beyond the obvious example of store owners and employees, there are a handful of nearby bars I frequent that attract their regulars with such consistency that I can go at certain times and know I'll encounter them there. Like the NPCs in video games, they are available for conversation. The same goes for the people who loiter out on the street. I recently listened to this surprisingly enjoyable podcast, in which the host recounts his former practice of sitting on the same Williamsburg stoop and people-watching, all day, every day, over a multi-year period.
This is one of the qualities I appreciate most about where I live. I'm using the term NPC as shorthand for a predictable pattern of public space usage that enhances that space, the human counterpart to coherent form in the built environment. In a vital urban area, those usage patterns are a major source of the vitality."
NPC behavior is detested online because it is a predictable set of behaviors that do not make for novel content to be consumed on the internet. The narrative tempo of NPC spaces reveal itself on a longer time scale that perhaps the popular mediums of the internet, in its current form, cannot accommodate.
Perhaps it's not a problem of the medium either. In her essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula Le Guin talks about how all the walls of the caves where prehistoric men lived are lined with pictures of Mammoth hunters despite the fact that meat was staple food only in the summer. She goes on to write that this is because mammoth hunting makes for a better story centered around a hero vs. just a couple of people hanging out and gathering grains:
It is hard to tell a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then I scratched my gnat bites, and Ool said something funny, and we went to the creek and got a drink and watched newts for a while, and then I found another patch of oats.... No, it does not compare, it cannot compete with how I thrust my spear deep into the titanic hairy flank white Oob, impaled on one huge sweeping tusk, writhed screaming, and blood spouted everywhere in crimson torrents, and Boob was crushed to jelly when the mammoth fell on him as I shot my unerring arrow straight through eye to brain
It may just be that the content that is most visible everyday, like the mammoth hunter cave paintings, are narratives with a clear hero that you can root for and with immediate rewards. In the longer run perhaps, the NPC spaces and narratives are what sustains us and provide enough serendipity for the mammoth hunter narratives to evolve.
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