Bubble-Hopping (Reality Part Two) The concept of social bubbles has become popular lately as people grapple with the unexpected outcomes of the 2016 election. We meet two people making radical attempts to break out of their bubbles.

Bubble-Hopping (Reality Part Two)

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Marina Muun for NPR

Marina Muun for NPR

Marina Muun for NPR

We'd like to thank the following musicians:

  • Julianna Barwick and Suicide Squeeze Records and SubPop Licensing for letting us use the song "Call"
  • Peals for their song "Wild Honey"
  • Crazy P for "Errinerige"
  • Kentucky Children's Chorus for letting us use "A Zing A Za." It was arranged by Mary Geotz.


Hey, before we get started, if you haven't heard it, you should listen to Up First, the morning news podcast from NPR. When news moves fast, it's the quick morning update on what's happened and what you need to start the day. Wake up with Up First tomorrow morning by 6 a.m. Eastern time on the NPR One app and wherever you listen to podcasts.


ROSIN: Go to any dog park in any city at any time of the day or night and you'll find people happy to talk about their animals.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And he's a very handsome boy.

ROSIN: He is very handsome.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: She's adorable, right?

ROSIN: They'll talk nicknames...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He's Boo. He's Schmoo (ph). He's Schmoomagoo (ph).

ROSIN: ...Their dog's character.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He's the weird kid on the playground.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He's a bit of a drama queen.

ROSIN: These people know their animals, and they have specific theories about what they like and what they don't like.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We usually leave classical music playing for them.

ROSIN: And yet, if you dig deeper, you get the sense that there are fundamental things about their animals they just don't get.


Do you ever think about, like, how she sees life?


SPIEGEL: Like, what do you think's going through his head right now?


SPIEGEL: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I have no idea.


ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: Even though we spend a lot of time thinking about dogs as dog owners, I'm not sure that we really often are looking at them very carefully.

ROSIN: This is Alexandra Horowitz, a psychology professor at Barnard who studies animal cognition. Her lifelong ambition has been to somehow escape the confines of her human existence and truly understand dogs. This began when Alexandra was a kid.

She had a dog, Astor, a mutt she loved the way most children love their pets and thought of the way most children think of their dogs. He was a warm and steady presence, totally reliable and no more mysterious than rice. And then one day, that changed. Their family lived in a suburb of a suburb in Colorado, and they used to let Astor out in the evenings.

HOROWITZ: At night, you know, we would open the door and kind of let him go out. And then we would see him in the morning. And I think the time I really started thinking of him as somebody, though, who had his own life separate from us is when one day he didn't come back in the morning.

ROSIN: For close to 24 hours, Astor was AWOL. And when she stopped freaking out, she started to wonder, what was Astor doing? Maybe he had a favorite dog spot with favorite dog friends, maybe even a special favorite dog friend.

HOROWITZ: And I realized, oh, God, he has this whole world that's happening when we're not seeing him. It was one of those childhood revelations sort of like if you suddenly notice that, you know, one of your living room chairs was actually animate and it's just sitting there waiting for you all the time. And you think, oh, my God.

ROSIN: Oh, my God, that chair has its own life.

HOROWITZ: It was shocking.

ROSIN: Astor did come back, but Alexandra realized then that there were things about him that were invisible to her because Astor lived in a dog bubble and she lived in a human bubble.

HOROWITZ: None of us were understanding the dog even though it felt like we were. Like, they were - the dog was in the house.

ROSIN: To understand better, Alexandra became a professor. And at first, she did regular human professor stuff - filmed dogs and looked at the film one frame at a time to better understand how dogs move and interact. But she still felt like she was on the outside. It was frustrating. How could a human break out and really understand the world of the dog? And then it came to her.


HOROWITZ: A huge component of the world that's right in front of me that I had ignored for many, many years.


ROSIN: Smell - that was the way in.


ROSIN: So Alexandra sat herself down to learn...

HOROWITZ: How odors move in the world and how that could change what you see, what you perceive.

SPIEGEL: How do you try to become a better smeller?

HOROWITZ: Practice basically by doing a lot of smelling.

ROSIN: A lot of smelling. She started by smelling different perfumes and wines so she could begin to detect the nuances of scents. And then she got down to business. On long walks with her dogs, Finnegan and Upton, on the Manhattan streets, Alexandra let them take the lead. Whenever her dogs started to slow down and sniff the Manhattan sidewalk...

HOROWITZ: I'd smell what they smelled.

SPIEGEL: I'm trying to imagine, like, what's the visual like? (Laughter) Like, I'm trying to imagine. Is it like you get down on the ground, you're...

HOROWITZ: You pretty much have to stick your nose in things...

ROSIN: In things.

HOROWITZ: ...Any kind of thing.


HOROWITZ: I stick my nose into the ground.

SPIEGEL: Sniff, sniff.

HOROWITZ: I've stuck my nose up to walls...


HOROWITZ: ...Of buildings...

SPIEGEL: Sniff, sniff.

HOROWITZ: ...Into diseased tissues...

SPIEGEL: Sniff, sniff.

HOROWITZ: ...To see what that smells like.

SPIEGEL: Like other dog butts and stuff like that?

HOROWITZ: Well, I haven't. No, they wouldn't - I really didn't go and smell other dog butts but, like, if they smelled, you know, an iron tree guard, I would lean down and smell the iron tree guard.

SPIEGEL: Just another New Yorker smelling the scents.


ROSIN: And Alexandra says, all this smelling? It's allowed her into the dog's reality in a way that nothing else has. And she started to think about the world in a different, more dog-like way. Like, she's asking herself questions that she never asked before like...

HOROWITZ: What's happened out here since I was here last? And who has been by? And what has been dropped? And, you know, what's coming around the corner on the breeze?


HOROWITZ: And smells, you know, run at a different pace than sights. So smells might come up on the breeze, or they - there might be a lot of really smelly stuff in one place where I see nothing and there's nothing interesting happening visually.

ROSIN: So it's like you can suddenly see a whole world that you couldn't see?

HOROWITZ: Certainly I see glimpses of it, yeah. Yeah.


HOROWITZ: I see there's more than one way to see this world, it seems to me.


HOROWITZ: I see there's more than one way to see this world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: You ready to go home?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Go get your leash.


ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is a show about all the invisible forces that shape human behavior. And today, as part of our concept album, we're talking about reality bubbles. Most of us live in one. It's our little corner of the world filled with the ideas and the people that we believe in and that we like best.

SPIEGEL: And until recently, how completely we lived in these reality bubbles and the concepts that both created and sustained them wasn't entirely clear to us. But then came the election, and our bubbles suddenly felt like a problem. A lot of people were suddenly aware that they weren't ever even exposed to concepts or ideas that were clearly influencing other people.

ROSIN: So we offer you now a practical guide to bubble hopping. More in a minute.


ROSIN: So now we're going to tell you the story of a guy named Max Hawkins who tried this pretty radical experiment to get out of his bubble. Here's Alix.

SPIEGEL: This is a story about the prison your preference builds you, and it starts in a bubble in San Francisco with a young man named Max. For a long time, Max loved his bubble because almost everything in it conformed to his notion of ideal. The people were interesting. The work was engaging. Even the sunshine was above average, and the food? The food was ridiculous.

MAX HAWKINS: I loved everything about my life in San Francisco. I thought it was great.

SPIEGEL: Max worked at Google. And every day, he would wake to artisanal coffee and then make his way to work in an eco-friendly manner.

HAWKINS: Ride my bike down Folsom Street to the San Francisco Embarcadero which is this beautiful view.

SPIEGEL: In the morning, Max would work on a variety of creative and fulfilling projects and then break for Google lunch. Did I mention the food was ridiculous?

HAWKINS: They had like four different types of kale. Oh, man, it was good food.

SPIEGEL: At night, he'd return to the Mission, meet up with friends at a bar to talk ideas.

HAWKINS: Yeah (laughter).

SPIEGEL: So as bubbles go, not bad.


SPIEGEL: But then one day, Max was hit by a thought.

HAWKINS: I was lying on my bed, and I was looking up at the ceiling. I just started thinking about these loops that we get into and about habits and about how, like, the structure of your life completely determines what happens in it.

SPIEGEL: You work at Company X, which is Y miles from your home. You must commute from where you live to where you work, which puts you on a path that limits your exposure to people outside that path.

HAWKINS: The people inside the bubble get closer to you, and the people outside get further away. And not only that, what happened was entirely dependent on what happened before, if that makes sense.

SPIEGEL: It was a beautiful bubble - but still.

HAWKINS: There's something about that that just made me feel trapped, like I was reading a story that I'd read before where I was playing out someone else's script. Wake up every morning, drink that coffee, ride my bike, work, Google lunch, wake up every morning, ride my bike, drink that coffee, wake up every morning, drink that coffee, work, ride, Google, lunch.

SPIEGEL: Suddenly, his beautiful bubble was a little less beautiful.

HAWKINS: How do you get out of the loop?

SPIEGEL: And then a liberating thought.

HAWKINS: I remembered that there's this feature on Facebook that's not very well known called Graph Search.

SPIEGEL: Now, for most people, Facebook's Graph Search function wouldn't necessarily leap to mind as an instrument of liberation but Max wasn't most people. He was an engineer at Google.

HAWKINS: My approach when I am confronted with a problem is to make something that fixes it.

SPIEGEL: See, what the Graph Search feature does is identify all of the public events in your area listed on Facebook, just the normal events people post because they want their community of friends to know about them - your neighborhood action committees, your primary school bake-offs, your belly button healing workshops.

HAWKINS: And so it occurred to me that if I wanted to get out of my bubble, then I could just sample that list randomly.

SPIEGEL: So Max built himself an app, an app which identified all the public Facebook events in San Francisco and then randomly chose one for him to attend. And the great thing about this app he built? It didn't discriminate, didn't differentiate at all between, say, a party of conservative gun owners and a gathering of anarchist revolutionaries. It was happy to send Max to any building in any neighborhood in all of San Francisco. Like this one event it sent him to at this huge apartment building in the Marina section of the city.

HAWKINS: Showed up and then rang the buzzer for the number listed on the Facebook event. They said, oh, who is it? I said, it's Max. They're like, OK, and then rang me up.

SPIEGEL: But once Max got to the apartment door, there was a lot of confusion.

HAWKINS: It was this group of probably seven Russian young professionals. And they had no idea who I was.

SPIEGEL: They'd misheard. Thought he'd said Matt, M-A-T-T, a friend of theirs not Max, M-A-X, a complete stranger sent to them by a hacked Facebook feature, which randomly selected Friday night events to attend. But once Max explained...

HAWKINS: They thought it was so funny that they just let me stay and poured me a white Russian. And we got super drunk together.

SPIEGEL: So Max began to use his hacked Facebook app all the time. As a sort of unassuming thin white man...

HAWKINS: Yeah, I think I have that privilege.

SPIEGEL: ...He could enter all sorts of situations.

HAWKINS: Community center, pancake breakfast, open house, salsa dancing event, mixer for professionals association like a networking event, acro yoga.

SPIEGEL: And as he did all this bubble hopping, it started to become clear to him how much of modern American life is organized around preference. What do I want to eat? Where do I want to go? Who do I love? Who are the political leaders I believe in? What do I prefer is the fundamental question our consumer culture encourages people to ask themselves.

So many of us do ask ourselves that question over and over. And the answers literally determine our lives, narrowing our path. But this new computer program, it was a way out of the preference prison - a way for Max to get to new worlds he didn't know about because they were outside of the set of experiences provided to him by his preference. It was a completely different way of thinking.

HAWKINS: Like if I went out myself and said like, I want to see the world, I have an idea of what I need to see to do that. But when I'm turning that over to a random algorithm, it has its own different idea. You're taking on the computer's view the world. And because that's not human, it's likely to be completely different from your own.

SPIEGEL: And then came Christmas.

HAWKINS: That Christmas I decided not to go home for Christmas to see my family.

SPIEGEL: Instead, Max had Facebook choose a Christmas dinner for him to go to. He got his friend to come, too. And when they spun the generator, it chose a party in Fresno, Calif.

HAWKINS: And there wasn't a lot of information on the event. I think there were maybe 10 people attending.

SPIEGEL: But Christmas day, they got in the car with a pie to give to the host and drove for three hours. Max says when he got to the doorbell, he was deeply freaked out.

HAWKINS: Terrified. Like, we were about to run. Like (laughter) - but then the door opened and Karena, the host - this really wonderful retired psychologist - opened the door and said, hello, welcome. Who do you know?

SPIEGEL: So they explained that they had a Facebook app that had randomly selected her party.

HAWKINS: She was completely not phased. She didn't miss a beat. She said, oh, wonderful. We love Facebook. I'm so glad that you're at the party. Welcome. And it was like instantly we were friends. And so we ended up staying for five or six hours at this couple's house. Some of their friends came over. And in the evening, we all sang Christmas carols together.


SPIEGEL: There's actually a video of the group singing carols together. In it, you see Max standing behind a heavyset older woman with short dark hair. In a comfy chair across from her is her husband playing guitar. They all look happy and at home together.

If you didn't know, you would never guess that the tall gangly 24-year-old standing near the older woman was a complete stranger - a computer programmer sent to the scene by an app he devised to break himself out of his beautiful bubble. It wouldn't have occurred to you in a million years.



HAWKINS: I think we're good.


HAWKINS: Happy Christmas.

SPIEGEL: We're told all the time that we live in a dangerous and divided world, a world where it's probably unwise to knock on the door of a random stranger like this, to enter their home with no introduction and very little information.

So what happens when you choose, as Max did after Christmas, to live your whole life this way? Would living by randomness eventually bring Max face to face with the hostility and division that we see on TV every night? And what would he do when it did? I wanted to find out. So my producer Abby Wendle and I decided to go bubble hopping with Max. We would give our lives over to his app and let random take us wherever it wanted to go.


ROSIN: In a moment, breakfast clubs, beer and German rap. This is INVISIBILIA.


ROSIN: Did you know that INVISIBILIA has a newsletter? Subscribe for all kinds of extra bonus content that you can't get anywhere else. Staff-curated playlists, supplemental reading, the occasional gif - it's all there. Get it once a week during the run of Season 3. Subscribe now at npr.org/newsletter/invisibilia.

SPIEGEL: I often feel like I live a small life, a trace a path between work and home. And then I trace it again and again and again. It's a beautiful life. It's a safe life, but its geographical boundaries are so small. As I drive across town, I often find myself staring out my car window at the people on the street.

And then the sentence I'll never know the world will flash through my head. That's what I think because that's what it feels like to watch people walking so freely and know that there is nothing in my life that will ever bring me into contact with any of them. To me, that's such a sad feeling.

HAWKINS: So you are going to enter the interstate highway I-235 East.

SPIEGEL: For the past two years, Max has been living the random life pretty much full-time. So Max never has that feeling. His app decides where he'll go during the day and the food that he'll eat and the music he'll listen to, even where he lives. To find out what that's like, producer Abby Wendle and I flew to Des Moines, Iowa, in the middle of winter because Max was there visiting his mom. It was so cold it hurt when we all piled into the rental car.

HAWKINS: Do you guys want to hear a random song?


HAWKINS: OK. This is a playlist that samples from all of Spotify.


SPIEGEL: Oh, this is cool.

A freezing and bleached out Des Moines whipped past us as we rode down the highway and as German rap played, I suddenly felt free. We didn't know where we were going or what we would see when we got there. And so we were just here listening to a song we would never have chosen but that somebody somewhere listen to all of the time.

HAWKINS: What do you think is going to happen?

SPIEGEL: I don't know, but I love this song.

And then a huge brick mansion with an elaborate exterior came into view.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: You will arrive at your destination.

SPIEGEL: We parked, walked up a series of steps and saw two older men descending as we entered.

What is this?

Turned out it was the first Friday breakfast club for gay and bisexual men, a monthly meeting for professionals held in Des Moines's oldest theater. The inside of the theater was furnished like something out of another century, plush-scrolled furniture and chandeliers. And the first person we met was this man in his 60s with eccentric glasses. One eye was framed in white plastic, the other black.

His name was Gary Kaufman and maybe because we were random strangers, he very quickly opened up to us. Gary, like Max, had apparently done a ton of bubble hopping. He'd been a lawyer, but also a nudist and a legislative person of some kind. These glamorous and exciting activities that were very, very different from the life he'd lived in his original bubble.

GARY KAUFMAN: Well, I have a - raised on a rural farm and went to a one-room country schoolhouse. And so you have that feeling of community.

SPIEGEL: Gary apparently left the farm so that he could live more freely as a gay man. He said it was too constricting. But then all of a sudden out of nowhere, Gary started crying, yearning for what he'd left behind.

KAUFMAN: When a farmer is sick, everyone in the community will come and help that person. He'd get his whole field done in one day. And you don't have that type of community in this environment. And, you know, I can't think of anything more supportive than that.

SPIEGEL: Fifteen minutes earlier, we'd been speeding through a barren winter landscape and then just like that, we were here in front of an older man with a muffin crumb stuck in the corner of his mouth who had been overcome and was accidentally crying in public about how the freedom he'd clawed for himself had cut him off from a thing that he loved.

Is that the price you might pay for ditching your bubble? Max gave me a signal. There was no time to process. It was time to go to the next bubble. The random generator brought us this song and back out onto the highway to the other side of town. After a 20-minute drive, we pulled into the parking lot of a Panera and Max looked up the information of the bubble we were about to hop into.

HAWKINS: OK, so this is the CIB in January, the Central Iowa Bloggers meet-up.


Unfortunately, once inside, we couldn't find any Central Bloggers. They'd either left or never come.

HAWKINS: This is honestly most of the time what happens.


HAWKINS: Oh, sorry - no, left, left.

SPIEGEL: There was a day care center that wouldn't let us in and a grocery in a Latino neighborhood. Then the random generator brought Abby and Max here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Welcome to the east side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: (Singing) Out here in the open...

SPIEGEL: Gene's Place is a bar on the industrial side of Des Moines, a place the bartender said which served three drinks - beer, vodka, whiskey.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: I don't know, it's the east side. Everybody drinks the same thing.


SPIEGEL: The room was noisy, and the bartender seemed hostile to these strangers with thick glasses and a microphone. Abby kept looking at her hopefully, but the bartender just ignored her.

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: Can I have a - nope.

SPIEGEL: And then a man at the end of the bar started hollering.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: They don't allow that [expletive] here. Publicity - bad publicity is all it is.

SPIEGEL: So Abby and Max moved across the bar towards this couple standing at a tall table in the back of the room. The man was big, and he was drinking beer straight from a pitcher. His name was Steve.

STEVE: You have that I'm-a-journalist look on your face. Liar.

SPIEGEL: Max said hello a little indistinctly and the man seemed upset.

STEVE: Did you call me an asshole?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: You better not have that on.

SPIEGEL: Things were moving south quickly. It felt like maybe it was best to leave or something bad might happen. But Max actually had a theory about the hostility in the bar, where it came from. He says he feels like people are just feeling overwhelmed by the constant exposure to difference because of the Internet, because of globalization. And so they're pushing back hard because they suddenly feel that the world they're encased in is threatened and more fragile than they thought.

Max had seen tons of people that felt that way all over the world - Hong Kong, Dubai, Slovenia, Germany. It's just kind of the mood of the moment. And so he didn't retreat. He dug in. He and Abby struck up a conversation about country music and things began to ease.

STEVE: The [expletive] they play on the radio now is just crap. Have you ever heard of that song "The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised"? That's Johnny Paycheck.

SPIEGEL: The couple had met in high school, then married other people. But after two divorces, life had brought them back together. He played music on the side and she had showed up at one of his gigs. And then another.

STEVE: I got tired of her following me around from show to show...


STEVE: ...Throwing panties on the stage and bras on the stage.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: I did not do any of that.

STEVE: I said, fine, I'll marry you. If you stop being a [expletive] groupie I'll marry your ass.

SPIEGEL: Are you his June Carter?

STEVE: Yeah.


STEVE: She's my June Carter.

SPIEGEL: The conversation continued for more than an hour and a half. Sometimes the recorder was on, sometimes it wasn't. And by the end, Steve had clearly warmed.

STEVE: Hey, you know what? If you're ever back here in the neighborhood we'll be here somewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: You have a good night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Have a good night.

SPIEGEL: A new bubble in a new place had opened. And not just one bubble - the day had opened others. For a few hours in Des Moines, Iowa, the narrow, safe path I traced felt wider and full of possibility. Who knew what other bubbles were out there randomly waiting? A computer app knew. Maybe it could lead me out of my preference and into the actual world.


SPIEGEL: So, Hanna?

ROSIN: Yeah?

SPIEGEL: Randomly generated dance party?

ROSIN: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: Invisibilians (ph), I give you "A Zing A Za" by the Kentucky Children's Chorus. So wherever you are, whatever you are doing, dance.


KENTUCKY CHILDRENS CHORUS: (Singing) A zing-a za, o le, o la. A zing-a za, o le, o la. A zing-a za, o le, o la. A zing-a za, o le, o la (ph).

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Our senior editor is Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Jeff Rogers. INVISIBILIA is produced by Meghan Keane, Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our showrunner is Leeanna Simons (ph). Our technical director is Andy Huether.

ROSIN: We had help from Micaela Rodriguez, Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Nancy Shute, Meredith Rizzo, Maya Dukmasova, Jon Hamilton and Lulu Miller. And our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

SPIEGEL: Special thanks to Thomas Madisik (ph) for pointing us towards this story and to the people of Des Moines for letting us drop in on so many Facebook events.

ROSIN: For all those interested, Max is going to make his randomization app public. He'll be releasing it soon. We'd also like to thank the following musicians - Julianna Barwick and Suicide Squeeze Records and Sub Pop licensing for letting us use the song "Call," Crazy P for "Arinarega" (ph), Peals for their song "Honey" and "Become Younger." And to the Kentucky Children's Chorus for letting us use this song. It was arranged by Mary Goetze.

SPIEGEL: For more information about this music and to see beautiful original artwork for this episode by Marina Muun, go to npr.org/invisibilia. And now for a moment of non-Zen.

ROSIN: All right.

SPIEGEL: This is - don't smell. It's gross. We're not smelling.


SPIEGEL: Join us next time for more...


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