The future is not a mountaintop - Mahyad Tousi - Sandpit

The future is not a mountaintop – Mahyad Tousi

Interviews / 24 February 2016

by Sam Haren

Mahyad Tousi is a storyteller who uses a myriad of platforms to communicate. He has worked across documentary and narrative and in his storytelling toolkit has used interactive comic books, graphic novels, video installation and his hallmark cinematography. He founded BoomGen Studios in LA and New York in 2006 to produce commercial entertainment across platforms and has a goal to mine the stories of West and Central Asia.

In 2013 Mahyad presented his TedX talk The Future of History.

We spoke to him from New York.


What were you obsessed with at ages 5, 15, and 30?  Are these ideas present in the work that you do today?

So at 5, we were in the middle of the revolution in Iran. So what was I obsessed with? I mean, I can’t really remember, but I do remember being completely obsessed with the revolution, that was crazy cool. I can’t explain it but it was like being in the middle of Network the movie. People on their rooftops every night screaming against the regime, and on the streets by day. Our school bus at some point stopped showing up, because the demonstrators used it as a barricade. That was the environment. I felt completely normal and completely fantastical at the same time. Normal because I didn’t know any better, and fantastical because of the look of wonder on everyone else’s face, mainly the adults.

Revolutions are not simple things, so everyone’s lives was being economically, socially, culturally transformed – including ours, as par for the course. It was like living in a dissolve from one reality to another. Needless to say, I didn’t have a normal childhood. Within a year after the revolution, Iran transformed into an “Islamic Republic”. Soon after that we were in the middle of a brutal war with Iraq that ultimately killed a million people.

Having grown up in that kind of an environment during such formative years has made me a lot more comfortable with being a rebel. I am truly at home outside the box. For instance, when it comes to what I do as a filmmaker and in the many roles I have played, I have always questioned what the formats we have committed ourselves to have to do with art or storytelling specifically. They have always seemed to me to be the delivery pipeline of stories. So, when we study film or TV, are we just learning to become really good plumbers? It’s obviously essential to understand the pipes you need to fit within. But I am interested in storytelling at its most authentic core; how it interacts with the human brain; the relationship between story and its audience. I want to really understand what it is about stories at their core, divorced from their plumbing that makes them so powerful, so transformative? We have all felt the power of a good story. How can that energy, which is so pure and potent, be channeled to help people liberate their lives from dogma? How can help transform our world for the better? This was the relationship I had with stories growing up in instability. That was the role stories played in my life. They helped me make sense of the chaos around me. My parents weren’t equipped to help us understand back-to-back revolution and war. They were trying to survive. Stories, in comic form, in novel form, oral stories, ancient myths, films, these help my digest the chaos around me. And I have been obsessed with them ever since.

At 15, I was in high school here in the US and I was probably obsessed with girls. I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons – there were sadly no girls involved in that though. So as I obsessed about girls and why they weren’t paying attention to me, I was playing Dungeons and Dragons, playing chess, and also doing sports. Growing up in Iran at the time that I did, there wasn’t this click thing where if you’re an athlete, you can’t be a geek. So, I was in the wrestling team, the chess team, and playedDungeons and Dragons during lunch. It was very natural for me to navigate between different worlds. But sadly I had very little social vocabulary for girls!

Let’s see, at the age 30, so in 2003, I was on assignment riding a donkey across the Iran-Iraq border, three weeks into the US invasion. I was one of those people, with a DVX100 and Final Cut on my laptop, who would go into conflict zones and produce content—a backpack documentarian. I was obsessed with redefining the way we measure the failure of war, from how many innocent people died, to the number of innocent people that remained alive. If the problem with war were the innocent living impacted by the devastation and living in a state of chronic instability (rather than the innocent dead), we’d have a much more difficult time making the argument to go to war. Same with the soldiers who are sent to war, the issue is not how many soldiers died. The issue is their families and the returning soldier. That’s where we can truly measure the tragedy of war. I wanted to ask the question: what is our responsibility, especially in the democratic west, to those living in the conflicts that we feel compelled to start, despite our reasoning? How do we reconcile the collateral damage when that collateral damage is a living child, whose parent, sister, brother has died or whose home is turned into rubble?

So, my relationship with digital technology was formed through the opportunity it provided me to go into these types of situations by myself, whether it was Africa or the Middle East or 40 or so other countries that I’ve worked in. So from the early days of the digital revolution (in production) I was directly impacted by how liberating technology can be. To go to places I never thought I could go, and to work at a scale I never thought possible at such an early stage of my career, right out of school. And because of this experience, my relationship with the content is so much more immediate. I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, and go out there and find the story, shoot the story, edit the story, and then finish it and send it off in the course of a single day or week or month—all by myself and in the middle of nowhere. God, that was very liberating, to know that you can go through the creative process in such a raw form quickly and efficiently; to have satisfaction in days or months. All of this was possible because of digital technologies. It was also a very good way to learn.

What’s one technology that you think has become so embedded in our world that it’s hard to imagine it not being there?

Not to be retro, but I would say the Web. I’m old enough to remember the world before the Internet. What I can’t remember is how the hell I found things or did research. I have blocked that from my mind. For instance, the idea of flipping through records in a record store for hours on end - trying to decide whether I’d like the album by reading the liner notes. You’d have to wait on the dude behind the counter to play the record and you couldn’t just hand him an unlimited amount of records to play. You had to pick. It was a combination of a record store and sandwich shop. When it was your turn, he’d be like, “Yo, here’s your record.” And everybody else in the shop heard what you were checking out. So the liner notes were important for your record store cred! This stuff is all history.

All these memories play in my head like stories – as if I didn’t really experienced them. This is how much the Internet has changed our lives—our own memories don’t seem real anymore. All my pre-web experiences seem strangely familiar and unreal at the same time. We now have the opportunity to access information that we need in order to understand the world around us and to demystify the things that we don’t understand. All of a sudden, the core space occupied by teachers, parents, religion, friends, TV pundits, newspapers, super heavy encyclopedias and other top down sources, is open game. Boom! All of a sudden we have this incredible access to information, and our fingertips.

And then the second thing is the virtual interconnectivity inherent in the web—the Metaverse. This I believe has had profound change in our cultural DNA. It has transformed our concept of community building—one of the fundamental traits of our species. Where we used to for communities based on a common point of origin, be it a tribe, village, country, school or fraternity, etc, now we are forming communities defined around common destinations and goals, common aspirations. And we’re beginning to see these new communities challenge traditional unions, such as family, race, religion, and nationhood, etc. This is neither positive nor negative, and it is and can be both. But it is fundamentally different. New communities are coalescing around ideals: where we want to end up, who we want to be, what we want to change, how we want to shape the world, etc. This I believe is the product of the Metaverse that has emerged out of the web.

What technologies do you think will matter to us in 10 years’ time? What do you think might rise in importance?

It seems to me that our relationship with technology is much more sophisticated than it used to be. When we used to buy a car, most of us treated that car like a baby. We’d literally spend the hours cleaning it and buffing it. We’d go and buy stuff for it. We took care of it. Then we felt great when we’d drive around in it. Then gradually that relationship with technology changed and became less physical. Now I don’t think we have that kind of relationship with technology. No one’s buffing their iPhone 6 over the weekend. Well, maybe some do do this, but not in the same way. Technology has proliferated so much that it’s no longer about the device or hardware or software, we are addicted to the things that we can do with the technology; how it makes us feel; being connected to the Metaverse, those are the things we care about.  Technology is increasingly becoming apart of us. We no longer have a physical relationship with tech we have an emotional one. So what’s come from this?

We’re forming new culture through collective action or behavior. I don’t mean activism. I mean little actions that a lot of people take in a networked environment—viral actions that come through the Metaverse and manifest in the physical world and then feed back into the network for others to see and replicate. I foresee a lot more technologies that tap into this trend and provide the opportunity to create collectively. We are all culture creators, beta testers, skeptics, and adopters all at once. Collective culture is emergent and I think the tech that will thrive will be those that exist on this chain, be they devices that make our relationship to the Metaverse even more emotional, or the network environments that we create new communities within.

How do you stay creatively fit in the work that you do?

For me, it’s been very much about respecting and recognizing the ebbs and flows of my own creative ocean. I imagine it like surfing; you’re out there with your surfboard. There are no waves. You can’t get on every single wave that comes. You have to be patient and you wait for the right wave. And once you catch a wave, you have to stay on it as long as possible and ride it to its full potential. That’s sort of my approach. I try to be patient and wait for those times when all of a sudden it’s like here we go, there’s a wave of creativity coming, let’s just get on this thing and hold on for dear life. I don’t know if that helps me stay fit, but it’s my process. Some would say create everyday, write every day and they would be correct. But that hasn’t been something I have been able to execute yet. So in lieu of that, I wait for the big waves and milk them.

I had another question: What you do when you get stuck? But you’ve maybe answered it in your surfing analogy. Don’t try and surf if the wave isn’t coming.

Yeah, but unfortunately sometimes it’s externally imposed on you, right You are forced to get on a little wave and you wonder why it’s so difficult to get up and why you don’t get far. So the analogy holds, the wave doesn’t have enough energy. Or maybe there are no waves and you have to deliver. Well if there are now waves, there is no surfing. So that’s the way I look at it. It’s better than calling it a “block” or “getting stuck”.

I try not to procrastinate. If I have a deadline, I start on it ASAP and try and do what I can with the available waves. I will give myself as long a creative runway as possible and take little steps if that’s all there is. If there are no waves, I try to do the other things related to the project; move others parts of the project forward. I also try to find inspiration. I am always reading anyways; at least one book, sometimes two books. I am also always listening to at least one audio book for when I am walking or on the subway, or trying to fall asleep, etc. I try to shift one of the books and my audio book towards the subject matter I am working on creatively. This stuff generally gets the ocean to start moving. But most of us are fragile constructs, we need to be emotionally at the right place, and psychologically at the right place, and physically at the right place, in order to be able to get on the big waves. It requires practice, failure, and focus.

When is a computer a really useless tool for you in what you do?

A lot of times, I do a lot of story architecture, story design work and all of that work happens with a number two pencil and a paper. The size of the paper changes but the tools are a number two pencil, paper, and a desk, and as far away from the computer as possible. Creating for me is like watching what’s in my head and recording it, charting it, drawing it, etc. Computers are like a really loud obnoxious friend that won’t shut up, when you are trying to watch a movie.

Is there a technological trend that you can observe that you think kind of looks like trouble culturally for us?

I think mediocrity is trouble. It always has been and it continues to be still. However, some technologies or uses of technologies have made mediocrity scalable. You can see this in pop culture trends and how these trends have infiltrated our daily lives, whether we want it or not. You can see it in the way some mega corporations proliferate use quick schemes and stunts to grab at our attention and distract us. This is quite dangerous culturally speaking. Undoubtedly some young people who didn’t experience the analog world and don’t have enough self-control, become entrapped in these forms of behavior. My concerns is, that these people will have a difficult time identifying beauty and discerning what they like and what they don’t like for themselves. And this is trouble culturally. There is a generation of kids being sacrificed to manufactured mediocrity and a culture of distraction. I wonder what the long-term impact of this is going to be.

And I’ve got a final question which is – what’s the most disappointing thing about living in the future? 

But we are never living in the future. The future is not a mountaintop. The future is just another TODAY. We don’t sit around and all of sudden exclaim, “Oh my God, look how futuristic we are now that we made it to today.” Do we?  We just don’t remember how we did things before today. All I know is that I am generally disappointed by the same stuff as before, but I try to be less disappointed as I get older and appreciate the good things that matter. Like how much of better a parent I am because of the access to information and diversity of opinions I get to read about.

It’s a good point isn’t it. Besides say mobile technologies like smartphones, it we don’t really observe kind of radical change that makes us feel like our world’s futuristic. But as you say, as soon as you do start drilling back, the internet is this profound thing that has just like changed the world in every possible level, but it feels kind of invisible at the same time. 

Yeah exactly, but like I said before, the radical changes are at a core level of our psyche. There are moments when you realize that you are connected into system and how much you need that. Like when I was riding that donkey into Iraq. It would have been too dangerous to use a vehicle. So donkey it was, that didn’t feel old or un-futuristic. The donkey was simply the most logical choice. But I couldn’t afford a sat phone, so I was truly un-tethered. No one really knew where I was, what was going on. I had to search for an Internet cafe from town to town. So much of my time was spent looking for a tether, to connect to the world, to my email, etc. And that was 11 years ago and that need was/is something profoundly different. But is that futuristic?

Today we can’t get away from the Internet. We are communicating data constantly without even knowing it or having any conscious hand in it. So I think perhaps the biggest, the most futuristic thing is this wireless relationship with the network, and how that’s progressing faster and faster. Soon you and I will not have any device intermediary to have this conversation. Perhaps Skype will be imbedded in us, and we can just have the conversation. That sounds super interesting and terrifying at the same time. Perhaps then we can say we are living in the future. But my guess is even then; we’ll be like “whatever.” Perhaps even when we take that leap, it won’t be that big of a leap after all. It just seems like a big leap now.

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