In late 2019, the songwriter John Brownell was working on a project in which he wrote and posted a song once a week for a year. As his deadline approached, he was finishing a track called “Hidden Hand,” about a protagonist who realizes they could be living in a simulation.
To get through the 12-month project, he’d begun relying on “prompt” techniques when he needed one. Say, opening a random book on the shelf of his home studio, leafing to a page without looking and choosing the first phrase that caught his eye. Eventually, he started using Google Books, and on this night, found a book about “automata,” machine-like inventions such as a clockwork monk. It included a reference to a “life-sized map,” one so accurate in its details that it would be so large that it could be laid on top of the world. It was a fitting image for the song and its themes of simulation theory.
“I’m a clever boy with a clever boy’s toy
Building something that can never be destroyed
But the more I build the less I feel
That I am even real”
— A lyric from “Clever Boy,” by John