The Israeli Social Experiment That Will Shake Up Your Belief in Free Will

The 18 people in the room follow random instructions from a computer: Welcome to the Lottery, a new type of social structure.

Sefi Krupsky
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Sefi Krupsky

At about 7 o’clock on a recent Thursday evening, a crowd started to gather outside an old building in one of the alleyways of Jaffa’s Old City. Most of the 70 or so people assembled had never met before, and those who had were asked to separate from each other later on. While waiting for the doors to open, the members of the group were busy with their own private affairs: Those who didn’t come alone conversed with their acquaintances, while those who were alone nimbly moved their fingers over the screens of their mobile devices. At about 7:30 the heavy door opened and out came the master of ceremonies, Saar Szekely, a well-known activist and actor ‏(some remember him from his participation in the “Big Brother” television reality show‏). He asked the group to stand in line and to register at the desk that had been set up. The journey had begun.

Welcome to the Lottery ‏(hahagrala, in Hebrew‏).

It’s hard to define the Lottery. Szekely and his partner, Keren Sheffi, who has a master’s degree in literature from Tel Aviv University, describe it as performance art or as a social experiment. According to the project’s blog, it is “a new type of social structure, wherein personal identity is constantly being rebuilt, and the meanings of authority, responsibility and free will are questioned ... The computer constantly gives orders to all participants − orders that are randomly chosen in real-time from a large database, encompassing all imaginable kinds of actions. Most orders are supposed to take between five and 20 minutes to carry out, and are then replaced by new ones; some take longer.”

The inspiration for the project comes from “The Lottery in Babylon,” a story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. “It’s a lovely and amazing short story that describes a kingdom that gradually comes to be run in a totally random manner,” explains Sheffi. “All the details of life − from the largest to the smallest, from the important to the insignificant − are determined in a lottery that becomes increasingly complex.” Eventually, she adds, “at the end of the story the lottery becomes so total that it’s impossible to know what is the result of the lottery and what isn’t.”

In contrast to Borges’ story, which was published in 1941, we are now in 2013 and, as in many spheres, a computer has taken over the role of the so-called Lottery Committee, and there is one in the corner of each room. The computer calls every participant or group of participants in turn, and gives them an assignment that usually involves other people in the immediate vicinity. There seems to be no limit to what they are asked to do, the imagination runs wild: While some assignments are easy and basic − bring some item, say something, kiss someone, ask a question − others were meant to cause the participant embarrassment, to create a certain problem by violating some social consensus.

Each participant, who is admitted to the project on the basis of an interview, comes in turn to the registration desk and receives a sticker denoting the color of his or her group ‏(red, yellow, blue and green‏) and a personal number. The letter of the caste to which they will belong within the group is stamped on the forehead and hand of each participant. The attendees are mainly young people in their twenties and thirties, and include journalists, drama students, socialites, intellectuals and others.

Three older women who arrived together discover that they will have to separate into different groups. One refuses to accept the decree and wants to leave; her friends persuade her to stay on. One young woman tells a stranger next to her that she was supposed to come with a girlfriend, but at some point she realized that she preferred to come alone. The girlfriend had called her a short time beforehand, but she didn’t get back to her.

A refrigerator with feet

By means of a stamp and a sticker all participants are put into categories. Szekely climbs up to the balcony overlooking the central area of the building − an old and beautiful Arab structure adorned with arches and divided into small rooms full of small hidden niches, and with a rather gloomy basement. A perfect playground for social experiments like the one being conducted here this evening.

Szekely gives a few general instructions to the participants gathered below. The main and most important one is that photography of the goings-on at the Lottery is forbidden. This is not “Big Brother.”

“From the moment there’s a camera at a specific event, it begins to exist for an imaginary future and not for the present,” according to the project’s operating instructions. “Its focus switches to another place, and the participants become a means rather than the end.”

The Lottery is documented only through selected stories by participants on the project’s blog, and through the experiences of Szekely and Sheffi, who report that “during the first Lottery, one of the participants received instructions to use a piece of furniture in an unconventional way. He sat on a refrigerator and distributed flowers to every passerby. This was a tall man and the ceiling was low, so eventually on the refrigerator all that was seen was a pair of huge feet, a huge bent-over back and a hand stretched out distributing flowers. We still remember that.”

The groups now separate and the opening whistle is sounded. The Lottery is underway. We go up to a room identified by its red lighting − red being the color assigned to members of this particular group. The participants, 18 of them in my case, start to survey the others in the group and their surroundings. Most approach the refreshments corner that offers pretzels, candies and arak, and begin harmless introductory conversations. The computer doesn’t wait for anyone and immediately calls out a number.

The first assignments handed out are relatively easy. The first one I got, for instance, was to kiss anyone who touched me. Others around me started to draw, to bring other participants over for conversations in the crowded corners of the room, to lie on the floor and perform strange hand motions. One of the instructions I received was to approach a certain female participant, ask her to choose 10 words, and use only them to converse until I received the next order. Because she also had to participate in an assignment that required use of a vocabulary of 10 words, she quickly gave me exactly the same list: “Elephant, tension, soul ...” “Elephant, tension, soul ...” I said to anyone I encountered.

Changing venues

Not everyone in the room was encountering a brand-new experience. Several people at this Lottery had attended previous sessions. When asked about the similarity between the experiences, they replied that it was completely different each time. And, in fact, each Lottery is different from those that preceded it: The venue changes ‏(apartments, abandoned spaces; one of the first Lottery sessions was held at Tel Aviv University‏), the length is flexible ‏(for example, one lasted an entire night, with the computer deciding who could sleep and who couldn’t‏), and the assignments thought up by Szekely and Sheffi − sometimes with the help of friends − are sometimes updated and changed.

The first Lottery was held in 2009 in Szekely’s home with the participation of a group of friends, and since then there have been between 25 and 30 such sessions, including the three held recently as part of the International Exposure festival in Tel Aviv. Szekely and Sheffi estimate that between 800 and 1,000 people have participated in the various Lotteries held to date.

Sheffi explains that some participants are “friends of ours who were there from the start and watched it develop, but there are also people we’ve met through the Lotteries, some of whom have subsequently become friends of ours and of each other.” Despite the quasi-underground and secretive nature of the Lottery, Sheffi and Szekely have a romantic tale to tell.

“One couple that met at one of the first Lotteries has gotten married since then,” says Sheffi. “We can even generalize and say that for some participants, the experience was great but strange, something they undergo once or twice and then they’ve had enough, while for others it has become a way of surviving in the world − a kind of emotional-social place that’s interesting to visit repeatedly, to see how it develops.”

The next stage of the project is a virtual Lottery at the end of this month. At this Lottery, as opposed to previous ones, the participants will carry on with their usual routines instead of gathering in a closed and protected space. They will receive their instructions via a message sent to their cell phone or via email. Some of the instructions will involve other participants ‏(for example, two people will be told to meet in a certain place at a certain time‏), and some will involve people outside the Lottery − “in the real world.”

In the spaces in which the Lottery takes place, the organizers do not participate at all. Indeed, Szekely and Sheffi are only seen at the start of the evening, during the registration process. Only participants are present in the room where the Lottery takes place, so that in principle there’s no problem ignoring the computer’s instructions and doing whatever you want. But most of the participants apparently enjoy surrendering to authority and carrying out the orders issued by the machine at the back of the room - at least at the beginning of the evening.

“We remove all control from our own hands,” notes Szekely. “The system is structured in such a way that we can’t influence it in real-time. We cannot intervene in anything that’s happening. We designed it, but then the participants give it a life of its own, and we don’t enforce its authority in any way.”

Zionists on the floor

Meanwhile, in the red room, the polite small talk that characterized the early part of the evening is replaced by deeper conversations and the gradual formation of small subgroups. Each subgroup is busy with its own affairs in a different corner of the space, either according to the computer’s instructions or on an independent basis. One bottle of arak is finished and another is opened, and the bag of pretzels is completely empty.

One guy who introduces himself as Ido begins to be revealed as the liveliest character in the red group. He tells anyone who will listen an imaginary story about an unsuccessful relationship with a Hindu girl. This is not his first Lottery and it’s evident that he is aware of himself and the amount of attention he attracts. In the smoking corner, Mira, another participant, claims at some point that “every human interaction to which we are unaccustomed is interesting. In my profession , I’m always ready for the unexpected, but here it’s more concentrated.”

Two other female participants reveal at a relatively late stage during the evening that they are actually related. And just when you thought there’s nothing more escapist than such a social experiment, which puts you in situations that seem foreign to you in contrast to the familiar reality outside − local politics enters the fray. During one of the evening’s high points, the computer asks members of the group who are Zionists to lie on the floor. Almost nobody does so. In another room, report Szekely and Sheffi after the Lottery, the group’s members were asked to sing “Hatikva.” At the same time, a participant from a different Lottery group received an order to go to that room and to interrupt their singing of the national anthem.

That was one of many such situations that arose toward the end of the evening, when the various groups began to intermingle − whether due to a directive from the computer or the personal desire of the participants. The rules and regulations began to make way for intergroup anarchy, and the boundaries drawn at the start of the evening collapsed before everyone’s eyes.

“As soon as there’s more than one Lottery, the center of it changes, because the participants keep asking themselves how their Lottery compares to that of the others, and the option of leaving becomes much more real,” notes Szekely.

Late in the session, an advance party from my red group also decided to embark on a secret operation behind enemy lines: Led by Ido, we set out to visit the other groups in the other rooms.

At about this point in time, most of the participants had had enough of obeying the computer’s instructions, and a real party began, including wild dancing and mingling. At precisely 11:30 P.M., four hours after all the participants first met in the heart of Jaffa’s Old City, the light went on and the doors opened. The Lottery was over. The participants began to make their way outside into the alleyways − and back to everyday life.

Demonstration of a Lottery session.Credit: Uri Berry
A Lottery computer. At the end of a recent evening, people began to party.Credit: Uri Berry