Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Immortality in Archives

On what media is written the content of our days? 

We flatter ourselves that we're all written down somewhere.  Someone's keeping track.  Someone knows about all those horrible and wonderful things you did, even the things you never told anybody.

I think we cling to the legend of Heaven not so much because we cannot comprehend the idea of no longer being alive and conscious (after all, we pass in and out of the alternative every night) but because, right now, while we are alive and awake, we cannot stomach the possibility that no one around in the future will remember us.

It's drummed into us from an early age, this need to be acknowledged and remembered forever.  At least it's drummed into those of us who pay attention to the rules of society and long to "do well".  We hand in our homework, show up for our exams, and wait with eager anticipation and apprehension for authorities to evaluate and rank us.  "The results of these tests will determine which universities will accept you, which employers will hire you, mow much money you earn and where you retire and die.  Our evaluation of your behavior will go on your permanent record."

"There's a permanent record?" we say.  "Thank Heaven for that."

A permanent record, chiselled into a database of stone. 

Once, they only carved statues of legends and heroes.  Only Caesar's face would be embossed upon the coin of the realm.  But now, we're told, there's a permanent record for each and every one of us.

Is this why we're blogging and tweeting and sharing our most intimate details on Friendface?  Look at what we pay for it: the loss of privacy, the marketing, the imposition and potential shame of shared indiscretions.  But they're all a small price to pay in exchange for the knowledge that our information is important to somebody.  We don't even care that other folks are making money from our data.  It's just flattering to consider that someone considers us worth paying for, at all.

We love grades, sales rankings, credit scores.  We don't even have to know what they are.  We don't even worry about whether they're correct.  It's enough just to know they're out there.

* * *

Ah, but bigger minds than mine have touched on this already.  In The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, Rudy Rucker wrote:

Lifebox is a word I invented some years ago to describe a hypothetical technological gizmo for preserving a human personality.  In my tales, a lifebox is a small interactive device to which you tell your life story.  It prompts you with questions and organizes the information you give it.  As well as words, you can feed in digital images, videos, sound recordings, and the like.  It's a bit like an intelligent blog.

Once you get enough information into your lifebox, it becomes like a simulation of you.  Your audience can interact with the stories in your lifebox, interrupting and asking questions.  The lifebox begins by describing the retiree's common dream of creating a memoir and ends by creating a simulation of its owner....

A lifebox is a person reduced to a digital database with simple software.  So in my book title, I'm using lifebox as shorthand for the universal automatist thesis that everything, even human consciousness, is a computation. 

If this were true, our days could be written on anything.  (Since we know that we can run a computer processor with checkers -- given enough time.)  Elements of my father could still be consciously dreaming in the pages of the three typewritten journals he left behind, interacting wirelessly with the impressions they made upon me when I read them and the memories he left behind in the other living people who knew him. 

He's left and lost control over this afterlife, certainly.  That would be the appeal of Rucker's lifeboxes, then -- making the effort now to get them right so we're still the people we want to be once we're gone.

I think Rucker's full of crap, myself.  There's no way we're going to encode the complexity of our 100 billion neurons with their 100 trillion synapses in our blogs and twitter streams -- even if we live up to our promise to update our blogs at least once a day.  And when I go through my old journals, I have to say, the version of myself I've recorded there isn't someone I'd want to hang around with for more than half an hour.  What a drag he is!  And that's too bad, because this version of me, attached to these fingers typing this up right now, isn't too miserable a fellow.

We may live on in the minds of those who read and study the artifacts we leave behind, but that's not through computation or simulation.  That's through metaphor. 

And suppose for a moment we could upload enough of our consciousness to a lifebox to be able to live on in the minds of others.  Isn't that being just a bit selfish?  That folks remember us for a while is fine.  But to expect anyone to participate in a simulation of our consciousness after we've gone?  That's outright grabby.

No, we're not going to be able to preserve our own lives on foolscap or in silicon -- as much as I'm convinced this impulse is behind so many literary and artistic endeavours.  That doesn't mean our lives aren't written elsewhere, though.  Maybe in our DNA, or Saint Peter's guest-book, or the weather, or the water. 

After all, it's hard to watch the wind fight against the current and the tide, stirring the surface into all sorts of gnarly fractal waveforms, too complex to comprehend even if we could hold them still, which we never can, and yet so completely changed by the drop of a single pebble, dropped almost without thinking -- too hard, I think, to watch that even for a single minute and conclude that it signifies absolutely nothing. 

I think you could store a mind in that kind of complexity.  I think you could store everything there.

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