As was mentioned in my previous post, I am interested in exploring Hans Moravec's proposition that human identity is essentially an informational pattern rather than an embodied enaction (Hayles, xii), and that it is possible to "puree" a human brain, reading the information in each layer, and subsequently downloading this information into a computer so that the machine becomes the repository of human consciousness.
Downloading human identity into a machine has been a fantasy of media junkies for some time. I feel it's important to think through the mental leaps required to get on board with Moravec's proposal. The first mental leap, as discussed in my previous post, requires the acceptance of the idea that human identity is, in fact, an informational pattern. If this isn't an agreed upon possibility, then there would be no hope for the downloading of a human identity into a machine (at least not in the Moravec sense). After one submits to the possibility of human identity as essentially information, it takes at least two further steps before we are standing in line to be pureed and slurped up by a machine.
Step 2 - Abstracting Information
If one allows the essential code of our physical bodies to be defines as information, the next step toward Moravec's proposition is to disembody this information. In explaining this process, Hayles begins with the Turning test, which points to the possibility of machines simulating human intelligence, and proceeds to Shannon and Wiener who, through mathematics, conceptualize information as an entity distinct from the substrates carrying it (xi). Information becomes a sort of bodiless fluid (xi).
With online social communities, human personalities exist, to whatever extent, in user profiles. The Facebook profile, for example, has become a way of interacting with informational representations of friends, family, etc. Status updates zing one-liners on your buddy's Facebook page, share uplifting quotes on your sister's page, curses traffic on your co-worker's page, and praises the Lord on your minister's page. Each profile is a simulacrum of its owner/user, made possible by technological devices, computer interfaces, and data meant to mediate personality. While considering online social communities, we can readily imagine the informational code constructing human identity as something not dependent on physical bodies for expression.
This does not mean that simply because we see instances of human identity being performed outside the physical context of a body that the body no longer matters. It is only to show that, to a considerable extent, we are performing our humanness through technological mediators. In fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define humanness without referencing our technological appendages.
Step 3 - Disposing of the Body
In the HBO television series, Dexter, Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who murders his victims, cleanly disassembles their bodies, and disposes of them in the ocean, but not before taking a single drop of blood and storing it on a slide as a momento. Their bodies are gone, washed away by the Gulf Stream, but what remains? Their DNA. Information. By equating human intelligence and computer simulated intelligence (Turing), by viewing humans primarily as information-processing entities (Hayles, 7), by demonstrating that robots can function like men (Hayles, 7), a cybernetic frame of mind seeks to do essential what Dexter does. Dispose of the body.
Theoretically speaking, the disposal of the body comes when a human being can exist inside a cyber-environment without the necessary carriage of his/her body sustaining them. Whether or not this mode of existence, this version of human identity, would be exactly the same as an embodied state does not seem to be the crucial question. The question is whether or not a version of "us" can persist in a machine state.
If it sounds like science fiction that's because it is, at least for now. Where we find parallels between this fantasy and real life is in online social communities. Instead of robotic surgeons, we have eager users scraping their brains for their favorite movies, bands, television shows, pastimes, scraping their brains for information fill their interests sections. We have users searching through pictures on their hard drives to upload their vacations, birthdays, weddings, users searching for the right words to represent themselves in introductory bios. We have users doing their darnest to upload a version of themselves into a machine.
While discussing William Gibson's Neuromancer, Hayles write that the narrator defines cyberspace as a 'consensual illusion' (36). It is the nonmaterial space of computer simulation,
a regime of representation within which pattern is the essential reality and presence is an optional illusion (36). With our 349 friends on Facebook, most of whom we experience through status updates and computer messaging, it becomes easy to relate to a reality where brains have been pureed and put into machines, where bodies have been disassembled and thrown into the sea. What remains are intelligent machines displaying a dot of blood, a strand of information, to dazzling effect.