work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

don’t beam me up! a casual note on identity

08.27.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

If you have a back up file of of your mind on disk and a genetic recording of your physical make up, if you then get killed in an accident and then somebody restores you by replicating an exact copy of you using the stored information: would that be you resurrected (minus the experience you made between your last back up and your death)? Apparently (I am told) identity of experience is to be considered personal identity full stop – so that’d be a “yes”. And considering that personal identity is a construct of memory, narratives, presentations of self over time (and that’s not postmodern  – it’s modern sociological mainstream) it’s plausible enough. Even without death: a rupture in one’s memory due to illness, a particularly transformative rite of passage, a religious conversion etc. all can be seen as interrupting the ongoing construction and performance of identity and thence as constituting a new person, the death of the previous inhabitant of the body… so why should the opposite not also hold true?

Tempting? Apparently not as much as one should think.

In The Sixth Day Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man who – for some reason not so relevant here – is replaced by his back-up copy although he’s not dead yet and then tries to recover his position taken by his (completely unaware) clone. For the clone the identity is beyond doubt: he has full memories of a whole life, and is recognised by others as the same person thanks to his ability to perform the personality in question – and because he’s a lookalike, too. On the other hand, for the backed-up man the back up is not a form of survival – even if he’d get killed in the process of trying to remove the clone… so why should matters be different if there’s no overlap? There may be philosophical arguments (such as: because they make different experiences, so they are as different as are identical twins, whereas the posthumous clone only lacks some of the experience of the deceased, but does not have simultaneous different experience…), but it certainly does not inspire confidence. After all: our perspective when considering whether such a practice would be a good idea is not that of the clone…

What I like about the approaches of Albert Camus and John Searle is that they suggest philosophers put their money where their mouth is. I think that few who argue for identity between the deceased and his clone would volunteer to be replaced if technologically possible.

In the Sixth Day it becomes clear that audiences are not assumed to be prepared to identify with the back-up option: the two Schwarzeneggers in the film are not replaceable, they end up as twins. It is the threatening others in which the back-up works – the team who’s after the cloned and gets killed and “resurrected” on a regular basis. But with them it only works as they’re not-us. We seem to be prepared to accept the cloned identity of enemies (no “identification with the aggressor” here…).

And that’s why beaming people Star Trek style is nonsense – it rests on the same principle: killing and reconstituting. I’m with Jim, recruiter for Underwood Samson in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, who dismisses the business potential of such a hypothetical technology:

‘Would you be willing to step into a machine, be dematerialized, and then recomposed thousands of miles away? This is exactly the kind of hyped-up bullshit our clients pay Underwood Samson to see through.’ (Hamid 2007: 15)

Hence you won’t find good science fiction writers making much use of such a device either – Arthur C Clarke dumped it in his very first story ‘Travelling by Wire’ 1937 in which a company develops a method of travelling through telephone lines (transmitting the traveller “electron by electron”). Here’s the end of the company founder’s account:

Well, I see it’s nearly 22, so I’d best be leaving. I have to be in New York by midnight. What’s that? Oh no. I’m going by plane. I don’t travel by wire! You see, I helped invent the thing! It’s rockets for me! Good night! (Clarke 2000: 4)

I’d suggest that – in our everyday lives and when it comes to existential decisions – most of us are quite materialistic in that the physical continuity of our bodies is as important as the continuity of our minds and the latter utterly dependent on the former. The only way we tend to accept transfers of that kind is by proper magic (no problems with flea powder!), but magic works on a logic that projects substantial continuity without the disruptions and reconstructions involved in transubstantiation technology…

Arthur C. Clarke (2000): The Collected Stories, London: Gollancz

Mohsin Hamid (2007): The Reluctant Fundamentalist, London: Penguin

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