The following article and photos, both by charles, were originally published in EspritNu, Vol. 1 Issue 1. November 2014, pp. 15-17. Reprinted here with permission.
The honorable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States John Roberts stated in his opinion for the unanimous court in Riley versus California that cell phones “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” While most consider the Chief Justice’s statement one of humor, those watching the gradual but certain merge of human and digital worlds found the expression far more serious and perhaps even worrisome.
When Mr. Roberts speaks of “a pervasive and insistent part of daily life,” he is referencing the preponderance of personal and private information that is held in digital form for each individual. Even if one does not own a cell phone or has never set eye upon the Internet, there still exists a collection of digital information, a catalog or dossier if you will, of details such as birth records, land ownership, marriages, divorces, employment, credit and medical histories, education, and most anything else that might touch public record in any way, shape, or form. As that information is bought and sold, accessed by friend and foe alike, each touch adds to the digital image of who we are. The more one is involved in digital matters, the more comprehensive that picture becomes. For example, I am composing this article from my phone and will proofread from another device, then an editor will have a go at it from yet another device not even in the same city, all without exchanging any form of physical media at all. Everything is digital. Therefore, as this article becomes part of my personal catalog, it contributes to the digital definition of who I am.
Eventually, one comes to the question of whether the collection of digital personal data might create sufficient sentience as to replace this carbon-based structure by which I am currently identified? Might machine replace human?
Here, matters become interesting, controversial, and even a bit frightening. Concepts of various forms of artificial intelligence have existed in ancient mythologies almost as long as we’ve been telling stories. Some tales credit deity, others credit demons, but it’s not until the 20th century that Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) gives them the name that we’ve come to meet with uncertain anxiety. Robots existed in one of the first movies Metropolis, and H. G. Wells wove them into tales of science fiction that still stimulate our fears and fantasies.
For some, such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil, the inevitable amalgamation of digital with biological is wonderful as it opens doors to greater opportunities and discoveries. Others, such as Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, fear ultra-intelligent beings would find us carbon-based life forms slow, flawed, and useless. Philosopher Nick Bostrom makes a rather stimulating argument that we are already puppets of some universal “Matrix” device and that we’ve no concept of true reality. Plenty of scientists and philosophers disagree strongly with all these opinions.
Argue though we may, our lives unquestionably grow more digital with each passing day. There is no returning to a purely analog existence. Some slight digital component exists for every human on the planet. We may either embrace our digital persons or run from them, but we cannot hide; they already know where we live.