(This post contains vague spoilers, which should not damage your enjoyment of the stories in question)
Would I restore my mind from back-up?
I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel. It is a science-fiction thought experiment on what might happen if we all had immortality, and scarcity of resources had been abolished. Money is redundant, because one can simply utilise public replication machines to generate whatever food or tools you need. Instead, people earn credibility points (Doctorow calls it ‘Whuffie’) for all the good things that they do – The protagonist, Julius, earns this by maintaining the rides at Disneyland. Through these tweaks to reality, Doctorow gets to meditate on human purpose and ennui in a time of plenty.
The central, fantastical technology available to the characters, is the ablity to upload and back-up to hard-drive your mind and all your memories. Should some accident or murder befall you (as of course it does to Julius) you can get a-hold of a clone body, and overlay your complete consciousness onto the tabula rasa. Doctorow has played with this sort of technology before, in the delightful I, Rowboat (yes, a knowing pun on Asimov’s I, Robot) and another story involving an absconded mother (the name of which escapes me just now). Apparently, such technology a staple of science fiction: Back-ups and clones are certainly used in the Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and I am sure they are found in Philip K. Dick and elsewhere in the canon.
For those who wish to live forever, brain-backups and reboots are exciting idea, but the immortality on offer would be false. In both The 6th Day and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, its clear that in taking a snap-shot of your brain, you are not preserving your consciousness (or your soul) but simply making a copy of it. As both Adam Gibson (the Schwarzenegger character) and bad-guy Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) discover in The 6th Day, it is possible to make a clone of yourself before you die! When your original ‘version’ dies, the fact that there is a replica of you living on somewhere is of no comfort as your own light fades. When you finally expire, you know your soul cannot fly away and awake in the new clone, because the clone is already wandering around making memories of his own (see also ‘Second Chances’, a Star Trek: TNG episode with two Commander Rikers).
Stepping into the Star Trek transporters or Fly-style teleporter carries the same philosophical risk. I simply wouldn’t have the guts to step into such a machine – Not because I worry that my psychology or physiology might be altered due to a malfunction, but because even if the thing works perfectly, the guy stepping in is not the guy stepping out.
One of the few places in fiction where the idea that the soul does not persist through back-ups and cloning is in The Prestige. Its a film I’ve previously slated for seeming to violate the rules of mystery-telling, but on reflection I think it is internally consistent (the opening shot of the film fortells the final revelation). Both the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters discover, in their own very different ways, that you cannot achieve immortality through the creation of a clone or a twin, regardless of how that might appear to the rest of the world. In the end, both characters rightly weep at the demise of their clones, but Jackman’s character is the more tortured because he has caused the death of his ‘original’ self, merely by choosing to step into the crackpot machine in the first place. This is a sadness that seems to be missing from the characters in Cory Doctorow’s stories.
However, realisation that backup-and-restore is not bona fide immortality would not discourage me from plugging in my brain and making a copy. This is because we naturally value the things we have created, and we want to see them persist. I would like to pass on bits of my DNA through children and grandchildren. I would like people to read the thoughts I have written down, even after I become an ex-person. A human consciousness restored from my uploaded back-up would be indisputably my creation, a more detailed product of my life and times than anything I might write or carve, or anyone I might sire. Far better that they, in particular, get to witness the heat-death of the universe (Doctorow, with a nod to Douglas Adams) or the “more glorious dawn” of a Galaxy-rise than some other, generic homo sapien.