When we get to the concept of consciousness I’m always reminded of this global consciousness term people bandy about when they talk about the inter-connectivity of the Internet. We now longer have solitary, individual worldviews that are shared only by letter, voice, or tangible forms of writing. Our spheres of communications have expanded. Now we can upload and post everything and anything to sites accessible to anyone with Internet access, anywhere in the world.
It’s really an amazing technological advance, but because not everyone understands how the Internet works—to be honest, I don’t either—our imaginations take the technological possibilities to a dark place.
Current films like Her and Transcendence and even Lucy expand on the fear that comes along with new technology. Their stories play with the idea of forming a consciousness independent of physical form; a kind of elevated, immaterial, fourth dimensional conscious “being” that exists outside spatiotemporal limits. Somehow, now that we can upload everything to this immaterial “online” that has no place or boundaries, we fear the extreme: that we’ll be able to upload our literal selves onto servers and in doing so, create a type of god with powers of control over creation and destruction.
Technological advances in communications and computations have brought about machines that seem to be smarter than humans. Indeed, some people have argued that there’s no difference between computing machines and humans; that we are all following programming (software) embedded in our physical systems (hardware).
Believers in the theory of machine functionalism—supported by Hilary Putnam in the late 20th century—claim that the consciousness that arises in our brains is the same that arises in computers, and by that theory it’s not impossible to imagine a universe where computers become sentient beings akin to humans.
Luckily for the fearful and over-imaginative, functionalism has a major flaw: human brains think semantically and mechanical brains think syntactically. Both thinking entities are a combination of infinite complex systems and programs, but computers and the like are simply rule-following devices, while the human mind adds meaning to its programs and can even write their own code, so to speak
Until we create computers that can rewire themselves, write their own complex systems of programs, and build new hardware to support these systems, I highly doubt we’ll be facing world domination by the Internet. But it sure is fun to imagine, and it seems pretty likely. We live half our world on the web—that’s where we upload our thoughts, feelings, and ideas in picture, video, and textual format, both fragmented and traditionally structured. The Internet is the place we go to absorb the same from other human beings around the world.
When we don’t have our electronic devices on us we feel naked. How are we going to get around or stay in touch with people?! What will we do in case of emergency or in case of unexpected sighting of a celebrity or adorable, fluffy animal or child protégé?! How will be we able to share our experiences with others online so that they can confirm we experienced them?? On the bright screens of our electronic devices we’ve created another world full of copies and representations of what’s around us, a hyperreality, that seems just as important, if not occasionally more so, than the physical world.
We shop online, we “pin” pictures of places we want to visit and fashion items and artwork that we like on “boards,” just like kids used to hang posters on their wall or actually travel outside their houses away from their computers. We communicate in Emojis online, little faces and icons that are meant to depict emotions and now, people even imitate Emojis in real life as a common form of communication. (And by ‘people’ I mean myself. )
What we experience in life is immediately copied and posted online for others to view and incorporate in their understanding of their reality which then influences what they choose to share online later. With this unceasing forging of a hyperreal universe, it’s not too crazy to assume the future will hinge on further technological advances. It might not be so crazy of an idea that we’ll end up living completely online—Wall-E and The Matrix might not be too far off track.
But will we be able to ditch our earthly bodies? I’m still not convinced.