Will we live on in an augmented eternity?

Digital Ghosts & Democracy

Written by Cormac Shine, UBS Y Think Tank

No one can live forever. But in the future, it may be possible to live on in a digital form.

The computing pioneer Hossein Rahnama has claimed that in the next 50 years, the millennial generation will have amassed enough information to make this phenomenon a reality. Already there is a vast amount of data logged about each of us, both actively and passively, as we pursue our daily lives. These databases will grow exponentially in coming decades, creating immense reserves of information that can be stored, processed and learned from, while intelligent machines will become omnipresent in public and private spaces. The result would be enough to create a new version of ourselves, a Digital Self.

His theory could have fascinating implications for our conception of the self and for how we order society as a whole. Change could be so significant that it even recalibrates how we interact with space and time – allowing the ghosts of the past to participate in the ordering of society from beyond the grave. The invention of the Digital Self could loosen our grip on the physical nature of our existence and allow us to foster a collective intelligence that spans generations across time. Such a shift would become the living embodiment of the ideal society imagined by political philosopher Edmund Burke: 

Society is indeed a contract… not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Of course, his message was meant to be taken figuratively, but what if Burke’s words could be taken literally in the future?

Space & The Digital Self

Ideas of the self have never been fixed, constantly changing even before the concept became formally defined. The evolution of the self-portrait since the Middle Ages demonstrates how our perception of the self is both relatively recent and always shifting. The Digital Self promises to further multiply how we define ourselves by freeing us from the physical realm. While it has long been argued that the self amounts to more than just the physical, it will soon be possible to truly manifest this idea.

Photo credit, Johannes Plenio

As our physical environment becomes more digitally integrated, the boundaries between online and offline are fast becoming blurred. Luciano Floridi, a philosopher at the Oxford Internet Institute, calls this new habitat the infosphere – an environment whose growth is accelerating with the emergence of ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence. Individuals will increasingly define and express themselves within this environment, resulting in less emphasis on the tangible. This evolution is already evident in the emerging preference for experiential over material modes of consumption, played out on countless Instagram feeds every day. The novelist Jonathan Franzen neatly encapsulated this convergence of flesh and fiber optic cable in 2011:

[T]he ultimate goal of technology… is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes – a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance – with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

This convergence will only accelerate in the coming years. This detachment from the physical will have major consequences for societal order, which has always been strongly connected to a sense of place. While many activities are already location-independent, the rise of the Digital Self promises to extend this change to the realm of politics. If the democratic process is no longer tethered to the physical, how will it change, for better or for worse?

Indeed, if physical presence is no longer necessary for most interactions, why would one need to campaign, debate, or vote in person? The seamlessness of the Digital Self has the potential to increase and individualise political participation, but equally could dampen engagement levels by de-emphasizing the need for open, face-to-face interaction. Even more radically, moving away from the physical could recast how we structure politics, or completely negate the existence of politics as we know it. If we can interact in a purely digital realm, why would democratic systems need to be geographically based, rather than segmented by issue area or some other category? The ability to create a political discourse divorced from geography could be a boon to ambitious policymaking, but equally could create deep divisions. While many current debates are characterised by the divisive binaries of global/local or urban/rural, the advent of the Digital Self may open up a divide between the physical and digital if not carefully thought through. The question is whether the marriage of online and offline will be cohesive enough to prevent this division – and how we can accommodate a constructive sense of place as our connection to the physical weakens.

Time & The Digital Self

The idea of machines augmenting our cognitive experience has existed before the dawn of personal computing. In 1962 Douglas Engelbart, a pioneer of personal computing, wrote Augmenting Human Intellect, a visionary manifesto that foreshadowed the current technological era. Engelbart described a future where human intellect augmentation “clerks” would help “diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers” solve problems in a way that sounded uncannily like a personal computer, executing programmable requests to augment human capacity. As machines gain intelligence and learning capabilities in the near future, the leap from computers augmenting our intellect to augmenting our experience of eternity – our experience of time itself – is feasible. But what will this rupturing of time mean for how we order our societal and political interactions?

Douglas Engelbart, 1968

Returning to Burke’s social contract, the most significant question is whether the digital survival of past generations would act as an accelerator or brake on positive change over time. Progress has generally moved as one generation gradually replaces the next, so what would it mean if older generations never truly left the stage? Would the retention of Digital Selves help us avoid past mistakes, or would we be burdened under the weight of wisdom? The Overton window – the range of ideas politically acceptable among the general public at any one time – could widen or become stagnant, locked in the traditions of previous generations. The window has historically moved quite suddenly on issues, but this new dynamic could completely alter our ideas of progress.

‘What would Reagan do?’ has been a common refrain among Republicans since the U.S. president left office in 1988, as they seek to claim his mantle in support of various policies. Imagine if, in a hypothetical era where he had left behind enough data points to capture his Digital Self, we could literally ask Ronald Reagan what he would do in any given situation – cutting short the debate over his legacy. A strange hypothetical, but this scenario illustrates how the timelessness of the Digital Self may dampen the natural dynamism of political discourse for future generations, unless we somehow moderate these effects. Conversely, the continued presence of revered figures in digital form may allow us to profit from insights beyond their natural lifespan. Either way, the arrival of the Digital Self will force us to deeply reconsider how we relate to time within the political context.

President Reagan speaking in Minneapolis 1982

Underscoring these developments is the continued melding of public and private spheres. Already evident today, the diminishing ability to maintain privacy will make the distinction between these spheres even more porous, demanding a radical rethink on how we approach the issue of information ownership. Who will own our Digital Selves  – the individual, the algorithm writer, the state, someone else? Questions of privacy rights have come to the fore with the rise of the internet, and will become even more pronounced in the era of ever present computing.

As the era of the Digital Self fast approaches, we must ask ourselves how we will restructure our concepts of the self and of society as they become untethered from the constraints of space and time. Will it result in a vast Vasari corridor of virtual humanity, a collection of countless disembodied self-portraits perpetually watching over us, and how will that change how we relate to each other? Unfortunately, there is no digital Edmund Burke available to help us answer these questions. For now, only time knows the answer.