May 21, 2009, 08:38AM

Everything is Alive

Lessons from a transrealist.

2. The Tech From CyberpunkWhat’s happened in the intervening quarter century? My idea has served as a metaphor, a guide, a vision. There are a number of figurative ways in which we do now upload into the machine.In particular I’m thinking of how people upload text, pictures, audio and video. Although I can’t literally transform my personality into software, I can create a reasonable facsimile of myself online. The Web makes all the difference.I often use the my word lifebox in this context to stand for a collection of data that holds a copy of a person’s life. My recent non-fiction book The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul discusses whether a lifebox emulation could ever truly be alive—and I think the answer will eventually be yes—but that’s not the issue I want to talk about today. Instead I want to focus on present-day and near-future technology.As I say, the Web makes all the difference. The Web is something that I didn’t foresee in Software, but which William Gibson stressed in his contemporaneous Neuromancer, calling it cyberspace. That’s the other piece of cyberpunk, by the way. That is, cyberpunk is the web plus software immortality.So what’s the big deal about the web? In the past, your life’s mementoes were but a dusty drawer of photos and diaries, or a cardboard box in a basement. But with the Web, your records can become a lifebox: a hyperlinked and searchable website mixing text, photos, sound and video.If you’re technically inclined, you might make a personal website. If you’re a blogger like me, you create part of the lifebox on the fly, as you go along. Or, if you’re busy with other things, you might employ someone to create a lifebox for you: I think of, for instance, Stephen Wolfram’s website which includes a very nice scrapbook section.In the coming decade, there will be a very big business in lifebox-generation. ;Why are online lifeboxes going to be so popular? The Web makes all the difference. If I’m blogging, then I have the gratification of being able to post to my blog right away. I can post the text of this speech, and pictures of the audience, and everyone in the world can read it, and recommend it, and post comments, and give me feedback (such as a comment thread debating whether I really invented software immortality.) I’m not a lonely nut. I’m part of the planetary mind. It feels good to be plugged in.The ability to share and be heard and be connected is one reason for wanting a lifebox. But when I wrote Software, I was thinking in terms of literal, personal immortality. That’s not happening. In the literal sense, we’re not very close to transferring minds into computers.At present we don’t have terribly strong tools for munging a lifebox’s data. But don’t underestimate the power of automated Web search. More specifically, the Search This Site box to be found on most blogs allows you to search a series of topics so that you are, in effect, interviewing the lifebox. What is an interview, after all, but applying a search engine to a data base?A big part that’s still missing is the AI animation that’ll get my blog site to keep on generating entries after I’m dead! I can see a story idea in that, actually…Finally I need to acknowledge that having even an artificially intelligent online copy of me somehow doesn’t seem like true immortality. But I don’t worry as much about personal immortality as I used to. The secret is to identify my inner glowing “I Am” with the universal light that fills the cosmos, and then there is no death to worry about.But I if data won’t really make you immortal, why have a lifebox, a personal website, a photo-sharing page, a video-sharing presence, or a blog? To communicate with lots of people at once. To enable strangers to get to know you. To build a playground that people can interact with for a long time to come. To work in a new medium, to create a new kind of art.And I would argue that technology has brought us these pleasures as part of our instinctive quest for Software Immortality.


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