THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL. (This article was originally part of the essay ‘Bees And Flowers’, available at Gwynethllewelyn.net)
“Why did this woman collect dolls? Was it one specific moment where she suddenly said, ‘I know: dolls’? Or was it a whole series of things, starting from when her parents first met that somehow combined in such a way that, in the end, she had no choice but to be a doll collector”? — spoken by Clyde Bruckman, a character in an episode of ‘The X-Files’.
When I attended an event promoting the book ‘Coming of Age in SL’ by Tom Boellstorff, someone asked “how can we say this (SL) is “real” when people are role-playing? For instance, I can say I am Native American, even the member of a tribe such as Cherokee. Does this mean I have become authentically Cherokee? Is it real?”.
Replying to the latter question, another participant said, “I do not think one could be a real Cherokee here because it has a counterpart in RL that would have to match. But one could be a real ethnotype that exists only on the grid, like a real Caledonian”.
SOME THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS.
Comments and questions like these lead to no end of speculation and thought experiments. Someone creates and develops a character in SL, an “outrageously brash, vaguely tipsy ballerina with blue butterfly wings” (Wagner James Au’s description, not mine). Is that a good thing?
The RL person behind the character can no longer manage the work required to maintain that character’s personae and reputation as a premier designer in SL. S/he logs off and that digital person is never seen or heard from again. Is that a good thing?
She’s back. Friends ask where she has been all this time, and smile at her reply. It’s just so *her*. She has lots of new ideas and invites journalists and bloggers alike to report on work-in-progress. Reports enthuse about the new direction her work is taking, but note that there still the unmistakable signature of her style manifest in the projects. Is at that good thing? Would the answer be positive or negative depending on whether or not the original RL person was still behind the personae, or if the account had been handed over to someone else? Would that digital person still exist, or would it be merely be an imitation and what difference would it make if nobody could tell? Would the Mickey Mouse we see in cartoons today be denounced as a fake if it were discovered that, over a period of time, the original team behind the character had gradually been replaced with different animators, editors, sound crews… or would people treat the cartoon mouse as the same character?
Is being a member of the Cherokee tribe less, as, or more real than being an ethnotype that exists purely on the grid? If there are indeed actual ethnotypes in SL, is there an actual human roleplaying a furry in RL, or an actual furry in SL who roleplays a human in-between logging-on?
A person imagines that, tomorrow, he will roleplay a Gorean in SL. Something triggers a forgotten memory and he recalls an early childhood spent among the Cherokee. Which is ‘real’, the child he remembers, or the Gorean he imagines?
Well, you could go on all day. I will leave questions such as these hanging in the air and point out that, by describing such hypothetical scenarios, I assume my readers (whoever they may be) are roleplayers. They are all people capable of building fantasy worlds in their minds and populating them with imaginary folk whose actions lead to consequences. There would not be much point in setting up hypothetical situations and asking my readers to imagine the outcome if they did not possess any roleplaying ability. But wait. Not everyone in SL indulges in roleplaying. If you are not a roleplayer, does it therefore follow that you cannot play these scenarios in your mind?
Really, I do not need to worry about that, because SL is not divided up into people who can roleplay and those who cannot. Ok, I guess that comes as no surprise. But, equally, it is not divided up into people who DO roleplay and those who do not. Nor, for that matter, is the act of creating and developing imaginary characters, places and situations something that is limited to cyberspace. Roleplaying goes on in RL too, in all sorts of ways- not all of them recognisable as fantasy. But then, the question must be asked: ‘how can we say RL is “real” if people are roleplaying?’ Well, what is ‘real’, anyway?
THE ORIGINS OF ROLEPLAY.
Anthropologists have long saught to classify humans, coming up with terms like ‘the thinking animal’ or ‘Man the toolmaker’. But, perhaps the most apt description would be ‘the storytelling animal’. Creating imaginary places and people is a truly universal human skill. From the oral-storytellers of hunter-gatherer tribes, to the folktales written in ancient Sanskrit, Sumerian or Latin, and up to modern times with millions of books, TV shows and movies, storytelling is evident across all culture and throughout all human history.
One consequence of this tendency to weave fictional tales is a blurring of reality and fantasy in everyday life. We do not just live in the objective world of physical objects; we also share each other’s imaginary landscapes. Consider the following list of names. Ayn Rand, Bart Simpson, Charles Dogson, Dagny Taggart, Ella Fitzgerald, George Elliot, Hauldon Caullfield, Indiana Jones, Jesus Christ, King Arthur, Lewis Carrol, Mickey Mouse, Napolean Bonaparte, Oliver Twist, Plato, Ronald McDonald, Socrates, Tom Bombadil, Ulysses, Walt Disney. There is a good chance that you recognise quite a few of the names in that list, but can you say which are names of actual people, and which are only imaginary? I will tell you the answer later on, but for now we need to explain this most curious habit of weaving fictional tales.
It may not seem odd, but it is if you think about it. Why would evolution not select against minds that wasted time creating imaginary situations, rather than dealing exclusively with the real world? A branch of study known as ‘Literary Darwinism’ seeks to answer that question by comparing the themes of the tales themselves. Far from being specific to each culture, similar themes and character types appear consistently in narratives from all cultures. Anyone who has spent some time ‘people watching’ in SL will have discovered that women there tend to be slim, young and beautiful. It is tempting to blame this stereotype on the fashion industry or Hollywood — endless images of impossibly beautiful people fill our streets and homes via billboard posters, magazine covers and TV shows. But, precisely the same gender description is encountered wherever you move across the landscape of folktales. No matter what continent, or what century, and regardless of whether it is a hunter-gatherer or an industrial society, women are much less likely to be the main characters and more likely to have emphasis placed on their beauty. Meanwhile, male characters are typically portrayed as more active and physically courageous. What these gender stereotypes reflect, it is suggested, are classic signs of reproductive health: youth and beauty for females (signifying the ability to bear children), and the ability to provide for a family (signalled by power and success) in males.
As for the themes, Patrick Hogan (a professor of English and Comparative Literature) has found that as many as two-thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions appear to be based on three narrative prototypes. ‘Romantic’ and ‘Heroric’ scenarios make up the two more common prototypes, with the former focusing on the trials and travails of love and the latter focusing on power struggles. Professor Hogan dubbed the third prototype ‘Sacrificial’. These kind of tales focus on agrarian plenty versus famine, as well as on societal redemption. These basic prototypes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.
The latter need is almost certainly the reason why we have stories in the first place. In order to follow a story, you need an ability to read another entity’s motivations and intentions. Understanding a story, in other words, is a skill that is equivilent to understanding the human mind. Gwyneth Llewelyn habitually counters accusations of escapism by referring to forms of escapism that exist outside of computer-mediated VRs. Crying at a film, laughing out loud while reading a book, and things like that. Her point is, just about everyone indulges in some form of escapism. Psychologists have a name for the kind of immersionism typified by a weepy movie. They call it ‘Narrative Transport’. Whenever your emotions become inextricably tied to a story’s characters, you are displaying the ability to attribute mental states, such as awareness and intent, to another entity. This ability is known as ‘Theory of Mind’ and it is crucial to social interaction and communal living.
Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. It requires interacting with others and learning the rules and customs of society. Storytelling persists because there is no better way to promote social cohesion among groups, or for passing on knowledge to future generations. Stories’ roles in establishing the rules of society are demonstrated in a web-based survey of more than five hundred readers. The respondants answered questions about the motivations and personalities of one hundred and forty-four principle characters from a wide selection of Victorian novels. One thing this survey revealed is an evolved psychological tendency to envision human social relations as morally polarized between “us” and “them”. Another, was a tendency to view antagonists as a malign force motivated by social dominance as an end in itself, something that threatens the very principle of community. We see the former tendency in action in SL. For instance, an individual could use either voice or text to communicate, not exclusively preferring one or the other but rather adopting whichever best suits the current situation. But what debates tend to focus on is ‘voice’ versus ‘text’, as if residents in SL can be divided neatly into two groups that always oppose each other.
Theory of Mind is vital to social living, and it develops in children around age four or five. Once we possess it, we tend to make stories out of everything. This tendency was demonstrated in a 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel. They created an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square. Although the shapes had no minds, people nevertheless described the scene as if the triangles and circle had intentions and motivations. They would make comments like ‘the triangles are chasing the circle’. We have a predilection for making characters and stories out of whatever we see in the world around us.
REMEMBERING THE PAST AND IMAGINING THE FUTURE.
What is going on in the brain as we create and understand narratives? Imaging studies have identified areas of the brain that appear crucial to this ability. The medial and lateral prefrontal cortex are responsible for working memory, something that helps sequence information and represent story events. The cingulate cortex is evolved in visuospatial imagery and may be connecting personal experience with the story to add understanding. Identification of characters’ mental states seems to be the responsibility of regions such as the prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and temporal lobes. Patterns for story processing differ from those of other related mental tasks, such as paying attention or stringing together sentences for language comprehension.
Sometimes, the brain shows very little difference in patterns of activity, even when one would think it would. Apart from people with certain forms of dementia, we all have the ability to recall the past and imagine the future. We also have the ability to tell one from the other. If I imagine a birthday party, for instance, I do not confuse this fantasy with an actual party I attended. Conversely, if I recall a party that I did attend in the past, I know that what I see in my mind’s eye really happened and is not just imaginary.
The fact that we can so easily distinguish memory of the past from imagining the future might lead one to expect different patterns of activity associated with the past and the future. Indeed, that is what a team lead by Kathleen McDermot expected to see when they recorded the brain activity of subjects as they recalled or imagined a common experience. But, what they found was that both tasks produced very similar brain activity. McDermot remarked, “we really thought we were going to see a region that was more active in memory than in future thought. We didn’t find that”. This evidence suggests that our personal past and future are closely linked in the brain.
Why is that? Well, in and of itself, the ability to recall the past is not evolutionarily useful. It only becomes so once you can also plan for the future. Remembering how hungry you were last winter is advantageous only if it convinces you to store away food you find in a current season of abundance in preparation for the coming winter. Our capacity to remember the past evolved to help us imagine and plan for the future. One of the main functions of memory, therefore, is to shuffle scraps of the past around in novel ways to project possible futures.
This constructive nature of memory is believed to be the reason why we are prone to false memories. Professor Elizabeth Loftus wrote, “I’ve spent three decades learning how to alter people’s memories. I’ve even gone as far as planting entirely false memories into the minds of ordinary people — memories such as being lost in a shopping mall… all planted through the power of suggestion”. A simple way to demonstrate false memories is to show a person a list of words such as ‘pillow’, ‘doze’, and ‘sleep’. S/he can be easily tricked into remembering that the word ‘dream’ appeared on the list as well. However, people do not make the same mistake with unrelated words.
What this type of fallibility shows is that your memory is not a flawless action replay of an event that really happened. Instead, we only have the ability to remember bits and pieces of our past; to recall the outline of things rather than exhaustive details. We may feel as though we remember certain events fully, but what the mind actually does is imaginatively fill in missing details to construct plausible — but not necessarily accurate — accounts of what happened. Earlier, I asked whether the child a person remembered was ‘real’, or whether it was the character that person anticipated roleplaying tomorrow. We can see now that both are a blend of fact and fiction. A memory is not a flawless action replay, but merely something that captures the gist of what happened. The future, meanwhile, is created in the mind by shuffling scraps of the past around in novel ways.
SHUFFLING BITS AND PIECES.
Shuffling bits and pieces around in novel ways is the essence of invention. It is not often portrayed that way. Think of the cartoon image of a man with a light bulb floating in the air above his head, turning on to signify a great idea coming from nowhere. But, as James Burke explained in the documentary, ‘Connections’, “at no time did an invention come out of thin air, into somebody’s head. You just had to put a number of bits and pieces that were already there together in the right way”. This essay is an example of what he meant. In order to write it, I gathered research material from other books, pod casts, blogs, videos etc. From these I extracted relevant facts, analogies, visualizations and so on that helped clarify my thoughts regarding the themes of the essay. These bits and pieces were then shuffled around, put together in new ways and sometimes changed slightly in order to make them more relevant to whatever point I was trying to get across. Each of the authors whose work was used by me as research material, in turn, did pretty much the same thing. Each one took bits and pieces that already existed in other sources and recombined them in the right way to represent his or her own ideas.
You can imagine taking this essay and surrounding it with the reference material used in its development, with whatever was most influential placed nearest and the least relevant placed furthest away. Imagine, also, that the same thing applied to each source of reference: it too was surrounded by whatever was used to research its ideas. As you traced the ideas I explored in this essay to their sources, you would find that what I call ‘my’ ideas are really a bundle of fragments of other people’s ideas put together in a new way. You would see that this essay is a consequence of the shape of neighbouring research material, just as any one piece of research material is, in turn, a consequence of the shape of its neighbours. As you follow one fragment from my essay at the centre to works far out on the periphery, ‘my’ ideas would become more and more different as it is altered slightly by each individual author tweaking it in order to better suit the point he or she wants to get across.
Later on, we will encounter this image again, albeit in a slightly different form and attributed to another author. Before we get to that, though, we need to consider that ‘selves’ come into existence much like inventions or essays do. That is, by collecting bits and pieces that already exist and putting them together in the right way.
The notion of constructing a self feels more literal in an online world like SL. After all, pretty much the first thing anyone does after logging-on for the first time is to start editing their avatar’s appearance so it looks less like ‘Ruth’ and more like whatever they had in mind. For the majority of people, it becomes apparent that sculpting your avatar into the ideal representation is no easy task. And what do people do when a task turns out to be too hard or time consuming? They pay someone else to do it for them.
So you hit the stores and you grab a pre-designed body, prim hair, maybe a new pair of eyes, walk and posture animations and whatever else takes your fancy. This collection of other people’s designs is then put together in whatever way seems best to you, maybe tweaked a bit if the ‘modify’ option permits. And there you are, a walking, talking, posturing ensemble of other people’s bits and pieces. But after only a short while, it all stops feeling like a collection of other people’s prims, textures, and scripts and starts to feel like ‘you’. This is re-inforced by the people you meet, who also identify your avatar as ‘you’ regardless of whether you designed it all yourself from scratch, or just pieced together bits and pieces that already existed.
In RL you don’t exactly get to fiddle with options to change your body, so what sense does it make to say your self is constructed from pre-existing bits and pieces? We can get an idea of how such a thing might come about by looking at an experiment used in developmental psychology, known as the ‘visual cliff’. A child aged about 12 months is placed at the edge of what looks like a sheer drop, but is in fact traversable thanks to a glass bridge. Whether or not the infant crawls over the glass depends on its mother. Whenever small children encounter a situation they are unsure of, they look to a trusted individual’s face. If that face looks fearful (actually, during the visual cliff experiment the baby is in no real danger) the child will not cross. On the other hand, if Mother looks encouraging, the child is much more likely to traverse the glass.
But, whose fear or confidence is it? The child looks to a trusted individual and adopts the action that mirrors whatever emotion was evident on that face: the child’s actions copy the mother’s emotions. Developmental psychologists call this sort of thing ‘Social Referencing’. AI researcher and philosopher Doug Hoffstadter describes the human brain as ‘a universal machine’, saying, “our neural hardware can copy arbitrary patterns… beings have the capacity to model inside themselves other beings they run into, to slap together quick-and-dirty models of beings they encounter only briefly, to refine such course models over time”. People are prolific imitators. We observe each other’s styles, habits and postures. We absorb each other’s jokes, accents, catchphrases, analogies, metaphores, tales, memories and sometimes we incorporate such things into our own lives. We retell jokes, we adopt a style or a walk or a catchphrase and use it as part of our own repertoire until, after a while, it feels as much like a part of ourselves as our own limbs do. As Hoffstadter said, “we are all curious collages… each of us is a bundle of fragments of other peoples’ souls, simply put together in a new way”.
This notion of a self as ‘a bundle of other people’s souls’ was turned into an abstract painting called ‘I At the Centre’ by David Oleson. Hoffstadter’s description of it may sound familiar: “‘I’ is a consequence of the shape of all its neighbours. Their shapes, likewise, are consequences of the shapes of their neighbours and so on. As one drifts out towards the periphery, the shapes gradually become more and more different from each other”.
The fragments from which ‘I’ is made need not come from people someone has actually met. Humans, after all, are the storytelling animal. People are influenced by folktales, myths, legends, biographies of people they never met and historical accounts of events they did not witness. When photos and movies came along we no longer needed to embellish in our heads those people and places we only read or heard about in stories. We can see them directly, or rather we seem to. What a TV, cinema screen and computer monitor really show are ever-changing 2-D arrays of pixels, but the mind interprets it as coding for 3-D situations evolving over time. Such images could be of people, places and events that do exist and are currently happening; that did exist but no longer; that did not exist but might do in the future; that could never exist at all.
AYN, DAGNY, SOCRATES.
Earlier, I wrote out a list of names and asked, ‘which are names of actual people, and which are only imaginary?’. Well done if you correctly answered, ‘they are all imaginary’. On the other hand, if, say, you thought ‘Ayn Rand’, ‘Lewis Carrol’, ‘Napolean Bonaparte’ ‘Socrates’ and ‘Walt Disney’ are names of actual people, I would point out that none of those people exist: they are all dead. That being the case, you cannot have directly met them. You know about them only through ‘digital person technologies’, which are technologies capable of providing patterns that suitably sophisticated minds perceive as coding for beings, places and events that may not actually exist.
When Anthony Gottlieb wrote an essay about Socrates for the book ‘The Great Philosophers’ (edited by Ray Monk and Frederick Rapheal), he credited Plato with providing much of the reference material, pointing out that “there is no alternative. The Socrates of Plato’s ‘Apology’ is the only Socrates there is, or has been for nearly all of the history of philosophy”. Of course, he did not mean that the only biographies of the philosopher available are Plato’s and his own. He meant that there are no surviving works by Socrates himself (a problem caused in no small part by the fact that Socrates never wrote anything down). That being the case, what is the true nature of the person we know as Socrates? Is that an actual person, or just a character in Plato’s books?
Now consider this quote from a chapter about Ayn Rand in Micheal Shermer’s book ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’. “A twenty-four-year-old housewife (her own label)… said, ‘Dagny Taggart was an inspiration to me; she is a great feminist role model’”. Note that she gives as much credit to ‘Dagny Taggart’ as she does to Ayn Rand, even though one might think the latter deserves all the credit. Why? Because Dagny Taggart is the principle heroine of Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’. She never really spoke or did anything to inspire anyone; only Ayn Rand ever really thought anything. But then, we could say the same for Socrates. Why credit him with anything if it is only Plato’s Socrates that we know?
An obvious answer is that Socrates did exist and his life and teachings inspired Plato to write ‘The Apology’ and other works. Dagny, however, never existed independently of Ayn Rand’s imagination (at least, not until other people read the story she is part of). Remember, though, that inventions come — not from nowhere — but by putting together bits and pieces that already exist. I think that when people ask an author ‘where do you get your ideas from?’, they are recognising the fact that, in some sense, the characters, events and places that comprise a story are discovered as much as created; discovered in the physical world in which the author lives. When Hoffstadter described beings as ‘having the capacity to… slap together quick and dirty models of beings… [refining] such models over time’, this referred to ‘people’ like Dagny Taggart as much as it does to ‘you’ and ‘me’. Dagny was a bundle of fragments of other people’s souls, as was Socrates and anyone else.
When Hoffstadter refers to souls, he does not mean some mysterious energy or spirit forever separating people from ‘lower’ animals and machines. He is referring to the outward behaviours that you or I use to infer what someone else is thinking and feeling; to suppose they have minds in the first place, and what level of consciousness we should attribute to that mind. The ‘bundle of fragments’ are our memories of conversations, observations of other people and the objects that surround us. We observe all kinds of patterns in daily life, not only when we fully participate in the society we live in, but also whenever we watch a film, read a book, listen to the radio or music or surf the Web. A character in a novel or roleplayed in an online world does not pop into existence when pen is put to paper or an account is set up. Both are merely part of an ongoing process. The likes of Dagny Taggart and Argent Bury emerge gradually as someone makes the right connections between all kinds of patterns. The act of writing the story or roleplaying serves to ‘flesh out’ that character; to refine conceptions of how that person looks, acts, thinks and feels. But all such things were already formed in the mind — albeit ghostlty and incomplete — before writing or roleplaying began. People like Dagny Taggart and Argent Bury already existed as fragments of patterns embedded within the larger patterns produced and maintained by cultural memory systems. Creators of such people are more properly called Perceivers. Ayn Rand’s achievment was in perceiving the patterns that were Dagny, scattered and disordered among the greater patterns of life. The act of writing or roleplaying serves to bring order to those patterns, to make it easier for others to perceive them. As each fragment is copied into the neural hardware and as connections and correlations are made, does a tipping point occurr whereby an idea becomes so bright that the mind has no choice but to express it? To paraphrase Clyde Bruckman, “why did Ayn create Dagny and why did someone or some group decide to roleplay Argent Bury? Was it one specific moment when each said, ‘I know: Dagny’ (or ‘Argent’) or was it a whole series of things, starting from when the parents first met that combined in such a way that, in the end, there was no choice but to develop that character?”.
MACHINES WHO THINK CREATIVELY.
So, what is ‘real’? In order to answer that question sensibly, we must take into consideration the limits of our experience. We are not in direct contact with the world. What we perceive as reality is a simulation created by the mind that usefully predicts at least some part of the actual reality which (I assume) exists outside of the mind. Every person, place and event that you can remember exists only as complex patterns stored in and processed by your brain. I should clarify that. I do not mean nothing exists outside of your mind. I mean that how you perceive those things is unique to you, shaped as it is by the bundle of fragments, the intricate pattern of experiences, that comprise your life so far. Evolution has surely shaped our minds so that your perception of certain things matches that of other people, but nevertheless you live in a simulated world of your own.
In this simulated world, what really matters is not the actual/fantastical and virtual/physical dimension of a person, place or event. It is the resolution of the model that counts; how ‘fine-grained’ it is. Strange though it may seem, this would suggest that a ‘digital person’ you know very well, having developed a rich model from the patterns provided by the relevant human/technological source, is more of a person to you than the hordes of people you pass in the street every day, but from whome you never take the time to build an elaborate representation. I think it is a mistake to equate fiction with untruth. Stories are only convincing if they are built from bits and pieces that were observed in daily life. That does not mean to say we can only write about something that actually happened, but the stories that persist generation after generation are the ones that tell us something useful and practical about people and society. A Science Fiction tale, for example, is best thought of as an extended thought experiment, the purpose of which is to clarify our thinking about certain issues. It has sometimes been said that Sci-Fi is never really about the future, but an alternative way of looking at the society in which the author lived. In holding up a contrast to that society, we may better understand its true nature.
And what about the future? We have long used external devices as augmentations of our cognitive processes. By integrating elements from existing programs in neuroscience (such as brain modelling and neurophysiology), cognitive sciences (physiology, reasoning), computer sciences (AI, simulation and modelling), control theory (mechanisms and control) game theory (decision making and cost/benefit analysis), robotics (perception, world modelling and behaviour) and visualization (computer graphics, videogames), we could one day see the emergence of machines who think creatively. Increasingly, an avatar will become not just a tool for communication and roleplay, but an intelligent partner collaborating with humans and capable of acting autonomously in increasingly diverse situations. I believe it is no coincidence that a storytelling species became technologically capable. The art of storytelling lies in imagining something that may not actually exist, and to plausibly describe its affect on the world if, in fact, it did. That, too, is the art of inventing technologies.
A recurrant debate in transhumane circles concerns the 1st/third person perspective of uploads. Such debates are argued as if uploads were to suddenly appear, fully developed, in today’s unprepared world. I think it is much more likely to emerge as a result of tens of thousands of conservative steps taken by a variety of technologies. Among these will be ways and means of communicating with computers, better interactions with software agents and robots, and improvements in videogame and simulation software. Among other things, I expect we will use this emerging suite of technologies to advance our storytelling capabilities.
If you think about it, ‘I’ has never been purely a 1st person. We are all a blend of 1st and third person perspectives. As the poet Robbie Burns said, “what a gift of God to give us/to see ourselves as others see us”. Novelists, scriptwriters and roleplayers are just people who have developed everyone’s innate ability to model selves — their own as well as others — from bits and pieces that already exist. We keep records of our thoughts in external media; notepads, tape recorders and, increasingly, the myriad devices communicating with the Cloud and the forthcoming Digital Gaia. As these devices grow in sophistication, not just storing information but also processing it and collaborating with us in creating and editing it, there will be an economic advantage in ensuring machine intelligence communicates usefully with the biological intelligences that helped spawn it. Our thoughts will not just migrate to unthinking substrates, but to external cognitive devices that will become increasingly capable of introspecting on thoughts, concepts, ideas, etc, uploaded from the mind of a person to the Mind of Digital Gaia. More obviously than it is now, cognition will be extended or, as David Chalmers and Andy Clark put it, “if, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head we would have no hesitation in recognising as part of the cognitive process, than that part of the world IS part of the cognitive process”.
If mind uploading and full brain emulation ever actually happens, it will emerge in a society in which people are used to thought processes extending out from the mind to interface with computers, robots, and other bio-technological minds. A world in which ideas replicate as they copy into many semi or fully autonomous artificial life forms living in virtual worlds, several possible sequences of cause-and-effect tried out in simulation. A place in which the virtual blends with the actual or replaces it entirely, in accordance with a person’s moment-by-moment needs; seeing yourself from many angles at once as your perception jacks in to remote eyes and ears in physical space, or as Digital Gaia dreams up alternative personal histories for your mind to explore.
In such a reality, which will emerge (if at all) from many conservative steps leading down to current technologies, will uploading really mess with your identity as some have suggested? Or will our innate ability to create selves out of the bits and pieces of everyday experience keep up with technology as it, too, aquires minds capable of such things? In order to answer such questions, we cannot rely only on fact, reality and the actual as guides. We must also tap into our fictional, fantastical and virtual sources. The latter is not the poor relation of the former, but its equal. It is by creating and sharing stories that we clarify our thinking about a reality we never know directly.
Perhaps the final words are best left to Sherry Turkle. “As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundry between the born and the created and between human and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories”.