By Liz Baudler
Michael Harris can’t remember his partner’s phone number without his smart phone. Martine Rothblatt, on the other hand, created a robot modeled directly after her life partner. They’re poles apart, but in books published within the last three months, both writers diagram the same anxiety, asking technology to fill the gap our brains create.
While both books fall under the category of popular science, Harris, a journalist writing his first full-length book, takes a polemic tone. Rothblatt, trained as a scientist and the writer of more academic works on subjects from transgenderism to Middle East peace solutions, focuses on explanation and theory of anything that might be relevant to her subjects. “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” Harris’ book, is almost entirely predicated on worry. Worries that we don’t get enough time alone without a buzzing, blingling techbeast. Worries that Harris and the rest of us don’t have the attention span to finish “War and Peace.” Worries that disconnection from the net is disconnection from humanity.
Rothblatt, writer of “Virtually Human: The Promise–and the Peril–of Digital Immortality” and the CEO of biotechnology company United Therapeutics, wants to connect us to a future full of technology like us. The gap Rothblatt aims to fill is of the more permanent kind: death. With a mindclone, a “humanly cyberconscious being” with the mindfile, or “stored digital information” about a person, death can be cheated. Life beyond death is not Rothblatt’s ultimate goal: she just lays out the mindclone as the logical next phase of technological development. But the reader can only conclude very few reasons to create another race of being—and an infrastructure for its existence.
Harris also touches on life after death: not just the ways one can tweet from the beyond of one’s choice, but the mindfile accumulating in the process of being lived. Apps like Timehop, he says, cause users to change their digital habits, checking into more places, taking more photos. Often Timehop users say they desire that jolt from their past, but Harris wonders what effect that has on how we currently form memory. To Rothblatt, memory is a “beme,” a unit of consciousness that we each code distinctly for ourselves. Sensory association, for instance—the smell of a lover’s deodorant can lead one off on all sorts of oddly specific paths. Both of these ways of codifying the past are fascinating philosophical possibilities, which make both books enjoyable. Between the apps and the bemes, the reader gets the feeling they themselves are slowly being replaced.
Rothblatt is confident when laying out objections to mindclones and summarily smashing them. Chapters deal with the problems of creating a machine that is not merely mechanical, but also has human failings. For example, mindclones might be evil, defective or fall in love. Well of course they will, Rothblatt says in a less than comforting tone, they’re just like us. Another difference in the writers’ approaches: Harris gives his readers information to raise questions about our future as we continue to swim through the technological deluge, while Rothblatt, presenting a whole new infrastructure, is all about answering the concerns and making the case for mindclones.
Harris’ worries, perhaps because they’re already upon us, seem more permanent than Rothblatt’s conjectures and charts outlining the possible rules for mindclone existence. Currently we can see the evolution—or devolution—toward the kind of world where consciousness is a simultaneous download into a computer program. If we’re already making our phones remember our partner’s birthday, number and favorite color, and we asked some algorithm to match us in the first place, we’re compelled to ask what really do we do for ourselves these days?
Rothblatt’s desire to create consciousness with a person’s real memories, speech patterns and relationships is alluring. Mindclones are the ultimate extension of you, even if they won’t stay you, because no clone will have the same experience as its creator. Harris, on the other hand, isn’t sure how much of you should even stay around. Each time we update Facebook, we’re mutating the identity the world builds around us. Then again, the same phenomenon happens in every real conversation, too. It’s the transfer of what used to be merely just a quirk of human connection—as Kurt Vonnegut, a writer always concerned with the uneasy interplay of humans and science, once said, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be”—into a more formalized manmade system.
“Ultimately,” Harris says, “we desire machines that can understand our feelings perfectly and even supervise our feelings for us.” The mindclone might be that machine, but Rothblatt doesn’t want such a machine to stay just wires and bits. Each writer wants to preserve humanity, but while Harris thinks the way to do that is to turn off the smart phones, Rothblatt places her trust in the future, and so the push and pull of humans and their creations continues unabated.
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
by Michael Harris
Current, 243 pages, $26.95
Virtually Human: The Promise–and the Peril–of Digital Immortality
by Martine Rothblatt
St. Martin’s Press, 350 pages, $26.99