Identity and Posthumanity

I just finished Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow and I wanted to riff on some of the ideas in there. Since the book has been out for a while, I hardly need to give it a full review, but let me at least say I enjoyed it in that way I enjoy a lot of posthuman novels. Which is to say, it was fun but thinking on it makes my head ache a bit. So let me think on it some more; I haven’t had met my headache quota yet today. Warning: if semi-philosophical rambles make you want to roll your eyes and walk away, you might want to do that now.

To briefly summarize the premise of the book first, it has been about 100 years since the death of scarcity for the human race, and the end of death itself, if you buy that. No one need starve or be homeless, everyone can lead the life they want to, and if you die, you can reload your latest backup into a clone of yourself and keep going. If all this is too much for you or you just get bored, you can “deadhead” until some point in the future, meaning you go to sleep and wake up in a new clone body 10, 100, 10,000 or x years in the future. The only currency is your reputation, or Whuffie score; have a low score and you are kind of a social pariah—you get food and maybe minimal lodging—while a high score means you can go and do whatever you want. This new world order is called the Bitchun Society.

The Magic Kingdom part of the title refers to Disney World, where groups of fans have taken over and are running the park, out-Disneying Disney itself. I enjoyed this part of the book, but it is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about my difficulty with wrapping my head around posthuman fiction, stories where humans readily deal with switching bodies, backing themselves up, running parallel versions of themselves, etc. Stories where humans aren’t really human anymore in the sense we experience it every day, because they don’t have the same worries as us (generally… these stories frequently deal with a posthuman facing the “death” of their current version, and they find themselves more attached to that version than they should be).

I have forgotten much of what I studied on the way to my undergrad degree in philosophy, but the areas that still interest me in philosophy are questions of identity and reality (for this reason, I enjoy most of Philip K. Dick’s novels). Posthuman books force me to focus on what identity means to me. Down and Out explicitly spells out what some books gloss over: to revert to a backed up copy of yourself, the current version has to die. This might happen by accident, but some people choose to wipe out their current version: in one example, it is done to erase memories of a bad relationship. I don’t know about you, but I viscerally balk at this idea. Let’s say I got into a car crash right after I backed up my mind or soul or whatever you want to call it. I lose all my limbs. The doctor tells me he can give me a little injection to “end” my current, damaged body and wake up in my nice new one. Of course, this is a lethal injection. Even in that scenario, I cannot imagine saying, “Yes, kill this me so another me can go on.”

What I can’t seem to wrap my mind around is: how can you so casually let go of yourself like that? If you die and a version of you is reborn, or if you can excise certain memories at will, or completely change the body you are in, is it still you coming out the other end? Most of the characters in these books take it for granted that this is so. Doctorow even points out that the people who refused to join the Bitchun society are dead anyways because they didn’t use the technology to back themselves up before they died. But do all these posthuman means of staying alive really keep you from dying or do they just allow you the polite fiction that the you that dies is the same as the next you to be loaded up? Maybe that polite fiction is the most we can hope for.

In the end, I think Doctorow makes the best point for why I should just stop worrying and learn to love the posthumanity: I can go along with it and risk that I’ll still be dead anyway (with some other version of me going on), or refuse it and know for certain that I’ll be dead. I guess if offered the choice, I’d go Bitchun all the way.

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