Wednesday 21 September 2011

U is for Uploaded Minds

What this blog post is, and what it is not
The sub-genre of speculative fiction which we have called Uploaded Minds™ includes any milieu in which characters live out their lives within the confines of one or more computer-generated world. That we will one day achieve this is a conjecture is loaded with philosophical implications. Covering them all in detail would require a book, as well as a savviness in philosophy which I do not possess. Simply listing them would be little more useful than a grocery list, a handful of suggestions fit for a google search.

This blog, then, is not a philosophy lecture.

What it is, is a question of whether the sub-genre of Uploaded Minds may be of any interest to a magazine like The Future Fire.

The Relevance of Speculative Fiction
The Future Fire craves a socio-political angle. At first glance, that is a rather lenient requirement: most sub-genres of sf contain fiction that claims to qualify. Speculative fiction revolves around change, after all, and change affects society, or individual, and usually both. Just as mythology and the classic parables imply that history is cyclic and that we should learn from the tragic choices of its protagonists, so speculative fiction shines its fog-lights on the road ahead, revealing the silhouettes of obstacles before we drive over them, or worse, into them.

But a magazine that accepts everything is a magazine that says nothing. A line must be drawn to create an opinion. Socio-political fiction, then, must be relevant fiction.

By relevant we mean those stories that comment on our society’s current state of affairs or on the human condition (and impact of political positions on) in a universal sense, not necessarily today’s news headlines. The film GATTACA, for example, is a far-future science fiction, but it remains relevant because it questions an issue which remains alive with debate to this day, namely the tinkering of human genetics, the commercialization of such tinkering and the class discrimination that might result from it. For another example, look no further than global warming: ever since its threat was publicized by the media, all manner of doomsday movies have cropped up in cinemas.

But Uploaded Minds Is Hardly Relevant, Is It?

The above definition of relevance is at risk of being misinterpreted. One might be inclined to think that the scenario posited by a science fiction story must be plausible, at least in part, in order for it to be relevant. But if that were so, then fantasy, which is often labeled the literature of ‘that which could never be’, could never be relevant! And yet we know that in many cases it is. Why is that?

When people think uploaded minds, the first thing that springs to mind is usually the movie Matrix. Matrix sits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Let us examine the extreme end first: true uploaded minds, more aptly namely simulated reality.

Simulated reality is different than its cousin virtual reality (a common catch-all phrase). Virtual reality can be detected—think video games—whereas simulated reality is no different than a lucid dream, albeit moderated by external rules. The ultimate goal of the “uploaded-mind paradigm” is to shed away not just our senses and our input, but also our physical bodies, and beyond that, our brains. It is to become pure software, an infomorph.

Once we become beings of pure data, we are no longer anchored to our physical bodies for identity. The ramifications of such an existence are endless. We could back ourselves up, leading to indestructibility. We could upgrade to better versions, but then would these multiple versions function as separate, distinct individuals? Which version owns the property? Are they are legally regarded as one? And if so, which version get to take the important decisions? What of the world in which we live? Or worlds, rather, for what is to stop each of us from living in the world we prefer? Who governs and polices this world? How can anyone ever feel safe knowing that the entire universe is hanging from a plug? These are among a host of fascinating issues associated with infomorphia, and it is beyond the scope of this blog to explore them all.

The question we are trying to answer is how relevant these issue are, and can they help us gain insight on our current state of living, our civilization and where it is headed? How likely is that we will become pure software? Not likely, considering we cannot even explain consciousness let alone recreate it. (See ‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness’, a term in philosophy of mind that describes the difficulty in explaining how physical phenomena can lead to the rise of inner life).

Let us take one step back, and examine the pop-culture phenomenon that is Matrix. In Matrix, the human race is imprisoned in mind and body by machines that we ourselves created. It is not the intention of this post to explore the threat of sentient machines, but from the uploaded-minds perspective, the concept put forth by the movie is that we might plug a USB into our napes and so enter an entirely virtual world that defies the laws of physics and intellectual resistance. It is a scenario more plausible than the infomorph, but still highly hypothetical in its premise.

Stories like Matrix are very literal takes on the metaphors of mind. To think that voluntary worlds will be entering our lives loudly and predictably, like cars or computers did, is in my view somewhat naïve. We need just look at massively multiplayer role playing games (MMOs) and social networking (SN) to realize that virtual worlds are already ubiquitous in our lives. MMOs, large persistent virtual game worlds, are subsuming our entertainment. SN has taken over much of our social interactions. But it is more than just time-consuming, mind-numbing escapism that we are dealing with here.

These Realities Are Not Just Windows. They Surround Us.

In his story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the Argentinian writer Borges described how a group of academics together creates a fictional world in what may be seen as a massive world-building exercise. During the process, disciples of this new reality start placing relics of the invented world in the real world, until eventually true history is entirely subsumed by the invented one of Tlon. As some clever writers have pointed out, this is already happening. Fans at conventions dress like their favorite fictional heroes and villains, buy merchandise, give their children the names of characters from these universes. More and more, we are attempting to drag fictional worlds into our lives.

We may not be uploading our minds to World of Warcraft and Facebook--indeed these games may expire harmlessly in a few years' time--but we would be foolish to not see them for what they are: they are like those round mirrors that stand at tight turns on roads, to help one see what lies behind the bend. In this case, what will happen if we do not delineate the boundaries of escapism.

Many already spend more time in MMO’s or socializing networking sites than they do disconnected from the screen. They prefer their ‘online personas’ to their offline ones. And in no way is it ending here. A large effort is underway to integrate SN’s and MMO’s: one may socialize and network in a separate world, while importing SN friends into an MMO world.

Instead of playing golf, businessmen will be raiding dungeons.

Perhaps this isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Should you send The Future Fire your World of Warcraft fan-fiction? Not exactly. What about stories where human consciousness survives in an entirely virtual (or should I say simulated) digital environment? We have seen that the sub-genre of uploaded minds is relevant despite its far-fetchedness, because despite appearances, the issues it raises may be transposed onto problems we are facing right now in the Information Age.

A story does not have to predict the future to be relevant, though some great works certainly have. A tale that nails tomorrow’s weather fluctuations or the winning lottery number will not make us think twice about today. A story about a far-flung intergalactic civilization where no man has ever touched another except through a multiplayer hivemind, very well might. Relevance is commentary, commentary through questions, imagination, speculation and unconsidered implications. Commentary is what The Future Fire is looking for, and what writers of all genres, not just speculative fiction, should be aiming for if they are to produce not just art, but an insight into the human condition.


Djibril said...

Thanks for this thoughtful and in-depth discussion, Will. There's certainly a lot of promise in the genre/theme of personality-digitization, and a lot of questions one could use it to ask about the nature of the human, the relationship between mind and body, the location of the self, etc. One of the earliest stories on this theme I can think of, William Gibson's 'Winter Market' is about a disabled young woman who moves her entire life into a simulation because she is dissatisfied with her flesh. Just think of the problems and questions that such a possibility throws up. (Count Zero's upload in Mona Lisa Overdrive is only ever presented from the outside, so we miss any possible discussion of his view of the world.)

I asked on Twitter for suggestions of social-political SF on this theme: @rhiannonrevolts offered: "It's sad that the only one I can think of that fits somewhat into sociopolitical discourse is Stross' Accelerando/Glasshouse" (which I had been trying to avoid talking about, because while very inventive and technologically intelligent it sidesteps the most important social-political questions, for me); @pgcd wrote: "Greg Egan's work deals v. frequently with the theme (Diaspora, Permutation City, several other stories)", and added: "Egan is not very good at emotions, but he's extraordinary when speculating and extrapolating. He comes from the future =)".

There is of course at least one story about brain upload in TFF: Nader Elhefnawy's ‘The Transmigration’, a story which highlights many of the problems and fears people have with existing only in software. (We discussed some of these issues in an opinion piece several years back.) Another story with a similar theme is ‘All the Way’ by Graham Storrs, although it doesn't involve living in a virtual world in the sense you describe it in this blog post, but rather as a software agent with a physical present (as an off-world robot engineer).

So there's still a lot of discussion to have here. Any more suggestions for reading in this area?

Shay said...

I would suggest Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs trilogy as examining the socio-political aspects of what happens when you can transfer minds across vast distances and into other bodies -- or simply load them into long-term virtual storage (with or without interactivity, to varying degrees) when the body is too damaged/inconvenient/unavailable.

Anonymous said...

The first story that comes to mind is Iain Banks' "Feersum Endjinn". Here people can have seven lives, and once these are expired, they pass into a virtual reality.

It seems to me that the success of the Matrix movies was such that it is difficult to write a story related to simulated reality without it being labeled cliche'.

Entire groups or civilizations plugging into virtual worlds is a hard trope to come by, but there are other examples examples of isolated VR, such as people's minds being put into cold storage in "Neuromancer".

Djibril said...

Deep End by Nisi Shawl is also a wonderfully poignant story about a prison colony with convicts uploaded into a simulation on a starship's computer, eventually to be downloaded into new bodies to colonize a distant world. She manages to make this story about race and gender identity and cultural imperialism as well as a profound study of what it means to be human in a computer simulation. I'd recommend it.