with every year that passes, our virtual selves grow more and more complete
In the early fifth-century BC, two warring city-states in ancient Greece made a peace treaty to last one hundred years.
Put a pinkie to the corner of your lips and intone “one hundred years” in the style of Mike Myers playing Dr. Evil. You get the idea.
No one at the time was sure exactly how long a hundred years was. Writing had only just been invented, and a century in the past was lost in the mists of memory, oral tradition stored and copied in the human cerebrum, not the most reliable or accurate of storage media.
Predictably, war broke out again a few years later.
How different from today, when every millisecond of our lives is recorded, measured, judged, influenced.
We speak of “digital tracks” or “online footprints,” but so detailed and permanent are these “tracks” that we ought rather to speak of moving, three-dimensional sculptures cast anew, each moment, in bronze.
The filigree on these statues grows finer as the human race continues its migration onto the cyber domain. Sensors and actuators become more ubiquitous and invisible, and storage and processing power cheaper by the year.
From coin of specie to numbered bills to credit cards to cryptocurrency censorable in real time; from handwritten scrolls to paperbacks and newspapers to ebooks and news sites that track what you read, when you read it, how long you linger, and what you highlight; from anonymous travel on horseback to license-plated horseless carriages to the hackable computers on wheels we drive today – and that will soon drive us; from a Roman wax tablet and stylus to the supercomputer cyborg extensions we carry in our pockets that record, accelerometer and microphone present, every twitch of a muscle, every chime of our vocal chords, every drip of our humanity, as it ebbs; at every step of this technological change – so awesome and unbelievable that we are compelled to triumphantly eulogize such change as “progress” – our virtual selves become more and more quantified, detailed, complete.
The quantification of the self is the story of our times – perhaps even the story of our civilization, if Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West” is correct.
Spengler argued that Goethe’s “Faust” is the uber-metaphor for Western civilization: We have sold our souls for shiny little tiny boxes that go “ping!” and call this, not tragedy, but progress.
As the infinitesimal curve of data collection about the individual nudges its way northwards, and human-brain interfaces sound less like science fiction and more like a way for Facebook to show billions of people targeted ads (and so command the conduct of half the human race), how long before the secrets of the human soul are laid bare, and no molecule shivers within us without being known – measured – censored?
The coming merger of human and machine makes clear our peril: Qur quantified digital selves are now more real – more permanent – more detailed – more fragile – than our flesh and blood in meatspace.
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