our virtual selves are more real than our flesh and blood in meatspace
Primitive peoples, on being photographed for the first time, complained that the black box stole their souls.
An honest answer.
We froggies in water slowly boiling find such comments naive and foolish, yet we fail to appreciate this alien perspective on our puzzling civilization.
In pre-literate societies, a human being passed through time and space leaving only memories in their wake, dream stuff to kindle the bonfires of myth, and then fade into the fogs of yesteryear.
To speak was to be forgotten. To be observed brought the curse of the evil eye. To love or hate, mere spasmodic twitchings of the body (or body politic), to be erased in short order by fleshy oblivion.
Today, how different! Now we leave behind not cloudy memories stored in the collective subconscious of myth, but filigreed bronze statues engraved in the cloud – or rather, on someone else’s computer.
These digital memories, these records of our lives, are more detailed, more complete, and more permanent than anything else that’s gone before – and by orders of magnitude – so much so that we may fairly call these memories, this representation of the individual, a digital doppelganger that is more real than our flesh and blood in meatspace.
Taken in aggregate and analyzed, our virtual selves know more about us than we know about us. Every word, every action, every gesture betrays us. No brain-machine interface exists – yet. But to know the sum total of a human’s life is – dare we say it? – god-like power, omniscience pushing the envelope of omnipotence.
If we owned and controlled our virtual selves, then each of us would be no more than computer-enhanced, computer-assisted humans. Cyborgs. A happy word, so far as that goes. But this is not the case, nor likely ever to be the case.
When a human’s representation takes on greater reality than the human themself, and in fact begins to control its master, then we must ask who owns the representation? In what gallery or museum – or frankenstein laboratory – do we hang, or gel in a Petri dish? And who, by extension, owns and controls us?
The answer is unpleasant. Governments and corporations collect, store, analyze and control our virtual selves in order to modify our conduct, at scale, for profit, political power, sometimes both. Increased self-knowledge comes with a painful and vicious trade-off: Others, who wish not to enhance our autonomy but to destroy it, gain knowledge of us as well.
The dirty tricks directorate of the UK secret police, GCHQ’s JTRIG, wants to create “cyber magicians” who “make something happen in the real or cyber world,” a slide deck leaked by Edward Snowden revealed. We may safely conclude that similar “intelligence agencies” around the world eagerly pursue similar goals.
Hack someone’s credit rating, zero their bank balance, turn off their IoT thermostat – or their pacemaker, plant child porn on their laptop and call the cops, or “stop deals/ruin business relationships.”
Our virtual selves are defenseless against such attacks. This turns our digital doppelgangers into modern-day voodoo dolls, where a pin damages real flesh, and a bit flipped at the right moment kills without a trace.
In this new reality we inhabit, we are now controlled not only by these sociopathic state-sponsored criminals, but also by large corporations – themselves sociopathic artificial persons who live forever, as Cory Doctorow is fond of calling them – that collect our data, collect us, store us, manipulate us, in order to mold our reality and control our conduct to their liking.
Facebook and Google offer not targetted advertising, but personalized propaganda – gaslighting as a service. Their power to change human behavior at global scale, to create individual bubble realities, is power such as the human race has never before seen. (We freak out about “fake news” but “personalized news” ought to frighten us even more.)
This extraordinary power has not escaped the notice of the secret police, who have commandeered these tech companies to compel their obedience, and under gag.
Our individual inability to secure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of our own data – of our virtual selves – creates a new feudal order, our vulnerable and fragile data vapor huddled within the cloud citadels of large Silicon Valley “startups,” who in turn pay fealty to the government – a modern-day protection racket.
This heralds the advent of a breathtakingly novel form of governance, in which tthose who own our representations own us, in what can only be called the single greatest loss of human liberty in the history of the world.
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