Young Bill Young here, writing on Kitty’s blog once again. (Thanks for the space, Kitty!)
About a year ago, I realized that much of the recent geeky entertainment I’ve been enjoying touches upon a common theme: Identity. Indeed, what is a person?
Let’s start at the beginning with the reimagined Battlestar Galactica television series. The cylons (robots) of the new series had evolved to look like us. When they died, they downloaded into new bodies and retained their memories. They laughed, cried, slept, loved, killed, nurtured, sulked, experienced joy and understood complex ideas. Were the cylons truly alive? Did they have souls? It’s ironic that the very first line of dialog in the series is a cylon asking a human this question: “Are you alive?” Ironic, because the humans struggle throughout the series asking that very same question about the cylons.
I was intrigued by the show enough to read a couple of pop culture books that discussed the issues presented on my television (including those issues of identity and what it means to be “alive”): Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Knowledge Here Begins Out There and Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica. Heady stuff, with a number of references to Ray Kurzweil’s idea of the coming singularity, when humans transcend their biological limitations in order to relate to superintelligent AIs. Really heady stuff!
Over this past year, I’ve found myself exploring this subject in other books and shows. For example, I’m watching Josh Whedon’s Dollhouse. Persons who have their memories erased are called dolls. They are imprinted with the memories of others and sent on missions. Does a doll actually become this other person? Is the doll still the person they were before their memories were removed, or is a person a collection of ongoing memories?
Then it was on to Robert Venditti’s graphic novel The Surrogates, in which people use humanoid remote control vehicles to interact with each other. This is similar to the idea used in James Cameron’s movie Avatar, except in Cameron’s work, the “remote” is actually a biological entity.
Even my most recent guilty pleasure, Jenna Black’s series on demon exorcist Morgan Kingsley, addresses the horror of real identity theft during possessions.
Now I’m reading David Brin’s Kiln People. In this future, people can download their memories into clay duplicates (dittos) that are sent out to work, to party, to accomplish menial tasks, or to perform a mission that would be dangerous to a biological person. The ditto has all of the memories of the original person (the rig) up to the time of downloading. Dittos are short-lived, lasting only about a day. Dittos must get home in time to download their memories in order to continue “to exist.” When the rig downloads the ditto’s memories from the day, those memories become part of the orignal’s experience as well.
There is a slightly chilling scene where a ditto awakens and observes “his” rig, and you realize that, at the point where the two sets of memories diverge, a new person has been born. Dittos may be shortlived, but that doesn’t stop a human rights movement promoting the idea that “Dittos are people, too.”
I suppose this obsession with identiy and personhood in recent science fiction could all be a natural extension of themes ignited by Willliam Gibson’s groundbreaking Neuromancer, as well as the real science and technology that is evolving around us. I don’t expect to live to see Kurzweil’s singularity, but if I do, I wonder if I will wake up some morning and ask, Am I me?