As modern technology has become an integral part of more and more activities in everyday human life, more and more people are no longer content with leaving a surrogate immortality when they die: a legacy of their enduring achievements and of the enduring memories they leave on the people they leave behind. Previously, one form of possible real immortality for humans was focused on the gradual transformation of humans into cyborgs. As organic parts of a person wear out, they can be replaced by prosthetic parts made of plastic and metal. Should those parts wear out, they can be replaced by more prosthetic parts and so on indefinitely into the future. And as more parts wear out, the person becomes increasingly physically like a robot.
Readers of this column know that great concern has been expressed with regard to the increasing robotization of human beings from their interactions with modern technological living environments. A person may think he is finding immortality by becoming robotized, by becoming a cyborg, but he is losing the richness of life that comes with making, receiving and preserving his organic imprints. The more robotized a person becomes, the more he is ruled by data and signals rather than internal flowing blendable continual thoughts and the more the person loses his self-coherence. The expression “pixilated sense of self” has been used in this column and it indicates the fragmentation that can result from a lack of organic grounding within a person.
If in pre-modern times, the danger for a human was that of undifferentiating, reverting to a more primitive form of animal and losing his cerebral consciousness and cerebral self-control, the danger in modern technological times is increasingly that of losing his organic nature and sliding into becoming a robot. This, in spite of the fact that there are people who don’t mind losing any advantages that might be gotten from their organic nature, if only they can achieve some form of real immortality.
I have come to realize that there is a third type of imbalance that is possible, and this one is again based on the use of modern technology. It relates to certain states of experience that certain kinds of modern technology can induce in our minds. In previous articles, it has been discussed that modern technological screens – whether movie, television, video game, computer, smartphone or table - produce altered states of experience for humans, vacuumized states of experience induced by the images that appear on the screen and that lack material substance. In the case of movies and television the images that appear may be based on phenomena - usually humans and their surroundings – that have material substance, but the images themselves don’t have it. Humans watching this screen world on some level must be reminded of another world that lacks material substance, namely the spirit world. Depending on one’s spiritual beliefs, that world can be inhabited by all kinds of supernatural entities from a monotheistic God to angels, multiple gods, fairies, elves and other mythological creatures. The one thing that all these supernatural entities have in common is that, lacking material substance, they don’t suffer from organic perishability and they usually are immortal.
The various images that appear on modern screens may represent humans and animals, but the images themselves lack organic perishability. And that is a foundation of their appeal. As one views the images on a screen, one mentally wanders into the screen world and watches what is going on. In watching the screen world, one begins to live in it. At the same time, one is still living in the natural world, and one’s eyes can wander away from the screen and see the three-dimensional substantive material entities that surround the screen. That which surrounds the screen can give a viewer a sense of material grounding should he feel a need for it. Nevertheless, for many people, there is an intense desire to simply get lost among the vacuumized phenomena that dwell inside the screen, and to mentally become a vacuumized phenomenon oneself. Because as a vacuumized phenomenon, one can imagine oneself as an immortal spiritual being.
Getting immersed among vacuumized phenomena becomes even more intense when one experiences virtual reality. Unlike screen reality, virtual reality does not give the experiencer an opportunity to obtain material grounding in the external world except through the machine that creates the virtual reality. One simply places oneself within a totally vacuumized living environment. And although the virtual phenomena with which one comes into contact lack the substance that would typically give us the organic friction which can give us intense rich vibrant life experiences, these virtual phenomena, because they lack material substance, also lack the possibility of organic perishability and give the appearance of being able to go on forever. More so than screen reality, virtual reality gives the appearance of being able to go on forever.
Actually, in some situations, there is even the possibility of being able to create synthetic tactile friction. A machine that creates a virtual sex experience, for instance. There, the distinction between external world experience and virtual experience practically disappears. It is like living in a dream of one’s own making. A dream where one can be like spiritual beings and seemingly go on forever.
The next step towards real immortality, of course, is finding a way to isolate the mind from the brain, if possible, so that the mind can seemingly go on forever. I’m not talking about freezing the brain after death. The brain, when it thaws out, is still a perishable organic substance. The mind doesn’t seem to be perishable the way a brain is, but so far we haven’t found a way to isolate mind consciousness.
But we can get hooked on the notion of living in a mental consciousness world, by living as much as possible in screen reality and virtual reality. The problem is that, although we separate ourselves from organic perishability in these two realities, we also separate ourselves from the organic surfaces that stimulate us to make, receive and preserve organic imprints. These organic imprints are the foundation of rich vibrant life experiences and of the surrogate immortalities that allow us to prepare for death. Our attempts to live like spiritual beings, like gods, make our lives flat and vacuous. Wasting so much time in front of screens and in virtual realities result in lives that lack the meaning that comes from living with organic imprints. Screen reality and virtual reality only provide the illusion of a kind of vacuumized spiritual immortality.
And becoming a cyborg also provides an illusion of immortality, because, so far, no one has developed a way to replace a human brain with a robot brain without losing the human sense of self. Can human mental consciousness be induced to cross over into even a sophisticated robot brain? And how can even the flowing blendable continual stimuli of a human mind be effectively converted into the defined discrete stimuli of the human brain in order to cross over into a robot brain? Instead of a coherent consciousness, within the limits of the prosthetic parts we can add, we still wind up with a fragmented pixilated sense of self.
So here we have modern humans moving along different paths towards immortality, with the possibility of doing more than one path at the same time. There is nothing to stop a cyborg from entering both screen reality and virtual reality, don’t you know? And in both cases, he is pursuing illusions that in their own way are every bit as unreal as anything in mythology. And the problem is that the time pursuing these illusions is time not being spent having rich vibrant experiences as organisms, making receiving and preserving organic imprints and preparing for death with a surrogate immortality. So that, in the end, people can end up both without a real immortality, and without a surrogate immortality. For such people, death can be a total death, at least with regard to the world in which we presently live. There may be life after death, but we can’t know it for sure in this life.
So if we want to have some kind of peace of mind with regard to having some kind of immortality in this world, perhaps we should stop trying to be robots, stop trying to be gods, and focus on preserving our organic imprints: having a baby, planting a tree, writing a book or a piece of music, creating a work of art, building a business, making a record in sports or just leaving good solid memories with many of the people in one’s life.
By the way, when a person follows the illusion of immortality through screen reality or virtual reality, it could perhaps be said that the spiritual being to which such a person most approximates is not a god or an angel, but rather a ghost. Because a life immersed in screen reality and increasingly virtual reality is a life bereft of the organic imprints that are necessary for the only sure positive immortality, a surrogate immortality. A screen reality life or a virtual reality life is a living death, the kind of life that a ghost would live.
(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow