The informational realm - Part 2
Project: The great enhancement debate
Project: The great enhancement debate
In three(ish) parts:
The concrete realm
The informational realm (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
There are aspects of ourselves that reach beyond the concrete realm.
These are our presence in an informational realm we have made.
The contents of the informational realm are selected for their rapid manipulability.
Relatively simple aspects of ourselves are routinely displaced to the informational realm.
More significant growth into the informational realm has been made possible with the advancement of technology.
It is possible roughly to delineate the level of technological sophistication required to support a person's existence in an informational realm.
However, a crucial variable is the utility of any particular aspect of informational existence, as judged by the user of the technology.
As a result, the step beyond the concrete realm is made by the imagination, intellectually.
Informational aspects of being are conceptually distinct from humanity, and can be superhuman.
It is possible to distinguish informationally enhanced and unenhenced humans.
There are already coexisting humans of these different kinds.
Extra-human beings will become convincingly super-, rather than sub-, human only when technological advances and popular attitudes are appropriately aligned.
The next big step in human capability will be a socio-psychological as well as a technological singularity.
It is as technologies have reached a certain point of development that it has become a (faintly) realistic proposition to commit ourselves intellectually to becoming our records of ourselves. That point of technological development can be delimited, with the qualification of a few variables that will make - and are making - the transition into the informational realm a little bumpy. Starting with simple cases, the crucial question is this: When are we prepared to cite an identity between some real aspect of a person and a record of it?
A model useful here can be taken from a different case of identity. In his essay, Seeing the Present, Jeremy Butterfield isolates the criteria that must be met for us to consider an event to be present - i.e. happening now*. For the sake of illustration, consider the case of seeing an event happen - e.g. seeing a cat duck. For you to perceive that event as being present is for you to identify the time of the occurrence of the cat ducking with the time of the occurrence of your perceiving it - i.e. now. Of course, you do not need to be a great physicist to know that these events are not simultaneous, and that we are therefore strictly wrong to identify the times they occur. However, we constantly and unconsciously do as much. Butterfield spells out why. (To describe it in a way that benefits my point here,) it is because the rate of action of the process of our perception is generally much quicker than the rate of action of the events we perceive and the actions we are able to perform in response to them. The difference between these rates is large enough that the inaccuracy of our identifying distinct times presents very few practical difficulties, and is well outweighed by the benefits of building a coherent temporal map of our situation, based around the temporal copresence of ourselves and and what we perceive.
So where is the parallel with the case in which we see an informational entity as part of ourselves? I should first concede that Butterfield's discussion concerns deep-set neurological processes, whereas mine is about a conscious intellectual commitment. Nonetheless, the parallel is there**. We identify two times because the strict inaccuracy of doing so is outweighed by the benefit. The balance is tipped when the temporal difference is too small for us to respond to because it takes us a longer time to perform any action (including communication) - that is, because the mechanisms by which we operate in practice use temporal terms too coarse-grained to describe the smaller interval. If you like, we have apparatus for assessing the relevance of temporal difference, which is calibrated by the minimum time intervals in which we ourselves act. Small enough differences are deemed irrelevant and so ignored. (In fact, they are probably never detected, but I'm keeping my analogy open...†
We can carry this framework over from the case of temporal difference to the case of difference between facts. The fact about the record on the guest list can be identified with a fact about me when the strict inaccuracy of doing so is outweighed by the benefit. That balance is tipped when the factual difference is too small for us to respond to - because the mechanisms by which we operate in practice use factual terms too course-grained to describe the smaller difference. What is different in this case of course is that our mechanisms are not those which are biologically equipped, but those which we have chosen to use to extend ourselves in the concrete realm. Specifically, in Part 1, it was the list and our method of using it (as opposed to our bodies' perceptual devices). The host of the party elects to depend on a mechanism that detects only inclusion in or exclusion from a list. Doing so means that he can spend his time entertaining at the cocktail bar or piano instead of watching the door. If he were not to do so then he would fail as a host, so it is the nature of hosts that they benefit from ignoring, as a matter of methodology, the difference between people having been invited and people noted on the guest list. They identify a fact about the list with a fact about a person, the list taking precedence when in reality there is a discrepancy. Of course, all this means that I am left out in the cold, but such inaccuracies will be rare (and in this case quite inconsequential).
So on the one hand we have a neuro-psychological condition (our notion of the present moment) and a biological mechanism (sense organs), naturally selected in tandem in the process of evolution for providing us with a relevant enough version of the full reality of things. On the other hand we have a deliberate mental act (the dependence on the list for information about guests) that has been chosen to accompany a human-made mechanism (the list / doorman setup [or guest-sensing organ]), selected intelligently by us as being deemed reliable and beneficial (enough).
So when it comes to delineating the point of technological progress at which we make a leap into the informational, we can see that it is at the point when the results of a detection mechanism are near enough to reality that the downside of any inaccuracy shrinks enough relative to the benefits it provides. We can then treat the output of the mechanism as our reality, including, if we are choosing to detect them, real people. So when is the benefit enough to outweigh the inaccuracy?
This cost / benefit balance would definitely be achieved if the detection mechanism were to equal or surpass in accuracy our pre-existing mechanisms (biological or otherwise). For instance, I will treat the read-out of my thermometer as fact, rather than my instinct about whether or not I have a fever. Although the thermometer (or, more completely, the process of using it) could be prone to error, it surpasses so comfortably my ability without it that its version of the real world can be treated as fact at least as readily as my thermometerless judgements on the matter. However, not every system we commit to exceeds our accuracy without it. The guest list system, for example, unable as it is to be jogged by my desperate face, falls short of the host's memory in terms of the closeness of its output to reality. However, the aforementioned benefits of such an arrangement tip the balance. And that is where the boundary of sufficient technological advancement gets blurred...
It will vary from host to host whether in a particular case a guest list is the right move for his or her party, so adoption of the system is not guaranteed always to be rational. (This is unlike the use of the thermometer, barring the possibility of people with freakish temperature-measuring aptitudes). This means that some people choose to create an informational proxy for (part of) the world, which suits them better than reality un-so-modified. Anything - including people or aspects thereof - not modeled in the proxy does not exist in that part of the modeler's world.
But, obviously, the adoption of guest lists does not represent the crux of mankind's next evolutionary move, so we should consider how all this plays out with more advanced technologies. And the big question, too: When can a whole person exist in the informational realm?
Continued in Part 3.
* I may fail properly to reference Butterfield's ideas here, or I may attribute to him ideas that were not in his essay. I'm remembering the essay only as well as suits my analogy here. If you want to know anything about the philosophy of time, read Seeing the Present (it's really great), and not this post! (Incidentally, if you do follow the link to read that, then I also recommend Robin LePoidevin's introduction at the start of the book.)
** Although I talk of Butterfield's case as if it is conscious activity, I do not undermine the methodology that I'm using by doing so, and I think I help the transparency of my comparison. However, for Butterfield's purposes, the way I talk about his ideas weakens them, so don't take what I say here to be an exposition of any more than a framework he employs in a different way.
† In actual fact, in Butterfield's essay, we're looking at something with at least a rudimentary connection to the basic idea in Wildcat's Queerer Than We Suppose....