clifford_pickover's picture
Author, The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book trilogy

With increasing frequency, people around the globe seek advice and social support from other individuals connected via the Internet. Our minds arise not only from our own brains but from Internet prosthetic brains (IPBs) — those clusters of people with whom we share information and advice through electronic networks. The simple notion of you and me is changing. For example, I rely on others to help me reason beyond the limits of my own intuition and abilities. Many of my decisions in life are shaped by my IPBs around the globe, and these decisions range from advice on software, computer problems, health issues, and emotional concerns. Thus, when asked to make a decision, who is the me who is actually making that decision?

The IPBs generated by social network connectivity can be more important than the communities dependent on geographic locality. Through the IPBs, we exchange parts of minds with one another. By the information we post on the Web and the interactions we have, we become IPBs for others. In some ways, when we die physically, a part of us survives as an IPB in the memories and thoughts of others, but also as trails we leave on the Internet. Individuals who participate in social groups, blogs, and Twitter, and who deposit their writings on the Web leave behind particles of themselves. Before the Internet, most of us rarely left marks on the world, except on our immediate family or a few friends. Before the Internet, even your immediate family knew nothing of you within four generations. In the "old days," your great-grandchildren might have carried some vestigial memory of you, but that faded like a burning ember when they died — and you would have often been extinguished and forgotten. I know nothing about my great grandparents.

However, in the Internet Age, the "complete extinguishing" never really happens, especially for prominent or prolific users. For example, the number of Internet searchers for something you wrote may asymptotically approach zero over the decades, but it will never quite reach zero. Given the ubiquity of the Internet, its databases, and search engines, someone a hundred years from now may smile on something you wrote or wonder about who you were. You may become part of this future person's own IPB as he navigates through life. In the future, simulacrums of you, derived in part by your Internet activities, will be able to converse with future generations.

Moreover, studies show that individuals within your social network have a profound influence on your personal health and happiness, for example, through your contacts on the Internet (whom you usually know) and their friends (whom you may not know). Habits and ideas spread through a vast Web of interconnectivity, like a virus. Behaviors can sometimes skip links — spreading to a friend of a friend without affecting the person who connects them. In summary, in the age of the Internet, the concept of you and personhood is more diffuse than ever before.

Because your interests, decision-making capabilities, habits, and even health are so intertwined with others, your personhood is better defined as a pseudo-personhood that is composed of yourself and the assembly of your IPBs out to at least three degrees of network separation. When we die, the Web of interconnectivity becomes torn, but one's pseudo-personhood, in some sense, continues to spread, like a soliton wave on a shoreless sea of Internet connections.

When Marc Chagall was asked to explain why he became a painter, he said that a painting was like a window through which he "could have taken flight toward another world." Chagall explored the boundaries between the real and unreal. "Our whole inner world is reality," he once wrote, "perhaps more real still than the apparent world."

As the notion of IPBs and soliton personhood expands, this kind of boundary will become even more blurred. The IPBs become of Chagallian importance and encourage the use of new windows on the world. They foster a different kind of immortality, form of being, and flight.