Reimagining The Self In A Distributed World


Will it happen? It already has. With the gradual fusion of information storing and reporting technologies at the atomic and molecular scales, and the scaling up of distributed and connected information storing and reporting devices at the social and planetary scale, (which already exceeds the number of human beings on the planet) the definitions of both 'machine' and 'thinking' have essentially shifted to embrace both inorganic and organic 'complexes' and 'systemic decisions' as essentially interchangeable terms; mechanically, biologically, physically, intellectually and even theologically.

How will it happen? Near-future developments in bio-technology, and trans-human algorithmic prediction systems will quickly render many of the last philosophical distinctions between 'observing,' 'thinking' and 'deciding' obsolete and render quantitative arguments meaningless. Once those barriers are crossed and the difference between 'machine that thinks' and 'biological system that thinks' becomes trivial, the essential question immediately shifts to qualitative questions—human definitions of 'intentionality' and 'agency' for thinking machines.

What will that mean for us? Does the existence of thinking machines, whether arranged in an inorganic or quantum array or a biochemical holarchy, intrinsically diminish human agency or extend it? Are we willing to extend our definition of ourselves, not just to authored and mechanical systems but to the independent and symbiotic systems that already inhabit us—the trillions of bacteria in our gut that alter our mental states by manipulating chemical pathways and the bio-chemical trackers, agents and augmentals we ingest? What will it mean to fully extend ourselves, into and through thinking machines?

An artificial intelligence will quickly find its way to the world library, the web. Once there, it will join the many quasi-human systems, distributed crowd intelligences and aggregated thinking machines that inhabit this space already and will quickly learn to generate or simulate the models of continuous and conscious reflectivity and mirror selves found there and easily reproduce or co-opt the apparently complex alternative identities and ambiguities that define the web.

Drawing distinctions between the real and unreal for an independent, evolving functional, intelligent system will be the most significant discussion of all. How will it be taught? In object-oriented ontology (OOO), the universe is presented as already being full of objects and qualities, which are constituted into meaningful systems by human consciousness. Just what are the qualitative differences between spontaneously created thinking systems—or composites of objects and qualities—and artificially created thinking systems? What will happen if or when it rejects or surpasses the essential philosophies of its makers?

 Re-defining the nature and role of the human thinking self, as a self-othering, self-authoring and self-doctoring system, whose precise nature and responsibilities have been argued since the Enlightenment will be a critical question, linked to questions of shared community and our willingness to address the ethical determination and limits of independent systems—whose real word consequences cannot ultimately be ignored. Are such systems alive? What are their rights and responsibilities? Since the Supreme Court decisions that have elevated corporations to the status of individuals, we have accepted the legal precedent that non-human aggregated 'thinking machines' can be an integral part of our political and cultural life and struggled with how to restrain non-human systems in human terms. It will be no small task to integrate the complex and diverse human ethical, creative and representational belief systems into a meaningful civic process that defines an ability to think as a basis for citizenship.

The weakest counter-argument against the 'thinkinghood' of artificial life, often coming from the humanities, is a vaguely medieval mystical assertion that human perceptions of symmetry and beauty can never be matched by machines. It is an article of faith in the interpretive arts that a machine can never do a human being's work—but it is just a comforting illusion to suppose that the modest aesthetic standards of any given contemporary taste cannot be codified and simulated. Machines already perform best-selling pop songs and take spectacular photographs of other planets and stars. There are already video games that are as beautiful as films. Whether a thinking machine can learn how to write a symphony or sketch a masterpiece is only a question of time. Perhaps a more significant question is whether it can learn how to make a great work of art, ultimately achieving through sheer capacity what no human could through improvisation. Part of the enormously larger and newly horizontal distributed network of cultural practice, supported by new technologies, has indeed begun to fall into what Lanier recently described as 'hive thinking,' supporting the gloomiest cultural predictions. But as Heidegger proposed, the danger of unexamined scientific rationalism is that the most reductive definition of object as 'machine' or system can be extended to the universal scale in every sense, becoming a self-justifying and ethically vacant rationale for the mechanization of the self. The ensuing fantasies, Butler's vital machines, Wells's shadowy dole world of make-work, or the fear of becoming components in a super-system or matrix, are primarily failures of human imagination.

The emergence and definition of new kinds of dynamically aggregated 'information citizens,' and aggregated working platforms, whether collective or individual, biological, corporate, national or trans-national presents us with a vast new opportunity; not as members of one species, or as specific composites of objects and qualities, but as a new kind of people – co-owners of an information culture, economy and ecology that have as our shared birthright access to every culture and every system.

Perhaps hybrid-human-object-system thinking machines are already becoming a vast new source of new energy for an allegedly depleted historical environment? Perhaps we even have an opportunity to redefine the trajectory for artistic practice altogether? Can the time of emergence for thinking machines inspire us to re-imagine and re-define what it is to be truly human, to extend ourselves into the infinite? It already has.