Imagine this: there’s a machine that can download your brain onto a computer and save it as a file. All of your hopes, dreams, aspirations, memories, dirty secrets, and kinky fantasies are right there in that file and can be loaded up into a program that would turn the computer into a perfect, if temporary, synthetic replication of “you.”
The computer could then do basic tasks that you find boring with the exact same tastes and preferences as yourself. It could find and order a new rug for the living room, do research for a project at work, do your taxes, calculate savings for your kids’ college fund, all while you sleep or sit on the couch and get fat.
In a sense, it would be “you,” yet it would reside completely outside of your body and conscious awareness.
Now imagine that this same program allows you to alter “you.” You can delete some traumatic memories, tweak your self-esteem a bit, remove a bad habit and install a couple new good ones. Then you can plug the computer back into your head and download the new “you” in a matter of seconds, just like Neo in The Matrix, and now you know kung fu.
But let’s say you get crazy and decide to erase all of your memories and replace them with fake, synthetic memories. Are you still “you?” What if you erase and replace your personality as well? What about then?
Or let’s get really weird. Let’s say you and a friend of yours want to have some fun, so you both upload your brains onto the computer and download each other’s consciousnesses into each other’s heads. So, now “you” are in her body, and “she” is in your body. Now imagine you stay in each other’s bodies for years, to the point where each of your personalities, memories, and perceptions meld into hybrid personalities, part-you, part-friend. Are you really still you? Is your friend still her? Or are you two some weird new entity?
But wait, let’s get even weirder.
Let’s say in this advanced hypothetical future, we’ve colonized Mars. And Galactic Emperor Elon Musk has decreed that his
minions people deserve to have fast and affordable travel to Mars. So Emperor Musk starts a business to invent a teleportation device. He calls this company, “Fuck you, I am Elon Musk and I can do anything.” And within three years its market capitalization is $8 trillion.
And sure enough, Musk creates a teleportation device and we’re all ready to ship ourselves off to Mars much in the same way you probably walked to your mailbox this morning.
The way this teleportation device works is simple: it takes the human body and obliterates it into its trillions of constituent atoms. It then encodes these atoms into data and beams that data at the speed of light to a similar device on Mars. The device on Mars then takes that data and organizes a few trillion atoms back into the exact configuration that was obliterated on Earth, i.e., you, and boom! You’re now on Mars.
Or are you?
See: You were obliterated on Earth. Every single atom broken apart and separated. And the “you” that has been synthesized on Mars—although it possesses the same body, brain, thoughts and memories—is an entirely newly constructed entity.
In a very real sense, the teleportation device functions by brutally murdering you on Earth and then quickly cloning you as you were the moment before you died in another location.
So is that “you” on Mars? Or just a perfect copy of you who is actually someone else?
If You Think It’s Hard to “Find Yourself” Now, Just Wait a Few Decades
These questions may seem crazy and unrealistic, but if you haven’t heard yet, technology is advancing at an exponential rate.1 Many of these technologies will likely be introduced within our lifetimes.
And look, we’re already facing some of these identity issues today, just at a much smaller and more subtle scale.
Uploading our entire personalities to a network may sound insane, but you upload a large percentage of your life to social media, email, and “the cloud.” Is that uploaded data an accurate representation of “you”? Is it part of your identity? If it were all deleted and replaced with other information, would “you” have changed?
As humans, it is in our nature to look for external references to identify ourselves. John is a good drummer. Greg likes anime. Christy is a lawyer.
But these external reference points are largely determined by our material circumstances. You can’t be a good lawyer if there’s no written legal code and judicial system. You can’t be an anime nerd if there’s no television, just like you can’t be a good drummer if no one has invented the drums yet.
These are simple examples. But the point remains: what we come to see as ourselves, our identities—what we’re good at, what we look like, what we believe in, what we value—is largely determined by the technological and economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. If you find yourself on an island with a tribe of people and none of them know how to swim, you will quickly cement your identity as “the swimmer.” Whereas if you join the swim team at school and lose every meet, your identity becomes “the loser.” But when the school swim team gets outsourced to android-like robots in ten years, then your identity will simply be “the human” (who sucks at swimming).
Same activity, but completely different identities—that is, completely different ways of labeling and seeing yourself based on the external circumstances and technology involved.
The fact that you’re reading this right now means that you have seen technology change more in your lifetime than it did in the 100 years before you were born.2 It means that you are reading this on a device that has more information available with a few taps than was accumulated by entire civilizations over thousands of years. It means you’re probably exposed to more new ideas and images in a day than your ancestors were in a lifetime.
Due to the massive free-flow of information in recent decades, our identities are becoming more fluid and more extended because our circumstances change so rapidly. With today’s technology, people don’t just choose how to present themselves to others and how to define themselves—they are able to edit, modify, and accentuate those representations on the fly.
Even in the offline world, plastic surgery and body modification are becoming easier and cheaper than ever. Pharmaceutical drugs and supplements are plentiful, slightly altering the chemistry of our minds to adapt to who we think we should be. With the limitations of the physical world removed, the online realm provides a low-risk environment for us to “try on” new personas and see how they fit us. And as we embody our online avatars, it affects our offline lives as well (and vice versa).
Borders of all kinds continue to dissolve with each advance in modern information technology.3 Our possessions are being dematerialized—music, photos, videos, messages and written words, data and information, even our money is being digitized.4 User-generated content is blurring the line between producers and consumers. Smartphones and constant access to the Internet are quickly dissolving the boundary between being offline and online.5 Our memories are being stored as digital photos, status updates, comments, and “likes” that can all be accessed in seconds.
The distinction between the biological and technological is fading—cochlear implants, artificial joints/limbs, breast implants, pacemakers, robotic limbs that interface with the nervous system, motorized exoskeletons—all of these and many more biology-technology mashups are either relatively commonplace and accepted or they are poised to become so in the not-so-distant future.6 While many of us still see a pretty clear divide between the digital and “real” world, even these mental boundaries are gradually dissolving.7
The Future of Identity
Cavemen couldn’t do shit. It was like, hunt or pick berries, or make babies. There was very little in-between going on. As such, their sense of identity was more or less non-existent. You didn’t ask Zug Zug if he considered himself libertarian or what his favorite style of drumming was. It didn’t exist. Identities were based on the group because everyone relied on the group to survive.
In ancient times, you started to see a division of labor and the growth of cities and small states. Soon, the farmer had a clear and distinct existence from the soldier, who had a distinct existence from the artist or the monk or whoever.
But it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that the idea that people had their own distinct individual soul and mind took root. The idea of rights and equality flourished and the humanistic belief of the “pursuit of happiness” took hold. Much of this is likely attributable to the biggest technological advancement in centuries: the printing press. Cheap and available books allowed people to read and peer into the minds of others, to empathize with their ideas and plights and struggles for the first time. Suddenly, people were not merely defined by their occupation or social ranking, but they were defined by their emotions, ideas, and aspirations as well.8
Then you get to the 20th century and industrialization made producing shit so cheap and easy that people just started buying stuff for the fun of it, not because they needed it. As a result, for much of the 20th century, identity was largely defined by how one consumed, by how one spent their money. Do you buy a house by the lake or a house in the city? Are you a nature guy or do you like fine restaurants? Truck or sedan? Budweiser or Miller? Rolling Stones or Beatles?
Looking back across human history, we see two parallel trends:
- As technology advances, each individual person is given greater flexibility and opportunity to express themselves and improve their lives.
- With access to greater flexibility and opportunity, our identities—or how we choose to define and see ourselves—become looser and more abstract.
Cavemen had to rely 100% on social cohesion to survive. Therefore, their identities resided with the group. People in the ancient world fell into very specific roles within a feudal or caste system and, therefore, their identities were confined to that. In the modern age, people began to identify themselves based on their individual thoughts and feelings, and later, by their purchasing and lifestyle decisions.
Today, we’re seeing even more abstract definitions of one’s identity, with even such fundamental definitions as one’s gender, sexuality, race and physical appearance coming into flux and becoming relative. If I wanted to, tomorrow I could define myself as a Scottish transgender cyclist named Epiphany. And there’s not really anything you could do to stop me.
This is a good thing. But it also makes understanding ourselves and defining who we are a more complicated task than, say, a few generations ago.
And it’s just going to get more complicated. Baby boomers joked about the “mid-life crisis”—a crisis of identity and value of one’s pursuits that hit around one’s 40s or 50s. Recently, there is talk of “quarter-life crises” where, due to the sheer scope of opportunity young people have today, it feels impossible to simply choose and settle on one.
As technology develops more rapidly, it wouldn’t surprise me if people don’t just kind of always find themselves in a sort of identity crisis, because, to put it bluntly, shit is going to get weird.
Here are just three major areas of technological development that could completely scramble who we are and who we see ourselves to be.
1. Genetic Engineering and Nanotechnology
These two technologies could potentially render our body an arbitrary vessel—something you customize and change like parts in a car. Gene therapy will allow us to potentially select and choose our own genes and the genes of our children. Genetic diseases and conditions can be rooted out of the family tree, and less desirable physical characteristics can potentially be replaced with more desirable ones.
Nanotechnology will mean we can start implanting microscopic computers into parts of our body, and in some cases replace our cells with more efficient versions of cells. Want to hold your breath underwater for 15 minutes? Nanobots that replace or aid red blood cells could potentially allow us to do that. We could sprint miles at a time without rest and become impervious to basic sickness and disease.
On top of all of this, there’s no reason to believe that things such as plastic surgery and other modifications to physical appearance won’t become more mainstream and affordable. Already today, more than 18 million procedures are performed each year in the US and that number continues to grow (especially for men).9 Within another decade or two, our physical traits and abilities may become as arbitrary to our identity as what we had for breakfast or what our favorite TV show is.
2. Robotics and AI
In their book Race Against the Machine, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee note that the exponential growth in computer processing power, combined with the exponential decrease in the cost of that processing power, means that it is inevitable that eventually, all but the most creative and intensive service jobs will be successfully outsourced to AI-based machines. Doctors, accountants, bankers, even government bureaucracy will likely be automated through some form of algorithm or smart-learning machine one day.
What will result, then, will be a majority of unemployed population. Most people will have nothing productive to do for the simple reason that their skills are easily outmatched by computers.
Aside from the socioeconomic and political crises this will cause, it will likely cause a worldwide identity crisis as well. Much of our identity is determined by what we feel most valuable doing.10 And if technology makes it so nothing we do is considered of particular social value, then we may end up with millions of people wondering what the point of it all is at the same time.11
3. Virtual Reality
The most popular video games of the past ten years have all been massive role playing games—games where you take on the identity of an anonymous hero and inhabit his/her body, use their skills and make decisions across hundreds (or thousands) of hours of gameplay. These “avatars” give gamers an outlet to “try on” identities they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
With the coming rise of virtual reality, there’s no reason to think that this won’t continue to grow and become more mainstream. In fact, virtual reality may give us an unlimited ability to alter our personalities in a virtual world and test the limits of how we conceptualize ourselves in a safe, consequence-free environment.
Controversial futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes that virtual reality will become so enjoyable and customizable that a large percentage of the population will one day just give up “the real world” entirely. He says this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.12
After all, why deal with the messy ins and outs of feelings and relationships and failure, when you can simply inhabit a virtual world that reconfigures itself to your every desire? What if you could plug yourself into a virtual reality computer program that allows you to literally become a god, that allows you to experience time at a fraction of the pace in the real world, that removes all limits of physical perception and allows you to enact every fantasy or desire you could ever have?
On a scale from 1 to 10, how much would that fuck with your sense of self? How would you even be able to talk to another real human being after that?
The Rise of a Techno-Buddhism
In the future, we will likely reach the point where our physical bodies can be changed and upgraded at will, where our consciousness can be uploaded, modified, downloaded, and exchanged from a cloud network, where machines and artificial intelligence will manage most of the important global tasks giving us an almost unlimited amount of time for leisure, and physical location will become almost inconsequential with the power and sheer amount of global connectivity.
In short, all of those classic identifiers for who “you” are and who “I” am—appearance, location, values, beliefs, experiences—will dissipate and become interchangeable and arbitrary, and the whole concept of a singular individual identity may become a vestige of a long-forgotten past, much in the same way we look back at the concept of a tribe or a kingdom today.
Like eight billion years ago or something, this guy named the Buddha made a big splash by claiming that there really is no such thing as “the self,” that it’s all imagined and arbitrary, and that we’re all making a really big deal over nothing. He said that what we perceive to be “us” is just an attachment to a bunch of temporary objects and experiences that our brain tricks us into thinking actually represent something.
In a weird and crazy way, technology is catching up to prove the reality of this idea. The idea that there is a core self—that is, at some level, a constant “me” and an unchanging “you”—is dissolving right in front of us. Yet the illusion of the self is so strong that we don’t even realize just how easy it is to change “who” we are.
In a sense, all of our identities are virtual identities. You might think that who you are in the physical world is the “real” you, but that’s likely because you are afraid of letting go of who you believe yourself to be. You’ve constructed an identity that you’re comfortable with. It generates a perception of stability and predictability in the world and you rely upon this to wake up in the morning and get some shit done. We all do.
But, in fact, your offline self is no more an accurate depiction of who you are than is your online self—or your work self, or your home self, or your vacation self, or whatever—because all of your identities are entirely and utterly contextual, made of information and nothing more.13
And the more technology allows us to manipulate and mold information, the more we will be able to manipulate and mold ourselves until that very conception of self is no more.
- You can see examples of specific technologies advancing exponentially and look at pretty diagrams courtesy of the University of Oxford here.↵
- And if you haven’t been keeping up with the changes, you can check out this 2018 UN report that summarizes the leading technological innovations of recent years, some of which I’ll be talking about later in this article.↵
- Sheth, J. N., & Solomon, M. R. (2014). Extending the Extended Self in a Digital World. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 22(2), 123–132.↵
- Will cash become extinct? | Bankrate.com↵
- This study, for example, investigated the blurring of real and virtual boundaries back in 2009 when smartphones were a fast-emerging technology.↵
- For recent technological advances in prosthesis, see: Bates, T. J., Fergason, J. R., & Pierrie, S. N. (2020). Technological Advances in Prosthesis Design and Rehabilitation Following Upper Extremity Limb Loss. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, 13(4), 485–493.↵
- Part of this may be an age/generation difference, as younger people who have lived most of their lives in the digital age identify more with their digital possessions than older people.↵
- The printing press is, of course, far from the only technological advance that has shaped human thinking over the centuries. I’ve chronicled the key advances in communication technology that have profoundly shaped how we see the world in this article about why you should quit the news. Check it out.↵
- Data taken from a 2019 report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.↵
- Christiansen, C. H. (1999). Defining lives: Occupation as identity: An essay on competence, coherence, and the creation of meaning. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 53(6), 547–558.↵
- One could argue that this is already happening on a much smaller and more subtle scale. We’re seeing a resurgence of uneducated right wing movements in most of the developed world. This is because their jobs have been, by and large, either automated or outsourced, leaving a disproportionate number unemployed with no real clear path for advancement.↵
- Kurzweil, R. (2006). The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Books.↵
- Hongladarom, S. (2011). Personal identity and the self in the online and offline world. Minds and Machines, 21(4), 533–548.↵