Wertheim pointed out that cyberspace had become a new kind of place, where alternate (or at least carefully curated or burnished) identities could be forged, new forms of collectivity and connection explored, all outside the familiar boundaries of the physical world, like the body and geography. It’s not such a long journey to follow those assertions to the “view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body but by an information code,” as Wertheim wrote. “This is the belief that our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” She called this idea the “cybersoul,” a “posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die.”
…Wertheim, it should be noted, saw the cybersoul notion as both flawed and troubling, and I would agree. Life’s essence reduced to captured data is an uninspiring, and unconvincing, resolution to the centuries-old question of where, in mind and in body, the self resides. At least other imagined versions of immortality (from the Christian heaven to the Hindu wheel of life) suggested a reconciliation, or at least a connection, with the manner in which a physical life is lived; the cybersoul’s theoretically eternal and perfect persistence ignores this concept. Most of all, though, fantasizing about living forever — in heaven or in a preserved pattern of data — strikes me as just another way of avoiding any honest confrontation with the fact of death.
Well, that depends. I certainly agree that fantasies of eternal life are just that, but at the same time, we can see for ourselves how words spoken and written centuries ago still permeate and deeply affect our lives and thoughts today. Where do some of my favorite authors end and I begin? Not that most of what’s being published on Blogspot or WordPress will still be profoundly moving people decades from now, but still, an author can take a little comfort from imagining their words forging connections that outlast the deaths of any of the particular individuals so affected, and sparking activity after long periods of lying dormant.
The “self”, as many thinkers and neurologists can tell you, is an elaborate, ongoing fiction. It resides in a multiplicity of perspectives and nowhere fixed in particular. Like I said, the thoughts and words in my head are no more “mine” than the atoms in my body or the sustenance I take in, yet they all come together in a unique combination for a brief point in time. And for someone like me who largely identifies “who I am” with “what I think”, I strongly disagree that it’s somehow “uninspiring” to consider such patterns of data as equally integral to one’s sense of identity as the humdrum details of daily life. Why is the self who types these words any less valid than the one who just washed clothes and is getting ready to walk the dogs? The self that we present to others online isn’t a complete picture, but then again, where do we ever find one?