Autonomy of Consciousness

There is a concept about body autonomy: No one can take our organs – we choose what to do with our remains. But do we have autonomy of the self or consciousness?

Ray Kurzweil famously wants to resurrect his father in some future digital consciousness. Kurzweil has gathered everything he can in hopes that future technology will allow some kind of recreation – some kind of electronic consciousness based on saved data. Kurzweil is using his father’s writings and whatever he has in order to hopefully recreate his father. Kurzweil’s father died before social media. Social media, might contain much more information about a person.

Social media has become a juggernaut of information. Amazon and Facebook are trying to track habits and develop metrics to understand each individual consumer. It isn’t too far fetched to conceive that some kind of personality profiling is occurring. It isn’t too far fetched to conceive that some kind of consciousness might be constructed from these social media profiles.

Social media might change or cease to exist as we currently understand it. The model of social media changed from web 1.0 and from myspace to Facebook. The model now seems to be purely about collecting data that can be sold.

It might be pure science fiction speculation, but imagine a future where consciousnesses could be uploaded into computers. These consciousnesses might essentially create immortal human beings.

Now imagine that this technology is created a century from now. 21st century social media created many profiles of its users but in the 22nd century, those people have passed. Early 21st century social media users are dead but what if their profiles were used to create consciousnesses in this hypothetical 22nd century. These old social media profiles would be less sophisticated because they would be incomplete with 22nd century technology.

So the question would be, how much autonomy would these one-hundred year old consciousness have? They might be flawed and not fully functional. So they might be considered less human or less deserving of rights. They might not be treated like the physical bodies of corpses, as in they would not have the choice to be “organ donors.” They might be considered “meat,” consciousness meat. Terabytes of conscious ghostly meat.

These old consciousness might be used in ways that, when alive, they would not appreciate.

Imagine a celebrity on Facebook in 2017. Now imagine what someone might do with that celebrity’s consciousness in 2117.

This question of autonomy of self is also present in current film making. The recent movie, Rogue One, had several deceased actors reprising their roles. It is not too far fetched to assume that this technology could be used in ways that the deceased would not affirm. As digital rendering improves, an eighteen year old Carrie Fisher could sell candy bars from the grave. Soon anyone from history could have words put in their mouth. Anyone and everyone’s knowledge of self and self awareness could be challenged, changed, and manipulated.


Computer generated Carrie Fisher

Obviously there are political implications to this as well. Stalin famously erased people from photos. Future autocrats would be able to make those erased people speak for them instead. People mostly see politicians online or on TV. Future regimes could kill political opponents then use their image to endorse their agendas.

This question is sliding around the idea of autonomy of self and authority of consciousness but these have been questioned. Richard Prince takes an artists’ work and makes it his own via the concept of appropriation. What does that say about autonomy of self, autonomy of intellect, and autonomy of one’s labors? The post post post modern (or whatever we are calling this (maybe Post Truth era due to Trump)) might be a sort of buffet table wherein anyone has access to anything and nothing is sacred nor should it be. However, it seems reasonable in theory but then it stands to reason that people should be compensated for their labor. If Prince sells an instagram image of another artist, then that artist should be compensated or Prince should be sued.


Whether or not we have any autonomy of consciousness is seen on the internet as well. Pirating is a world view. Everything belongs to everyone. If you can torrent it, you can own it. Music, literature, movies, pictures, everything is for the taking. The internet is a contemporary Library of Alexandria but with doors wide open.

Autonomy is also lacking with surveillance. There is no privacy in the UK. CCTV is everywhere. So a person is never alone. Our laptop cameras might be turned on right now.

This is really all a question of what is a self and what rights does it have. If we conceive that bodies have rights, then consciousness should likewise have rights.

The wrench in the works might appear after reading Thomas McEvilley’s essay, “I Am,” is a Vain Thought. McEvilley suggests that the conception of a self stems from a western idea of the soul. The soul being eternal and divinely gifted suggests that consciousness is unique or special. Conversely, McEvilley discussed the Japanese concept of “not-self or soullessness.”

McEvilley goes on further to discuss how science might discuss the idea of self:

Modern biology also shifts the concept of selfhood from the category of substance to that of process. If a neuron alters in the brain every time we experience anything, then the self is a constantly changing thing like John Locke’s sock (which acquired one patch after another till no fiber of it was the same; Did it become another sock? When?).

If there is a self then should it have some autonomy? Or is the concept of self leftover theism and we should embrace our future ghostly avatars’ tomorrows? It just be the post human future we cannot avoid.



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