Extended Consciousness in the World of Tomorrow

Are we still human when our minds are cloned so many times over, fragmented into downloaded files, and uploaded consciousness?

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Words and Illustration by Alex Hanson

When we die, what happens to our memories? Where do our personalities and experiences go? Don Hertzfeldt (you might recognize his out-of-this-world Simpsons couch gag or his short “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”) explores one futuristic, somewhat dystopian possibility in his short film “World of Tomorrow” (which is on Netflix and I HIGHLY recommend watching). “World of Tomorrow,” which is nominated for an Oscar and has already received awards from Sundance and South by Southwest, is a two dimensional animated short about Emily Prime, a young girl, and her adult third generation clone (let’s call her Emily Three). Emily Three brings Emily Prime to the future to share her personal experiences in a dystopian world where no new humans are born. Instead, every living person is a clone of someone who lived many years ago, injected with the memories of their prime and all the clones in line before them. Emily Three struggles with her low emotional capacity in a world where consciousness and body no longer develop together. Instead, consciousness is transferred between clones, or can be downloaded from a person once they die. For some elderly, their consciousness is transferred into a bodiless box, where they exist alone in darkness for an undetermined number of years.

Emily Prime, who is young enough to be overwhelmingly amused by bright colors and new places, giggles through this world that Emily Three presents to her, while viewers both laugh at the silliness of this strange world and are horrified by the lack of human connection in Emily Three’s life. However, “World of Tomorrow” is not a warning against a Skynet-like system taking over, and it is not saying we will soon become like the people of Wall-E losing their ability to interact. Rather, it seems to ask the question of what happens to our consciousness when we spread it too thin: Are we still human, in the sense being emotional, dynamic, learning creatures, when our minds are cloned so many times over, fragmented into downloaded files, and uploaded consciousness?

Yes and no.

Alva Noë, in his 2009 book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, presents an idea of extended consciousness that could support the humanity of Emily Three and her contemporaries. Noë argues that consciousness isn’t limited to the happenings within the brain: everything outside of our heads that we use as a tool of cognition is a part of our extended mind. In this argument, the street signs of New York City are a part of your consciousness when you use them to remember directions, and a walking cane is a part of one’s cognition if it aids them in seeing. In both of these instances, the human consciousness exists both within and outside of the organ within the skull. In Emily Three’s world, the clones are extended beings that take the mind of their prime (the human they are cloned from) and allow it to experience the world beyond the death of the prime’s body.

But is it still an extended consciousness when the root of it, the prime, has died? Many of the people in Emily Three’s world experience emotional and mental deterioration, in which their ability to host and process emotions and relationships is very poor. They have all the uploaded memories of the clones in their line before them, as well as the diluted experiences they are currently having, but is that extended consciousness or a fading, fragmented consciousness? Can humanity exist in that form?

Earlier I briefly defined humans as emotional, dynamic, learning creatures. Most of the people in Emily Three’s world, I would say, do not follow that definition. By beginning their lives as the extended consciousness of someone who lived long before them, they are not given the opportunity to develop their own consciousness to connect to their world with. They are not emotionally complex (random word output from robots’ signals on the moon are considered poetry), and they are not dynamic or learning creatures because they are so fragmented and focused on preserving minds of the past that they cannot develop. In their case, extended consciousness has spread the mind too thin: these people are so extended, so detached from an original mind, that they lose their humanity.

And yet, Emily Three manages to hold on to her humanity by connecting with Emily Prime, who is a truly human child. Emily Three, who always had the memory of being in Emily Prime’s shoes, visiting the future, has a unique appreciation for humanity and emotions. While she is a third generation reincarnation, she holds on to Emily Prime’s creativity: she makes an art gallery of downloaded memories, falls in love (even if with mindless beings), and when her lover dies she is proud of her ability to feel sadness. Whether this emotional element to Emily Three is indicative of a unique consciousness, and thus a very human personality, or just her acting out the memory she has downloaded from Emily Prime, it does show that even in a world of technology so advanced that it overshadows original thought processes, human emotions can still thrive.

“World of Tomorrow” asks questions. It isn’t preaching against the use of technology, or saying that we are all doomed to become mindless beings due to the Internet. What it is saying is that humanity is special, and while preserving our ideas and connecting with our world through virtual extended consciousness may make us feel immortal, it is far more important to hold on to the emotional connections that we have with each other— that’s what makes us human.

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