The following is a commentary that will be published alongside a digital clone that will be on display during the exhibition, ‘You and Robot—What Is Human?’ that will take place at the Japanese National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, 18 March to 31 August 2022. It was invited by a former PhD student of mine, Maiko Mori Watanabe, who works with the digital clone’s designer Goshi Yonekura and his company ‘Alt’ (https://alt.ai/en). More details about the exhibition itself (in Japanese) can be found here: https://www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/exhibitions/spexhibition/kimirobo.html… [please read below the rest of the article].
Fuller, Steve. 2022. “Digital Clones as the Epitome of Life as a Work of Art.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (3): 36-37. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6BW.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
The path to digital clones is being paved, and biological humans are already along various stages of a journey that begins with the idea of ‘digital legacy’.
‘Digital legacy’ means, in the first instance, a kind of self-crafting that spontaneously occurs among people who spend much of their lives online. It involves the archiving of text, audio and video data for public inspection and reaction. Social media platforms such as Facebook are set up to promote this activity, which in turn makes those platforms attractive to companies for marketing purposes. Once someone who has spent their life this way dies, the loved ones of the deceased may maintain their data archive as a kind of online memorial.
However, more recently, the activity of self-archiving has become a more explicit way of ‘being unto death’, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger would put it. In other words, people who spend their lives online do so, at least in part, in order to leave a legacy. They are trying to attract followers not only in the present but also in the future, after they are no longer in front of the computer screen.
In this context, a ‘digital afterlife’ industry has arisen, which aims to enhance one’s digital legacy by providing algorithms that can synthesize the various archived data into a ‘digital avatar’. The digital avatar may possess not only strong interactive capabilities with online users but also be able to learn from those interactions, so that over time it might acquire new traits and that no longer correspond to expectations about the originating human’s behavior.
Here it is useful to think of the digital avatar as a being who starts as a clone of the biological human but then over time develops its own digitally based experiences so that it effectively becomes a different being. Debra Bassett has described the existential condition of this new being as ‘Digital Dasein’, also drawing on Heidegger. Bassett interviewed people who are involved in various aspects of this process. She discovered that those facing death were more enthusiastic about the prospects of such a digital clone than their loved ones, who would subsequently have to interact with it. In effect, the loved ones would prefer a digitally preserved version of the biological human they knew over a clone capable of its own evolution.
This last point raises deep questions that resemble those that have often been raised about the relationship between artists and their art. But here we need to understand ‘artist’ as meaning a member of Homo sapiens and ‘art’ as something that, in some sense, has a life independent of such an artist. I say this because before the mid-eighteenth century, when the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus defined the ‘human’ as Homo sapiens, there was much more conceptual space for who or what could count as both ‘artist’ and ‘art’. It may be that the digitally based activity discussed here returns us to a pre-Linnaean mode of thinking about the relationship between artist and art.
Consider people who spend their lives absorbed in a technical skill—say, someone who designs purpose-made instruments for scientific experiments or costumes and stage settings in the performing arts. We might also think of someone who significantly merges (‘cyborganizes’) with their instruments, such as a painter or a musician—or, in a slightly more detached way, a composer, writer or mathematician, for whom the notes, words or numbers that they arrange on a page enable them to enter a world that transcends the world that their body normally inhabits.
Down through the ages, such people have often been regarded as ‘anti-social’ and sometimes have even presented themselves that way. The obvious reason is that for long periods they are removed from ordinary human interaction, which they often regard as a ‘distraction’ from their work. Yet, at the same time, such people do not normally see themselves as selfish or self-serving. On the contrary, they typically claim to be interacting with fellow humans in a more profound way—certainly more profound than were they active in everyday life.
The energies that people increasingly invest in preparing their own digital legacies suggests that much of the same thing is going on: that is, a certain take on the idea of ‘life as a work of art’. To say that such people are trying to present their ‘best side’ for posterity somewhat short-changes the metaphysics of the situation. The amount of time and effort involved in archiving and curating one’s various streams of digital data suggests that the activity is better understood as treating the experiences of the lived body as an incubator, platform or perhaps even palette for launching one’s true self, who will exist indefinitely in cyberspace—fully aware of the vicissitudes that entails. This is akin to people who claim to live ‘through’ or ‘for the sake of’ their art.
It is worth recalling that artists—and scientists—have often placed their own bodies and their social relationships under enormous strain (sometimes to the point of self-destruction) in a risky attempt to achieve who they think they are in their art. To be sure, many complex issues need to be resolved, not least what it means to be ‘human’ in our times. But the bottom line is that if we can live in a world containing artists, we should be able to live in a world where people spend increasing time and effort designing their digital legacies—digital clones.
Bassett, Debra J. 2022. The Creation and Inheritance of Digital Afterlives: You Only Live Twice. London: Palgrave.
Fuller, Steve. 2019. Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era. Basel SZ: Schwabe.