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Friday, November 16 , 2018, 11:51 pm | Fair 50º


Tam Hunt: Facebook and the Nature of Consciousness

We Facebookers are all born again. All 1.7 billion of us. No, not in a Christian way; in a virtual way. It occurred to me recently (I’m slow sometimes) that the process of development of our online personas is very similar to the process of individual development in the “real world.” So we are born again in terms of developing into a personality both biologically and virtually.

When we develop into a human being with emotions, language and personality, which takes place during our time as babies and toddlers, we start with just a simple perspective. All of our sensory information — sight, smell, etc. — meets in roughly the same place somewhere in the brain (or so it seems). This information is integrated into a unified experience in each moment. This process is what we call consciousness.

We’re not a blank slate, however, even as a newborn, we now know. We’re born with almost 4 billion years of biological heritage because our genes contain almost 4 billion years of history, in a literally unbroken chain of birth and death since the very first life on our planet developed. We have come a long way from those first moments of life as single cell creatures!

Despite our vast biological heritage, we still take quite awhile as newborns, when compared to similar beings like other primates and mammals, to get our act together and learn how to survive and mate. We now take a couple of decades to learn how to be an adult human being (and some even longer), far longer than any of our cousins in the animal kingdom.

But once we reach age 1 or 2, we start rolling pretty fast in the personality creation business that we call “growing up.” This process, starting with the sheer fact of having a perspective, a center where our sensory data converges into a single unified experience, relatively quickly gathers memories, feelings, judgments and desires around it, and all of these items become our “personality,” our self.

That experience of wetting my self and waking up really uncomfortable and crying for my mum, around age 2, is the first memory I have of my “self.” Surely I was aware and experiencing things before then, but the first event to make it into my long-term memory store was this unfortunate night wearing my favorite orange and white stripey pajamas. I have confirmed this with my mom, so I’m not just making this up.

Over time, all prominent memories, good, bad and indifferent, become part of our self’s memory store. Ditto for our favorite things whether they be bands, movies, favorite color, tastiest foods or dating preferences. And ditto for the values and goals that we set for ourselves and that which define the forward trajectory of our lives.

The self is very much like a snowball careening down a mountain: It accumulates more snow and gets bigger and bigger as it rolls. Eventually, sometime in our second, third or fourth decade, we finally feel like an adult and consider our process of creating a full-fledged personality to be completed. But hopefully most of us view this process as never really over, because once we stop growing we may as well be dead.

Creating an online profile/personality is similar to this process of biological development, whether we’re talking about Facebook or other social media. I’m focused on Facebook here because it’s the main network that I use, and it is by far the biggest worldwide.

Our Facebook profiles start with our name, perhaps a picture or two and just a few relationships (“friends”). Again, this is very similar to being given a name as a newborn, being pretty limited in what we can do as a baby, and having only a couple or a few relationships to our parents, siblings and other family members.

And then over time, our Facebook profiles accumulate experiences (pictures, wall posts, conversation histories, stated preferences, likes and now other emotional expressions) and a personality quickly emerges from the mass of electronic data we allow to collect on our profiles.

What starts as a little kernel of self, a projection of biological-based ego into the virtual world, quickly becomes a full-fledged online personality. And nowadays our online selves often have far more relationships than our biological selves, though of course the quality of those online relationships can vary remarkably.

Since I’m a writer, I’m not very discriminating in who I allow to be my friend or acquaintance (a lower level of access is granted for Facebook “acquaintances”) because I like to be heard when I do write, and I do post many of my writings on my own wall.

The end result of this online personality creation process can be viewed as an extension of our biological self or in some ways it can be viewed as a separate self, a projection of biological ego into something new.

I was beaten to the punch on some of what I’m writing about by that deep well of philosophical inquiry known as South Park. An episode that first aired in 2010 featured Stan’s Facebook profile coming to life in the real world (as real as the South Park cartoon world can be) and careening out of control as its massive ego seeks more and more gratification.

There are, of course, many differences between the real world self and our virtual selves. One major difference is that online selves can be manicured and modified to the point that they’re not very accurate depictions of who we really are. Facebook certainly appeals to our desire to present our best side, whether it be our best angle and lighting in pictures or only our more positive personality traits in comments, etc. We can block friend requests, unfriend those who have displeased us, prevent others from posting on our walls and prevent ourselves from being tagged in pictures that aren’t flattering, etc.

This creates a real risk: We can, if we’re too virtually oriented, lose sight of the social checks that help smooth out our rough points in real life. We can narrowly tailor who we choose to interact with online, or how we present to others, and this risks losing touch with those who are different than us, those who disagree with us and those who might help us grow and learn, as well as presenting what ultimately can be an inaccurate picture to others of who we really are.

But if you want to live forever, another key difference between the Facebook self and the real self is that there is a better chance of immortality — albeit a very low-grade type of immortality — with one’s Facebook self. All online data today will probably be perpetually archived and available in some manner to our future selves or to historians. So if you really want history to know about you, keep on posting what you had for dinner last night.

A very compelling and creepy episode of the British TV show (on Netflix) Black Mirror shows a possible future in which a new company reanimates lost loved ones by using social media information and other information about the person to create a chatbot that reliably emulates the deceased. And then later they offer a kind of life-like robot to actually embody and in a way become the deceased, to reincarnate that person in a somewhat convincing way.

This is science fiction but who knows, maybe in a few decades that kind of thing will just be science. In fact, one company, Eter9, is already offering a version of the chatbot type of reincarnation, seeking to appeal to who want to achieve this rather thin version of immortality by allowing their personal chatbot to keep posting as them even if they die.

Looking ahead, it seems most likely that our virtual presence will only grow in importance and become another layer in the onion that is our self. This is also a difference, of course, between our biological selves and our virtual selves: Without our biological selves to animate our virtual selves over time, the virtual self is just a static snapshot in time of what we wish to present to the world. It’s no great revelation that the biological self is a precursor to our virtual self. The biological self is the hand that moves the virtual self glove puppet.

For better or for worse, navigating the online personality world is going to become an increasingly important part of what it is be a modern human being. We are being born again indeed.

— Tam Hunt is a writer and a lawyer based in Santa Barbara and Hilo, Hawaii.

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