In 1936, Walter Benjamin introduced the concept of the ‘aura’, a feature that distinguishes an original work of art from its reproductions. It is described as the specific location of the work in space and time, placing it in a unique context and history that no copy can ever exactly reproduce. I’d argue that the same can be applied to human life. Although you might be able to build a copy of a human, the two versions can never be in the same space and will immediately diverge further over time if they are not kept static.
Recently, Boris Groys alluded to the ‘aura’ in the context of life-as-art, or art documentation. He argues that by placing the documentation in an installation it gains a site, becoming an historical event with a time and place, thus creating an ‘original’. He notes that being an original and being alive are the same thing, seeing as “Life is […] the inscription of a certain being into a life context”. I’d like to connect that statement to the idea of uploading your brain into the cloud and thus becoming ‘immortal’, a singularity dream described by Jaron Lanier in 2013. Another dream is to remain physical, but in an ubiquitous computing environment where we are so well modeled that all our wants and needs are known.
This second idea is almost no science fiction anymore. IBM’s Watson can predict your personality based on how you write. Dating site OKCupid can tell how likely you are to have sex on a first date based on what your favorite drink is. Facebook can estimate your intelligence – and much more – based on the pages you like.
The question is now what is more ‘you’: a virtual reproduction of your brain (connectome included), or an advanced behavioral and contextual model, implemented in a virtual agent? Arguably, the model is more documentation than clone – and thus has the same potential for life as you do.
Benjamin, W. (2008) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Penguin UK.
Golbeck, J. (2013) The curly fries conundrum: why social media “likes” say more than you might think. TEDxMidAtlantic.
Groys, B. (2002) Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation, in: Art Power, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 53-66.
IBM (2014) User Modeling. IBM Watson Developer Cloud.
Kosinski, M., Stillwell, D., & Graepel, T. (2013) Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(15), 5802-5805.
Lanier, J. (2013) First Round, in: Who Owns the Future, New York: Simon & Schuster 2013, pp. 3-21 and 191-210.
Rudder, C. (2014) Dataclysm: Who We are (when We Think No One’s Looking). Random House LLC.