Data Made Flesh

CloudCitypic1The dichotomy of mind vs. body is still omnipresent, but in practice the boundaries are muddled. Still, the idea persists that for instance mental disorders are somehow ‘less real’ than physical disorders, even though we are quite well aware that the brain is an organ that is nothing if not physically present. ‘It’s probably between the ears’ sounds like your healthcare provider is not taking you seriously, even though the stuff that actually resides between your ears is generally understood to be quite important.

So I’d like to talk about data, and specifically how data is represented. First of all, what is data? My mind’s eye sees a stream of numbers, but is just a direct association. Data can be described as information, as a pattern – but a pattern of what? You can build a computer by laying stones in patterns in a dessert. You’ll need a lot of time, a lot of stones, and a lot of dessert, but in principle you could build a simulation of the whole universe and it wouldn’t be any less real than the same pattern encoded in silicone or brain-matter (or, arguably, in universe). So can information exist apart from a medium? What is ‘pure’ data, data without physical grounding, data – as it were – without a body?

A pattern must always be instantiated in a medium, otherwise there is nothing to be a pattern of. It is interesting to look at the mind and the body in this way – especially considering the research I spoke about last week. If inhabiting a different body can change the self, this suggests a more fluid concept of mind and body – one where the mind is the body and the body is the mind. There is a difference between possessing a body and BEING a body – the latter implying that who you are (information) is influenced by what it is embodied by (medium), as well as the other way around.

We can look at identity as an informational pattern. A certain body affords certain patterns, the medium dictates how the information is instantiated. Yet a lot of the time, the physical body is seen as a dead weight, ballast on the ‘pure’ mind. What self-respecting post-humanist doesn’t dream of uploading their mind to the cloud, of existing as ‘pure’ data (actually, of course, embodied by silicone). William Gibson, writing about a society where this is possible, describes this wish perfectly:
“That she threw away that poor sad body with a cry of release, free of the bonds of polycarbon and hated flesh. Well, maybe, after all, she did. Maybe it was that way. I’m sure that’s the way she expected it to be.” (Gibson, 1985)

And when we cannot completely get rid of the body, perhaps we could substitute it? Forget about the bag of skin and bones sitting behind the computer, let’s live our life through virtual avatars or social media profiles. This way, we extend our body into virtual space, we differentiate, become multiple bodies and store our mind and data in all of them – a cyborg with a plethora of heads and realities.

Hayles, N. K. (2008). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press.

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