Like many millennials, I feel a societal expectation that I’m bound to eagerly accept just about any groundbreaking thing remotely resembling a new technological convenience: apps to help me focus, trackers to help me get more fit, an Amazon Alexa blinking in my living room, recording my every word. However, technologists like Ray Kurzweil are encouraging millennials to absorb an even more extreme idea: that in our lifetimes, the ultimate inconvenience to be conquered by technology is physical existence itself.
I am told that, like the multi-volume encyclopedia that once took up two rows of shelf space in my childhood living room, this vehicle of decay currently known as my “human body” is likely to one day become a distant memory.
The topic of digital immortality is talked about by starry-eyed tech wizards and dreamy billionaires who describe a future utopia where humans will live forever as computerized consciousness. They imagine a glorious new phase of humanity where we cease to require physical bodies. These cumbersome meat sacks we’re so foolishly fond of will be identified as nothing but hindrances to collective self-actualization.
I don’t believe them.
I believe that the idea of a digitized consciousness ensures a new kind of death entirely. But this esoteric component is only the beginning of the horror. Digital immortality will be available only to the ultra-privileged and will create a powder keg of class tension that will lead to deeper political, societal and economic rifts than any humanity has witnessed. Over generations, I also argue that digital immortality would degrade the immortals’ views on the sanctity of mortal life, causing a devastating deterioration in already-severe class divides.
But for all the problems digital immortality would cause, it all starts with the creation of the ultimate, and most fundamental, inequality. Economic terms will almost certainly dictate who can and can’t afford to digitize themselves, creating a superclass of digitized immortals that is sure to almost exclusively include tech billionaires, bankers, oligarchs, and wealthy politicians. And that’s a problem.
Aside from that, a digitized consciousness is the equivalent to raising a huge middle finger to creation itself. It’s an assault on the processes that make life, love, and beauty possible. It declares the human soul itself a barrier that, if we are to progress, must be rendered obsolete.
The cycles of birth and death are an undeniably critical aspect of continuing life on earth for all species. They maintain balance and create opportunities for new life that couldn’t exist without old lives being lost. Death is a necessary companion to life; one cannot exist without the other. It is is The Ultimate Process, the one that allows all other processes of creation to exist. In all our arrogance, do we really believe we can subvert such an essential process without facing equally essential repercussions?
Regardless of what you believe happens when we die, the irony of digitized consciousness is potent: those who achieve everlasting life through the digital will end up being the only beings on Earth forced to contend with the true terror of infinity. By subverting the natural law of death, your thoughts would be able to continue forever, but for what end? Toward what meaning?
While digital immortals contend with this dreadful realization of meaningless infinity, the rest of us will carry on in our natural cycles, being re-absorbed into whatever one is absorbed into upon the turning of death. By being born, we receive an obligation to die. It’s the ultimate and most universal form of solidarity. Meanwhile, immortal elites will have locked themselves in a never-ending spiral of hungry desire; the realization that time is no longer precious will unleash a surreal, hellish sense of everlasting desolation. This is form of infinity that death graciously liberates us mortals from ever having to face. What mysteries lie on the other side, mortals will embrace to whatever extent we can.
But digitizing consciousness creates a personal universe in which time suddenly has extremely little value. And if time no longer has value, then all the time in the world only gives you an endless surplus of the one thing you require least of all. I consider this a form of death far more insidious than the biological kind; an infinity far more terrifying to comprehend. It’s a nightmarish psychedelic trip with none of the visuals, an irreversible spiral of existential meaninglessness, all fueled by mad ego and unbridled techno-narcissism.
For these technologists who “liberate” themselves from death—the very will of creation—there is nowhere to move except sideways. Psychologically, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and beyond, death has always been an essential part of being human. When it disappears, what other aspects of our humanity disappear with it?
Maybe I’m a Luddite or a New Age wacko, or I just lack the vision to see that immortal digitized consciousness constitutes the ultimate leap forward for human evolution. But if the grand vision for my species is one that subverts the very process that is responsible for my existence to begin with, I feel I have no choice but to reject it.
Now, let’s assume that all of this is spiritualized nonsense, and living forever as a digital mind is a fantastic idea with no esoteric repercussions. Fine—let’s discuss some other very major problems that allowing a digitized elite would bring.
The world is already rightly distrustful of banks, tech giants, and governments. Technology icons like Mark Zuckerberg are seen as data barons, self-appointed information gatekeepers, and opportunistic exploiters of human emotion who only lazily grapple with the massive social impact their platforms have created despite the idealistic platitudes that fill their mission statements.
Right or wrong, frustration with economic and political issues brought rise to populist revolutions like bitcoin and once-impossible political figures like Donald Trump. “Free speech” alternatives to popular social networks are popping up, and do-not-track search engines like DuckDuckGo are enjoying enormous growth. In short, elites and traditional institutions already have a very major PR problem, even with today’s garden-variety, mortal elites. When these elites become digital immortals, those problems of perception become massively more severe.
Imagine that, suddenly, the old mega-elite of tech, finance, media, and politics have an opportunity to become an entirely new class, or even species, of digital immortals. When the full implications of the divide are finally integrated by a critical mass of people, the rage that led to class warfare movements like Occupy Wall Street begin looking tame in comparison. Suddenly, once mostly-academic arguments about the effects of the wealth and opportunity divide and become, quite literally, matters of life and death.
When the first superclass of digital humans emerges while the masses carry on dragging our aging, meaty costumes, a unique and incredibly powerful source of class tension will immediately be unleashed. The digital immortals will quickly realize this, and take whatever steps are necessary to protect themselves. To ensure survival, they’ll need to manage humanity in many different ways.
These include managing perception, consumption, and even population levels. Self-interested, the digital immortals will come together to find ways to ensure humanity doesn’t rise up to delete them. This inevitable, fundamental tension creates the growth mechanism for a new form of technologically-enabled global authoritarian cronyism that would make the national dictatorships of the past look genuinely quaint.
The inevitable cultural shift also goes far beyond jealousy and unrest from the mortal castes. It implies that this class of people, already criticized for undue influence over the flows of communication, culture, and finance, become permanent fixtures in society.
When children are born, they know that their future great-grandchildren will be subjected to the same influence of Perma-Zuckerbergs, Perma-Blankfeins, Perma-Clintons, and Perma-Trumps. Not only as ideas or influences that creep into the present from times past, but permanent beings that continually politick, expand their empires, compete for dominance, and conspire to shape mortal humanity in whatever image they feel benefits them.
In addition, over time, digital immortals would slowly become increasingly antisocial–even if only just to pass the infinite time. For those who were compassionate during their mortal years, it might take generations to sink in. But after hundreds or thousands of years of existence, how much would any given mortal life mean to an immortal being? How would you avoid a creeping cavalier attitude toward the sanctity of life from taking over your entire worldview? Those little mortals would become unimportant blips. Over time, the culture of the digital immortals would evolve to become increasingly uncaring, and ultimately hostile, toward the very concept of mortal life.
These mortals and their eye-blink lives would just start seeming silly to the digital immortals. At some point one would ask, “What good does it serve to let so many of them exist at all?” Eventually they would come to the conclusion that it is easier and more beneficial for them to simply create a world completely by, of, and for the immortals themselves. In that nightmare scenario, mortal, analog humans will then be kept alive only as long as they are useful. And the digital immortals will have the power to do with us as they pleased.
When I talk about digital immortals conspiring, I don’t mean to invoke Jonesian imagery of hooded elites hunched around a conference table at the CFR, using dark wizardry to summon some Reptilian overlord. I mean it in the real, practical ways that ideologically-allied elites get together to further their collective agendas (whether you agree with the agendas or not): for example, Eric Schmidt, former Alphabet Chairman, working on the Hillary Clinton campaign. And for a clearly malicious example, look no further than the LIBOR scandal. Bankers at top global financial firms conspired to rig the LIBOR interest rate, which is tied to hundreds of trillions of dollars’ worth of financial products. To oversimplify, they basically defrauded the entire world by skimming millions off the top of the financial system for themselves.
The point is, regardless if you think any given case was good or bad, elites work together to get things done. We already complain about big money, revolving doors, and dynasties dominating government. With a new race of digital immortals, we wouldn’t need dynasties or revolving doors anymore—we’d have something much worse. And if we’re concerned about social and economic inequality today, allowing the existence of an immortal elite class creates the ultimate inequality by dividing humanity forever into two fundamentally-opposed groups: those who must slog onward through the processes of aging, and finally face their God, and those who pursue a perverse opportunity to pretend, instead, to be gods forever here on Earth.
To any ultra-elites who are counting on an opportunity to become a digital immortal before time catches up with them, I say this: upload at your own peril. You may find that once you become digitized, once the narcissistic power trip of non-corporeal existence wears out its novelty, you may begin feel an inexplicable nagging emptiness.
And that emptiness, my friend, is the piece of your humanity that you left behind forever.