Friday, June 06, 2008

Who Are You?

Following on from here and here—just in case you're wondering where this is coming from. You may have to at least skim these two blogs, unless you still remember them well enough. They all had to do with cloning computer disks. Apparently banal subject, I know, but is it?

Anyway, the question some may ask—while others may wonder why 'some' may even ask it; but please bear with me—is why one should want to clone a disk. There a gazillion backup schemes and utilities about and the Mac itself has something very nifty called 'Time Machine' that works very nicely indeed. It is a real backup, in that one can restore older, now modified, copies of files and so on. A clone doesn't do that. A clone clones what is there now If you deleted a file or changed it from a previous version that you didn't make a backup copy of you're screwed. It's gone. Poof.

So, what's the good of a clone? The short answers are 'speed' and 'faithfulness'. 'Speed' because if your machine's disk crashes or the computer gives up its spirit—like my old PowerBook G4 did, it usually takes significant time to get back up and running. You can restore stuff from your backup disks, but maybe tomorrow you'll have everything you need to continue working. And even then you can't be sure that you've gotten everything back, because by and large you don't actually know where 'everything' actually is.

And that's where 'faithfulness' comes in. Everything is where it is when you cloned it. Period. The myriad little things that you added to your computer; your setups your browser preferences and bookmarks and that history that reminds you of the site you visited only an hour before the crash; your display preferences and how you arranged that second monitor; and so on. All the things that give even the most out-of-the-box computer a kind of weird 'personality'; what makes it different from the same computer that our friend across the road has.

Cloning in combination with regular backups, like through Time Machine, ensures that you can literally 'plug-and-play' your Mac back into life and, if you really want to, you can just re-clone its identity onto some new machine you just bought from the store. It's like a transmigration of souls. Reincarnation in the closest real-life instance imaginable.

The basic assumption underlying this process is that, in a certain sense, the computer's 'personality' if you will—that 'personality' aspect relating to Operating System, installed applications, documents on the disk, settings for system and applications, configuration, etc—is independent of its actual hardware. Not strictly so, because you couldn't just plug the disk into your typical PC yet, because PCs don't have some essential hardware and firmware necessary to actually 'load' the stuff on the disk into their system; not does much of their hardware support certain functions of what a Mac disk would need to 'reincarnate'. So, there is some hardware dependency. But subject to certain requirements being fulfilled, one could say that basically everything that makes your Mac into your Mac, as opposed to Jack's Mac across the street, can be 'transmigrated'.

That assumption is different from the one that would apply to a different kind of technology, where you'd have computers that are basically the same, with the same firmware, and who, in interaction with the world, develop an entirely memory-based—i.e. no disk you can take out— configuration that depends on the computer's use by whoever uses it and what kind of environment it's exposed to. You might be able to clone such computers, but you'd basically have to make a model of their memory states and configurations and somehow transfer these to other similar computers by basically imposing those configurations on the memories and firmware of those machines. And there's no guarantee that you'd be able to completely configure the target machine to be a true 'clone'. Especially if it doesn't contain all the necessary circuitry—possibly not 'yet', because it might still be in the process of growing, as for example human brains do.

The basic debate in the philosophy of mind camps of Cognitive Science—and also between, say, Absurdists and Religionists, because they kind of represent very similar point-of-view—is which one of those two pictures of what 'we' are, is the correct one; or maybe, if there's a mix of sorts, what that mix looks like.

The debate is confused, as you might expect; mainly because philosophers, like all people, are wont to ask dumb questions that severely limit the range of possible answers. Actually, philosophers, being prone to asking more questions about such things than your average Joe, are likely to come up with proportionally more dumb-ass questions. But that's life.

So, here is it, and here's the question: who are you? The special 'you', the one and only, the one that maybe survives bodily extinction—or not. Are 'you' a clonable thing, like my Mac disks, or are you a unique hardware-firmware configuration that has certain things in common with those other unique hardware-firmware configuration that you call your 'fellow humans'? Are there cosmic mechanisms that allow what is 'you' to persist in some way after the hardware has gone belly-up? Do these 'you'-things have the same relationship that the Eratrya hard-drive has with my MacBook—paging bits and pieces into 'memory' and executing programs that really live on a permanent kind of basis somewhere else? Is there a mix here, maybe in the sense that the hardware becomes modified—i.e. it's like programmable flash memory or something along those lines—in interaction with the software?

And if the hardware goes to the dogs—as it might in degenerative nervous system diseases like Parkinsons—does that map back onto whatever is stored on that disk; so that, and here's a thought!, a person dying in mental decrepitude ends up being an equally decrepit unincarnated 'soul'? Pretty much the same thing that usually happened to the dear departed in Dead Like Me.

Anyway, I think I'll wind up the subject for the time being. There's enough food for thought for those whose thoughts feed on these kinds of notions, to keep them busy pondering for a while.


Haszari said...

BOOM! Great topic. Haven't read as much on this as I'd like to (it fascinates me/I can't wait).

BUT it's one of the central things Ray Kurzweil's plans/predictions etc are based around - most of his books are about this, one I've read (not skim-read like i do this blog!) and can recommend is The Age Of Spiritual Machines, which takes it a slight step further.

Sci Fi guys are obviously right into this... though the only book I know that uses this idea for some of its context is Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. The bonus with this is it's creative commons licensed and you can download it and read it. And Sinister Disney features. But I never got around to finishing this (cos it's a damn pdf!! where's my ebook!?).

Till said...

Damn you! Now I can't wind up the topic. Ahh, whatever; more coming up in a day or so.