The Mechanical Self: Newsletter #36

Computing, according to some, is the mechanization of abstraction. Humans have been abstracting for a while, for at least a couple of millennia in India, Greece and elsewhere. They have also been building machines en masse for a few hundred years. Put the two together and we get abstract machines.

Our evolving view of machines is at the heart of modern civilization. There's a strand of the machinic imagination in which machines are these large clambering monsters that roam the earth, like postmodern dinosaurs. While that image is an enduring source of dystopian exploration, Frege, Godel, Russell, Turing and others showed that machines are more Casper than T-Rex, that the ghost in the machine is the real machine.

Over the past fifty years, mechanical abstractions have advanced from glorified calculators to ever more complex tasks. Soon, there won't be any lawyers, accountants, cab drivers, surgeons and any number of other professions that marry knowledge with skill. It's a disturbing trend in some ways and I have my reservations, but this note isn't about the triumph of AI. Instead, I want to explore what the mechanization of abstraction does for a well known abstraction - the self.


Why the self? Because some elements of the self are abstractions and software is good at automating anything that can be abstracted. For example, taxi cabs are abstractions, in that most people don't care who gives them a ride to the station as long as they reach their destination safely. That's why taxi drivers are commodities and will be replaced by machines one day.

Self-enhancing technologies have been around for a very long time. Clothes, jewelry, eyeglasses are good examples. Self representation technologies also have a long history - signatures are the best example. It's also clear that these self representation technologies are abstractions. For example, your signature acts on your behalf even when you aren't in the room. It can even be forged; you on the other hand can't be forged or duplicated. Not yet, anyway. Self-enhancement and self-representation are abstractions in exactly the same way that taxi-drivers are: we can always replace one set of clothes by another and we can always replace one medium of signing with another. Today, we handcraft a range of self-representations: signatures, resumes, statements of purpose and so on. I believe that these can all be bundled together into one unified mechanical self-representation.

Instituting the Self

While self-representation through signatures is important, the most influential self related abstractions we contract with are social abstractions: legal, economic and religious rules and regulations, nation states, towns and cities with all the attendant paperwork. In fact, almost all of modern life is regulated by abstractions that represent the self to others.

Consider a major life decision like buying a house. Or getting married. In theory, it could be a direct relationship between buyer and seller or groom and groom, but in practice, we need accountants, lawyers, city permits and other pieces of paper before we can transfer property or get hitched.

What about a future in which these institutions are mechanized? Today, if you want to buy a house, you need a real estate agent, who might direct you to a banker who in turn connects you to a loan agent and then, once the sale is completed, you have to hire a contractor and an architect to finish the house. Much of that process can be automated without loss. In fact, I think automation might even help us make fine grained environmental and architectural assessments. Currently, towns have uniform construction guidelines independent of whether you're constructing your house on a hillside or in a valley and whether the water table is ten feet below the surface or two thousand feet below it.

Imagine a smart-city whose ordinances are context-sensitive, where you can get a town-planning permit that’s personalized to the specific location you want to construct a house. In fact, imagine that the permit is just one layer in a larger database which might have other layers on top, such as the architects blueprint, the contractors cost assessments and the interior designers layout. Further, all these data layers are yours, attached to you just as your signature is today. Instead of your data being spread across town planning departments and architects offices, it’s all aggregated and in your control.

You can see where I am going. Just as the previous era of nation-state building needed property rights and the freedom of conscience as one way of institutionalizing the self, the current era will also need a new charter of freedoms that define and regulate the mechanized self and let it flourish. Equally important are the negative freedoms - the freedom from intrusive government and corporate aggregation of our data streams.

If there’s one thing we possess, not as property but as a dwelling, it is our own self. That’s as true of the mechanical self as it was of the citizen of the liberal nation state. In the absence of new freedoms, the mechanical self is not ours; it’s theirs and we will all suffer from data driven schizophrenia.