Just about everybody knows by now that our interaction with networked computers has created a different sense of ourselves. Our lives are affected powerfully by what we experience online and we think and act as if we are online even when we are off. The wiring gets changed around inside. We become nodes in a network.
One way offline life calibrates with online life is modularity. The various dimensions of our lives are modular now. We can mix and match them as we choose.In the conservative upper midwest where I currently live, people used to live lives that were all of a piece. If you were raised in a religion, that’s what you were. You chose a career and stuck with it. You married someone and (mostly) stayed married. And of course, identity was fixed. To think of reinventing one’s core identity was literally impossible.
Now, however, we reinvent ourselves again and again. We change careers or vocations, we marry several times or not at all, we convert to other religions, and above all, we sometimes experience a strange kind of dissonance that accompanies the realization that – within limits – we are who we choose to be.
Our identities and selves are modular and fluid.
Even if we do not drop out of sight and surface in some witness protection program of our own making with new digital identities and simulated histories, life is experienced more and more as a sequence of developmental stages that are growing in number. When Daniel Levinson wrote “Seasons of a Man’s Life” in 1978, the landscape beyond middle age was shrouded in mist. “Old age” was an undifferentiated haze rather than a sequence of distinct segments, each with its challenges and tasks.
Not any more.
Our life span has increased 100% in the past 300 years. In this century, a life span of 150-200 years is likely.
With so many modular segments to couple together into a coherent life, how will we maintain the useful illusion, the necessary fiction of a coherent Self that includes and transcends all of those modules? Will the process by which experience devolves into an integrated self, transformed alchemically into wisdom, continue for two centuries? Will it stretch to fit the elastic lives our selves must learn to lead?
As we augment memory, cognition and sensation through computer networks, biotechnology and genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, we bring new cyborg selves into existence. The distinction between natural and artificial is nearly gone. As we press toward the limits of inherited long-term memory storage, i.e. hunter-gatherer brains, we might well confound the ability to link seamlessly the diverse experiences of multiple selves over the span of many careers, families, and identities. It isn’t the “atoms” of experience that we risk losing but the way they collaborate to build a mature self.
As we switch off the symptoms of aging and replace parts that we don’t even know yet are parts, we will need a new model for identity and self. Our ancestors did not have to reinvent themselves. This challenge is less about technology and more about the spiritual dimensions of our lives.
I suggest using the reincarnation model to imagine and design a transcendent Self that persists, an integrated Self that survives the changes and chances of an attenuated life.
During past life regressions, a person enters a meditative state and uses memory, imagination, or both to move through images of a lifetime until one passes right through the moment of birth and begins remembering or imagining images of other lives.
If those images are only imagined, that’s the end of the quest. But in those cases in which images can be corroborated with historical details from other sources, the useful and familiar distinctions of parapsychology immediately vanish.
If one “remembers,” i.e. calls into consciousness, an image of an event that is “real,” then one might be (1) remembering one’s own experience or (2) telepathically accessing another’s memories or (3) clairvoyantly reading a record – a tombstone, a ship’s register, a diary – accessed on the unconscious level. In other words, if an image is “real,” i.e. can be correlated with objective historical records, then the boundaries between categories vanish just as the distinctions between illusory selves disappear. The images exist, not in a the mind of a little self, but in the mind of a transcendent Self that includes all the little selves and all their little lives.
Reincarnation can never be proven but some do recover memories or images during deep meditative states that point to the transmigration of those images in the medium of a larger consciousness.
Arthur Koestler said that all organisms are holons, which are characterized by differentiation, cooperation, and boundaries. A cell is a holon. A cell may look like a community of interdependent parts or like a unit in a more highly organized body. A principality may look like an independent duchy or like part of a unified Europe. In the same way, a self may contain differentiated modular dimensions of consciousness or a self may be one of many selves contained by a Self.
Merely to imagine this model is to bring it into being. To describe it is to create it. That’s how consciousness works. Creation and discovery are one thing seen from different points of view.
Naming our Selves is a creative act, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. The faint-hearted ask others who they are, exchanging their identities for an illusory security, selling themselves cheap.
Identity is destiny. Our task is to name ourSelves, and we will, once we know who we are.
To plunge into the darkness of inchoate possibility and say, let there be light, then let that light play across a landscape of multiple possibilities … this is the joy of intentional acts of creation. Deriving an identity from history, which in turn is merely a suitable myth, and a vision of a future that bounces us into the life we design like a springboard or trampoline. We are who we think we were, but we can always – with a mere word – transform who we think we were into who we choose to be.