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Your Tech, Your Self

If you could download your brain, would you still really be you?

By Mifi Purvis, '93 BA

June 23, 2018 •

In February, Netflix launched its latest spectacle, Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan's novel - produced and written in part by Steve Blackman, '97 LLB. A cyberpunk manifesto, the show takes place 500 years from now when all your life's experiences are recorded on a piece of technology that is implanted in your neck. When your body dies, the device can be moved into another body or even be reanimated in a virtual space. It's as though the essence of you lived on a thumb drive.

But if it's a storage device for your consciousness, would that tech really be you? In other words, are we inching nearer a time when people are tied to their technology?

"That's an interesting question," says Andrew Ede, a historian in the Faculty of Arts and director of the Science, Technology and Society program. He points to 1811 England when the Luddites, weavers who saw their livelihood threatened by increased automation, began breaking looms in protest. This became known as frame-breaking and soon new laws made it a capital crime. It put the crime on the same level as killing a person. In other words, it was a property crime to knock down your neighbour's fence, but wreck a weaving machine? You could find yourself sentenced to death or shipped to the colonies.

Busting up a loom as an act of high rebellion might seem charmingly anachronistic, but there are modern parallels. "Most industrial countries have laws preventing attacks against the internet or communications networks," Ede says. And the penalties can be serious.

You realize that we are inseparable from our tech once you realize all tools are technology. Where would we be without clay pots or urban infrastructure? "Technology is a system, and we couldn't survive without it," Ede says, including education as a technology. "Education is probably the most powerful technology we've ever developed."

Our technology is a hallmark of our humanity. And maybe it really is what makes us … us. So when we rail against these things - a thumb drive, an education system, a computer network, a loom - maybe we rail against ourselves.

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