The invisible hand of our pasts

Try this for a thought experiment. Imagine you were able to ‘teleport’ instantly anywhere in the world, a la Star Trek. Here is the rub, however – doing so involves having an exact replica of yourself created at your destination, yet the transporter destroys your ‘original’ body in the process. So by all appearances, a perfect ‘clone’ of yourself – with all the memories, all of the hopes and aspirations you had before stepping onto the transporter pad – is now lounging under the Eiffel Tower or gawking up at the Great Pyramid of Giza while your ‘previous’ body is now vapour. 

Would you still be the first to say, ‘Beam me up, Scotty’?

I have devoured numerous science fiction stories about protagonists resurrected through cloning, or cybernetics. I have wallowed in fantasies of the power and potential and prospects of immortality that such transformation promises. Surely, then, quasi-religious preoccupations with identity and ‘soul’ would not trouble me. I doubt, for instance, whether my teleported self would suddenly weigh 21 grams less than my pre-teleported self. Yet confronted with the above thought experiment, I am suddenly self-conscious. The person that would come into being in Paris or Egypt would not be ‘me’ – in fact, they would represent the end of me, and my own annihilation. As a casual user of such teleporting technology, they would indeed have opportunities that I, otherwise inhibited to expensive and time-consuming technologies such as jet airliners, would not. Certainly, they would have my memories – and thanks to such free and instantaneous teleportation, far more experiences on top of that. Yet I would be dead, and this perfect copy would be running around, living my life and enjoying the world.

The closest parallel that comes to mind – funnily enough – is having kids. (Such thinking is probably why I would not make good father material.) I imagine that the empathy I could share with my ‘teleported clone’ would be similar to that as between a parent and their child. I could feel a kind of responsibility, and even ownership, towards my clone, just as I could with a child – both being derived from my own genes and imbued with many (if not all) of my own life stories and values. Both would also promise some quasi-immortality, a chance to rewrite history, and have ‘all the opportunities that I never had’. A sense of benevolence would encourage me to partake in such an ontological experiment - I would create life at the cost of my own, so that such being could gain experiences otherwise denied to me. However, they would not be me. In fact, I would remain even more disconnected from my clone in the transporter scenario, compared to my hypothetical children, since we would never really meet.[1]

Welcome to the human race
Yet is this not the very condition of existence? Am I not being constantly ‘thrown’ into the world - to use Heidegger’s description - every moment of every day? Isn’t it only a creative artifice allows me to join my past self to my future self?

“You know that thing Benedict Anderson says about identity? Well, he's talking about like, say, a baby picture. So you pick up this picture, this two-dimensional image, and you say, "That's me." Well, to connect this baby in this weird little image with yourself living and breathing in the present, you have to make up a story like, "This was me when I was a year old, "and later I had long hair, and then we moved to Riverdale, and now here I am." So it takes a story that's actually a fiction.” – Waking Life

Much of our ‘success’ in life is determined by our ability (or willingness) to empathise with our future selves – in other words, how good we are at manufacturing this ‘continuity of self’.[2] This is tough work: faced with decisions like, ‘Should I eat that burger, or go to the gym?’, or ‘Should I buy that stereo or invest in my superannuation?’ the only reason to choose the latter options is out of deference to someone else: a person that we have not yet (and my in fact never) ‘become’.

And these are just small-fry decisions – there’s also the bigger deals, like whether I should take the leap of faith required to dedicate three years of my life doing a PhD, or twenty years of my life raising a family. Making such sacrifices for someone else, even if that self is ‘me in five (or fifty) years time’, requires as much an imaginative leap as being willing to step on that transporter pad and leave my old life behind. (After all, we could all be like Sam Rockwell’s character in Moon – slaving day after day so that we can inherit a prize that does not exist.)

In light of the above, maybe stepping on the transporter pad is not such a revolutionary leap after all.


I must have been a little over 11 years-old when I bought Tom Maddox’s book Halo (now out of print but available online, and on my bookshelf). At the conclusion, a computer gains sentience yet comes to appreciate its own limitations and propensity for self-delusion. His remarks are pertinent:

“An uncertainty equal to death's hovers over everything I do. My own prior self stands behind me, pulling strings that I cannot see or feel, a ghost that haunts me without making itself seen or heard, a ghost whose presence must be inferred from nearly-invisible traces. So I went to Toshi, who is interested in such things, and I told him my story, and I said to him: "I am controlled by the invisible hand of my own past." And he laughed very hard and said, "Welcome, brother human."

We sacrifice ourselves for our future – and yet the past will have its way.

Image by JD Hancock


[1] Other parallels that come to mind are Blade Runner’s Rachel, who possesses the memories of is Elden Tyrel’s neice yet is actually a replicant, and Zoe’s avatar in ‘Caprica’ whom has the personality of Zoe proper. One important difference, though, between these two examples is that in the former, the original – Tyrel’s neice - is presumably still alive, while in the latter, Zoe died in a horrific explosion. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Tyrel’s niece gave her uncle permission to imprint her memories onto a replicant – while for Zoe, that was the whole idea. Part of the anxiety surrounding such copies, then, might have a lot to do with how much we perceive them as ‘intruders’, like a Doppelgänger. For a good study of this, see the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Second Chances’.

[2] Analysing my obsessions with literature, and journaling, and storytelling, only reinforces this notion that I construct identity (mine and other people’s) through ‘fictions’. Journaling particularly is, I think, a distraction from ‘authenticity’ (if there is such a thing). Every diary entry lets me condition myself into believing a more palatable version of events. I write creatively out of a desperate need to re-envision reality. My professional preoccupation with technical writing emerged from my own struggles to operate in the office environment. Similarly, my interest in creative writing reflects a struggle to operate by the shared narrative that most people take for granted. (The sick, it appears, become experts on healing; I find it interesting that it is the same friends who have had personal brushes with mental illness who have also expressed an interest in studying postgraduate psychiatry.)