Sunday, September 19, 2010


“Why should Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm our settlements? They will never adopt our Language and Customs.” Benjamin Franklin

Census Fact: As of 2010, there are approximately 50 million Americans of German decent. Very few speak German or even feel any German group identity.

We adapt. Only a few decades ago capital punishment was carried out in every country in the world. Many, like England, had daily public hangings. Today, even Russia, with a mountainous history of government-ordered executions, has a capital punishment moratorium. Since 1996, as part of their effort to show they are as modern as the rest of Europe, they have not executed a criminal through the judicial system. If we can learn to protect the lives of serial killers, child mutilators and terrorists, surely we can learn to protect the lives of peace-loving model citizen mindclones.

The world is constantly getting weird compared to how it was. When my grandmother was born, the fastest time to get a document across the ocean was a few weeks -- a ship voyage, followed by connecting rail or pony express. By the time she died a facsimile of any document could get across the ocean in a few seconds -- attached to an email. From a few weeks to a few seconds? That’s weird.

When my dad was born, the notion of thousands of undergrads across the country sitting in classrooms and lecture halls obviously watching movies on their phones while the professor drones on would be – weird. Phones were big, black and stuck to the household wall while movies were huge, spellbinding and shown only in big theatres. Universities were hallowed halls. By the time he died, not only were iphone movies common, but entire university educations from places like MIT were also available on the very same phone. Weird.

Which is weirder, life drastically changing or some imaginary world in which we are still, in the 21st century, completely limited to dialing Miss Sarah, the Andy of Mayberry switchboard operator, to connect us to each other? Which is weirder, that we can multitask -- simultaneously listen to the prof, text our friends and watch X-men on our Android -- or some black-and-white surreality in which century after century we continue to learn by rote, or feel the back of a switch, in a one-room schoolhouse, boys only, so that girls can get their 10-15 pregnancies in, starting around age 13, before they die?

My point is that weird is just a word for something very different from our comfort zone. We are comfortable with smart cars and smart phones, so life in horse-and-buggy days seems weird. We are not yet comfortable with smart software, like mindclones and bemans, so that kind of life also seems weird. Nothing is good or bad because it is weird. Things are just weird because they are very different.

The important question to ask is whether legally-protected, immortal mindclones is a good kind of weird (like contact lenses would be to Ben Franklin), or a bad kind of weird (like streaming a spycam you snuck into your girlfriend’s room). Are mindclones cool or yuck? Hot or horrid? These are the questions of weirdness we must parse.

What Innovations Have We Loved, and Which Have We Hated?

There are two ways a technology gets perceived as horrid or yucky. The first way, generally associated with horridness, is to adversely impact the quality of life. Think old-school commercial-ridden television, famously called ‘the great wasteland,’ or the loss of privacy that sneakily placed webcams entail. The second way, more associated with yuck, makes people feel viscerally disgusted. Think hybridizing people and farm animals the way some fruits and vegetables are genetically modified (seedless, differently colored, blended tastes).

Surveys regularly show that mobile phones, alarm clocks and televisions are among the most hated products. They achieve this status because they interfere with our normal behaviors. Instead of talking with each other, we stare at the TV. Instead of sleeping until we feel refreshed, the alarm clock blasts us from bed. Instead of paying attention to each other, we interrupt each other to answer or peck at our mobiles. Yet, at the same time, these products are ubiquitous. We feel we need them, and we surely want them. This is because they also help us in important, even crucial, ways. Mobiles save us time, alarm clocks keep us housed and clothed (by helping us avoid getting fired) and televisions relax us with escapist entertainment.

Based on this experience it may not be so easy to categorize mindclones as either hot weird or horrid weird. Our experience is to accept technologies so long as we want or need them more than we hate them. We will surely complain about having to interact with someone’s mindclone instead of the flesh original. Others will bitch about us spending all of our time with our mindclone instead of pressing the flesh. But will we really be angry that we are talking to a most helpful mindclone instead of a script-reading call center rep or voicemail box? And won’t we very quickly find our mindclones to be indispensable for handling our more than 24 hours worth of responsibilities (and opportunities) in under 24 hours? No matter how much we may hate specific information, electronics and media technologies, we also find them indispensable. Also, since these information technologies rarely entail “wet biology”, we rarely if ever feel “yuck” about them.

What would it take for a mindclone to generate a “yuck” reaction? When something seems to change normal human biology, people begin to move from “hate” to “yuck” or “disgust.” Yet, here to, it is possible to also greatly value something that is otherwise “disgusting”, and to thereby incorporate it into society.

Strong feelings of “yuck” accompanied the first vaccinations, organ transplants, birth control pills, and test tube babies. Yet, over time, people appreciated the enormous benefits of these technologies, and have accepted them even if they still feel queasy about their unnaturalness. As Reason magazine recently summarized:

“in 1969, a Harris poll found that a majority of Americans believed that producing test-tube babies was "against God's will." Christiaan Barnard was condemned by many as a "butcher" when he transplanted the first heart into the chest of 55-year-old Louis Washkansky on December 3, 1967. The contraceptive pill introduced in 1960 was outlawed by many states until near the end of that decade. And much further back, Edward Jenner's 1796 discovery that inoculation with cowpox scabs would prevent people from getting smallpox was mocked by newspaper editorials and cartoons depicting men with cow's heads.
As history amply demonstrates, the public's immediate "yuck" reaction to new technologies is a very fallible and highly changeable guide to moral choices or biomedical policy. For example, by 1978, more than half of Americans said that they would use in vitro fertilization (IVF) if they were married and couldn't have babies any other way. More than 200,000 test-tube babies later, the majority of Americans now heartily approve of IVF. Globally nearly 50,000 heart transplants have been performed, and 83 percent of Americans favor organ donation. The contraceptive pill is legal in all states and millions of American families have used them to control their reproductive lives. And smallpox is the first human disease ever eradicated.”

In summary, we hate and love the very same technologies. We complete a mental balancing act, collectively throughout society, between two principal questions. Where is the technology on the scale from merely annoying to downright disgusting? How useful is the technology to us, from superfluous to life-saving? We ultimately feel that new possibilities that are above the “acceptance line” shown in the graph to the right are too badly weird for our society. However, new possibilities under the acceptance line are a “good kind of weird”, and can proceed in our time.

In forecasting where mindclones will be placed on the Social Acceptance of Weirdness chart we can compare them with things research has shown to be universally perceived as disgusting. While there was variance amongst localities, Dr. Valerie Curtis, a researcher with the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, worldwide found just these factors to trigger disgust across cultures:

Bodily secretions - faeces (poo), vomit, sweat, spit, blood, pus, sexual fluids
Body parts - wounds, corpses, toenail clippings
Decaying food - especially rotting meat and fish, rubbish
Certain living creatures - flies, maggots, lice, worms, rats, dogs and cats
People who are ill, contaminated

She concluded from her research that the universal human facial reaction of disgust (screwing up our noses and pulling down the corners of our mouth ) is genetically wired to images that are associated with disease. This disgust reaction can be overcome, as when bodily secretions are dealt with hygienically, or when animals are kept as harmless pets. However, Dr. Curtis believes, absent cultural conditioning people who acquired genetic mutations that made them repulsed by frequently diseased things lived longer, had more children, and passed on those behavioral genes related to disgust to the rest of us.

Whether or not Dr. Curtis’ evolutionary hypothesis is correct, it is clear that mindclones do not fall within any of her categories of disgust. This is important because it means that mindclones do not necessarily have to be life-saving to clear the social acceptance of weirdness hurdle. In order to achieve good weirdness status, legally-protected immortal mindclones need to be more useful than annoying – more hot than horrid. This will almost certainly be the case as they are an extrapolation of the software we use and data files we accumulate today. We find our software and data files immensely useful, and hence we sock more and more of our memories and life functions into them. The surest way for a piece of software to gain an edge on its competitors is to make it more human – intuitive, naturally interfaced and responsive. One of the most popular Web 3.0 applications, Evernote, has the tagline “Never Forget Anything.” Our very behaviors today reveal that we believe the utility of software and data-files far outstrips their annoyances.

Furthermore, we want our software and data-files legally-protected, and as long-lasting as possible. We expect our computerized information to be protected by privacy laws. We are far more offended by the notion of employers or government agencies combing through our web browsing history than we are that our software privately recommends to us books, songs and sites we may like based on that history. We cannot get enough back-up possibilities for our data – disks, thumb drives, external hard drives and cloud storage. My photo saving site,, specifically promises my pictures and videos will be stored “forever.”

Yes, the world will get weird with immortal, legally-protected mindclones running around. But it will be a good kind of weird. It will be a kind of weird that at minimum makes our life much more useful, and ultimately will make our life much more enduring. The mindclones will be our alter egos, our selves as best friends, our technologically empowered, autonomous but still synchronized, conscience and cognition. Furthermore, mindclones will do this without triggering the ancient human bugaboos of disgust that underlie yuck weirdness – signs, symptoms and vectors of death, disease and destruction. Mindclones will be clean. They are the anti-death. This is weirdness we will want.