What Makes You, You? Memory, Identity, and Digitization In Fiction

I’ve been consuming a lot of science fiction lately and something that comes up a lot is the idea of mind uploading and even a digital existence. It’s even something that may one day be possible in our own world. Scientists have been able to simulate the entire brain of a worm already and many futurists expect up to one day to be able to copy and simulate our entire minds in computers. This would mean many interesting things for the future of longevity and space exploration. Why pay to ship an entire crews’ bulky, resource-consuming bodies when you can just upload their minds to a robotic probe and send them on their way? Entire populations could be digitized and live on in a simulated world where they would be safe from natural disasters and be able to persist long after their fleshy meat bodies would have decayed and consumed all the available resources.

Most narratives that incorporate digitization treat it as somewhat routine. Characters are able to move from one body to another as needed, create copies of themselves to act as messengers, and continue to interact with the world long after their physical selves are gone. Authors have explored a myriad of ideas relating to this concept but there are a few questions that keep gnawing at me.

What makes a person a person?

If you made a copy of yourself with all your memories and personality you could hypothetically sit in a room together and have observers unable to tell you apart. You both have the same memories, personality, appearance, and you both claim to be the real you. Which is it? Similar to how a transporter would kill someone and then reconstruct someone every time it was used, digitization coupled with discarding the original does the same.

The question then is what exactly makes a person. In this post, we’ll look at how several books deal with this digitation technology.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan Book 1) by [Arkady Martine]

We’ll start the list with the setting that uses digitization the least. The inhabitants of the remote Lsel Station, in an effort to preserve vital knowledge, record the memories of their most important citizens and implant those memories in the most qualified successors that they can find. This technology is kept secret from outsiders and Lsel Station is careful to prevent destabilizing individuals from being added to one of these imago lines. Basically, the people of Lsel have fancy Trill Symbionts.

Since very few people have these imago machine implants we mostly only see how the protagonist adjusts to her newly implanted memories. At times she has trouble telling her feelings and memories apart from her predecessor and she often struggles to explain to others that she is not becoming her predecessor, rather they are merging to become an entirely new person. Of all the entries in this list, it spends the most time contemplating exactly what it means to be yourself.

Old Man’s War

Old Man's War by [John Scalzi]

John Scalzi’s first novel was about an interstellar government that picks and chooses who gets to leave Earth. Out among the stars, humanity is at war with countless alien species. Meanwhile, on Earth, things don’t look much different from today. To get off Earth a person has to be either from a disadvantaged nation facing overpopulation or a senior citizen from one of today’s leading powers to enlist as a soldier with the Colonial Union.

By limiting Earth’s contact with space, the CU limits who can leave and creates an incentive for people from Earth to unknowingly sign up to participate in the CU’s constant wars of expansion. This all works because they map out all the structures of the brains of these older and wiser recruits and give them vat-grown bodies to fight the war in. When they’re done with their tour of duty they get a younger civilian body and a plot of land on some newly settled world.

Digitization in this setting is really only used to give soldiers useable bodies and saves the army time that would otherwise be spent fixing damaged bodies. But it doesn’t seem to be used to provide any kind of immortality. Once a person is discharged they don’t get any new bodies. The only deviation from this use case is when the recorded memories of a fugitive are implanted in a brand new body and this duplication of a living person seems to cause some issues for the clone that receives the memories.

In this way, the books avoid the thornier questions that other works explore when it comes to this technology. More specifically the fact that if such technology existed it would likely allow the rich who can afford new bodies to “live” indefinitely while the poor make do with just one existence. Instead, those who are able to take advantage of the technology normally die some kind of horrible battlefield death shortly after they get their new bodies. The problem pretty much solves itself.

Revelation Space

Revelation Space (The Inhibitor Trilogy Book 1) by [Alastair Reynolds]

Mind transference is a lot more common in this series and unlike Old Man’s War, there’s some disagreement among different characters whether a digitized person is actually a person.

There are two types of digitized people. Alpha Levels are simulations created by taking highly precise scans of a person’s brain. This scan tends to destroy the person’s brain in the process and the early attempts at digitization quickly went insane. The others are the Beta Levels, simulations created by an AI that has watched a person’s every move and use that data to predict how a person would act in a given situation. It’s important to note that a Beta Level will tell someone that it believes itself to be the real thing. That’s what the real person would do after all.

Beta Levels are generally implied to be an inadequate version of the digitization process and the first one we meet in Revelation Space begins by demanding to know what happened to their Alpha Level. It’s clear that the Alpha Levels are the ones considered to be truly sentient.

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs Novels Book 1) by [Richard K. Morgan]

In Altered Carbon, every person is implanted with a stack at birth that records their mind every second of every day. The people who can afford to transfer in and out of bodies at a whim. To shorten travel times, to prolong their lives, to get fancy implants, or just because they felt like having a different look that day.

Those who can afford to treat bodies like outfits that can be discarded and it’s clear that most people view what’s stored on their implanted stack to be their actual selves. The only thing they have to fear about the death of their bodies is that they might not be able to afford a new one, or that if their new one is not a clone of their original that their family might not recognize them.

It’s also clear that at least some people in this setting have sat and thought about what it means to make multiple copies of a person, which is a crime in this series. There are also characters who have offsite backups so even if their stacks are destroyed they can reload from an earlier save.

Depending on how you envision the stacks to work all of this could mean constantly dying over and over again or just moving files from one place to another. It gets a little trickier if you start to think about double sleeving and off-site backups.

For the most part, these books seem to focus on matters of identity and inequality in a world where bodies are treated like outfits. Many of the “lizard brain” tendencies like nicotine addiction, muscle memory, etc stay with the body. So someone that re-sleaves frequently might find themselves suddenly saddled with a smoking habit or stay up staring into a mirror at a reflection that they can’t convince themselves is them.

The Culture

Consider Phlebas (A Culture Novel Book 1) by [Iain M. Banks]

Of all the books in this list, The Culture novels probably spend the most time on the ethical aspects of simulation and digitization. Including protracted discussions on whether turning off a simulated universe constitutes murder or not. Some characters are fine with making copies of themselves to send on trips or missions and then merging the memories the other gains, thus “killing” the copy, others see this as murder and allow their copy to continue once its purpose has been served.

What makes The Culture different from the other settings explored here is that the characters can actually afford to contemplate the ethical and philosophical questions that this technology requires. Citizens of the Culture live in a post-scarcity society where anyone who needs a new body or a new copy of themselves or a new backup made can have it in an instant.


If you think about the idea of digitized intelligence long enough the concept will probably begin to confuse you, amaze you, and maybe scare you. We’re not in a world where such a thing is possible yet, but it’s not much of a stretch to think that mind uploading will be possible in the near future.

But would it really be you? Sure, a digital copy might have your memories and act as you would have, but you won’t get to have the same experiences. You’ll be either somewhere else or you will be dead. This begs another question; does it matter?

Even if it’s not really you, digital copies would allow some aspect of you to continue on. It’s a way for a person to leave their mark and express their wishes long after they are gone. For their loved ones it could be a great source of comfort or it could veer far too close to the uncanny valley.

Ultimately I think it’s up to the individual and the peace of mind that their backups provide for them. What do you think? Let me know with a comment or on Twitter @expyblg. I can also now be found on Facebook @expyblg!

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