We are becoming pure information
I published this article a while ago on Tea-after-Twelve.com. But everything I have read about AI lately made me think about this conversation I had with filmmaker Ayoub back then. Therefore I want to publish the piece again on this platform in order to get some more of your input! Looking forward!
°°°We are trying very hard to become immortal in terms of physicality…And by doing so, we are becoming pure information°°°
We are all going to die one day. That is simply a fact. But will we then really be dead and gone? Or might we live on forever, just in a different form, as information, for example?
This is the picture young artist Ayoub Qanir draws in his conceptual science fiction movies. “We are trying very hard to become immortal in terms of physicality. We are trying to let go of our physical enclosure. And by doing so, we are becoming pure information,” says the 32-year-old US-American.
In the 1950s, the development of the atomic bomb and the beginning of the Cold War influenced science fiction movies, whose stories primarily explored nuclear technology. During the 70s and 80s, after the first man had walked on the moon, science fiction movies were all about humanity conquering space. With the beginning of the information revolution in the 90s, science fiction movies began depicting a future involving Artificial Intelligence, like in Minority Report and the Matrix. Science fiction is a mirror of how the society of a given time imagines its future. Today’s age is best described by the keywords social media, big data, and algorithms, all of which have given science fiction a new twist.
“Everything is information. Language, numbers, music… Information has always been a way we organize and measure everything,” Ayoub says. “What’s new is that we are accumulating it more. The moment you click on your smartphone, you start registering information. And we are not just recording it, but also sharing it, and this is where it gets interesting.”
Gathering information and data can help improve our lives, like an app that counts our calories, for example, or coaches us on daily nutrition. But since the debate around Facebook selling its user’s data to advertisers, we have come to see the profit potential of information as well. Which raises the question of who is actually in control of our personal information. This is key because there is more to our data than just the money-making aspects. In a sense, we are who and what we think we are. Information shapes our identities, and whoever controls our personal information can also control us.
°°°Your mind has been hacked°°°
This scenario is depicted in Ayoub’s short film “Artifico Conceal”, which was presented at the 2015 Cannes Short Film Corner. The object of desire in “Artifico Conceal” is the MacGuffin, a quantum clock. The quantum clock actually exists, was developed by the US-American National Institute of Standards and Technology, and is considered the world’s most precise clock. In “Artifico Conceal”, dark forces steal the quantum clock in a bid to own own all the time in the world and thus to control humanity. Time is information and information is power. If this sounds to abstract, consider the fact that a fiber-optic cable was laid from Chicago and New York in 2010 to make algorithm-based trading on Wall Street faster. It took three years to dig a gopher hole for 825 miles of cable just to gain an exactly 13.3 millisecond advantage in automated stock trading. A tenth of the blink of an eye can make a billion dollar difference on Wall Street.
So whoever rules over accurate time rules over information, and information is power. “Artifico Conceal” explores ideas of control vs. chaos, a god who lives with uncertainty, minds that can be hacked, and the loss of identity. All in just the span of 18 minutes, a slight overdose of complex thoughts and meaningful statements. What is really striking about “Artifico Conceals” is actually how it transmits Ayoub’s ideas through revealing story-telling.
The film opens on a man called Mr. Green during an interrogation. He claims to have been married for over ten years and to have a daughter. He is entirely convinced that this is his reality, and as the audience, you believe him as well. Until eventually his interrogator, who turns out to be an Interpol officer, plays a video that shows an interview with Mr. Green. He turns out to be the developer of the quantum clock. He has never been married, nor has he ever had a daughter.
“Artifico Conceal” is a warning that your mind can be hacked, even by just watching a movie.
You learn that Mr. Green has been hypnotized so his memories could be used to steal the clock. And even worse, the intruder planted fake memories into Mr. Green’s mind so that he does not remember who he really is. Like in the movie Fight Club or the TV series Mr. Robot, your understanding of the fictional reality is infiltrated the moment you start believing it. You fall for the main character, you trust him and side with him until you discover that he is unreliable, that both you and he were fooled. The filmmaker has planted a certain vision of reality in your mind, proving he can hack you with his film. From this point of view, “Artifico Conceal” is effective in two ways. First, it serves as a vehicle for communicating the filmmakers vision about information as a powerful tool in the near future. And second, it proves its point by applying this tool to the audience itself. “Artifico Conceal” is a warning that your mind can be hacked, even by just watching a movie.
°°°And does access to your virtual identity also allow access to your non-virtual identity?°°°
Why is this relevant? Because we are who and what we think we are. Because these days, we can easily be hacked, something we have been aware of since well before Snowden’s NSA revelations. Just ask yourself: Where do you store the personal information that forms your identity? In your DNA, in your head, in your smartphone, on your Facebook profile? And is this information reliable? Is your social media profile just another virtual version of you? Or is it an artificial identity you build up with your likes and posts? And do you have a specific intention or are you perhaps being influenced when you click the share button? Who can access your virtual identity? And does access to your virtual identity also allow access to your non-virtual identity?
Along with the rather pessimistic, technical vision of hacked minds and dark forces controlling us through our personal information, our virtual personality has another very curious feature. “We are struggling to identify ourselves while we are constantly evolving. So what you think of yourself today might not even be the same in five years. But now you can record it,” Ayoub says. “Because of this information, we are able to actually remember more details of how we live.”
Not only can we record and remember more of our lives; we can draw patterns from it as well. Google uses cloud-based machine learning tools, which analyze a user’s data, draw patterns from it, and then build applications capable of performing sentiment analysis or predicting the user’s next search. Amazon personalizes our shopping experience by analyzing and anticipating our taste in books and other products. Other algorithms can already determine your personality by simply assessing the words you use during a regular phone call. This technique is used in customer service where algorithms evaluate customers’ personalities, then connect them to a service rep with a matching personality. And now think of how all the data we constantly publish in social media profiles can be used to analyze and then predict our interests, fears, passions, etc. Isn’t this where your virtual identity takes on a life of its own?
We can even take it one step further. What happens when you die? Let’s say your physical self leaves the world. What happens to your virtual self? There are already services that offer to maintain your social media profile and send messages to your loved ones after you die. But in view of all the new developments that help machines learn our personalities, passions, fears, etc., what if our virtual personality lives on? What if it continues to post, like, and share based on the patterns we created while we were alive?
°°°Is this really just a virtual version of myself, or is this already a new personality that is going its own way?°°°
“We are moving towards this world of virtual emerging information. So when I picture the future, it is only information,” Ayoub says. Suddenly this does not sound all that far out anymore. In his short video series, Ayoub needed just 1.10 minutes and some abstract concepts and images to express his idea of the dehumanized future.
Underscored by French music duo Daft Punk, he created a series of experimental video clips that show an animated device, the Heightened Reality Stimulus One or HRS1, which represents the only life form left in the new millennium: raw information. Ayoub designed the HRS1 as an audio-visual media device that houses the user’s digital personality. Made out of cables and steel, the HRS1 moves around the “info-verse” and slowly reforms into a human heart or a tree. It is a vision of the future reminiscing about the human past. The video series is called “Human after All”, an almost comforting thought.
Ultimately, of course, science fiction is just that — fictional . There might be some truth to it, there might not. But it encourages us to reflect on ourselves in the present, and pushes us to ask questions about where we are headed.
So the next time you log into your Facebook profile, ask yourself: Is this really just a virtual version of myself, or is this already a new personality that is going its own way?