Infomorph PsychologyTarek Raimo
In EVE Online, Infomorph Psychology is a skill that regulates the maximum amount of jump clones you can have at the same time. How exactly psychological training influences the number of dormant bodies you can have waiting to receive your mind is beyond me; the description of the skill—however—does include some elements I’d like to discuss:
“The reality of having one’s consciousness detached from one’s physical form, scattered across the galaxy and then placed in a vat-grown clone can be very unsettling to the untrained mind.”
This quote from the skill description does provide food for thought. How exactly do capsuleers deal with that mind transfer? Even more so, what is it like to experience death momentarily, only to wake up in a new body that is more or less exactly like the previous one, but with subtle differences. When a capsuleer looks into a mirror the first time after “rebirth”, do they wonder whether that is actually the same person looking back? How do they deal with the fact that their physical body has become a mere extension of the infomorph that they really are?
What is an infomorph anyway?
The term infomorph approximately translates as “instruction given form”. In a more specific sense, it describes a virtual body comprised of the complete mental state of a human being. One of the key aspects of this concept is that the infomorph can be transferred between different media. It can be contained in a human body but also stored in a machine. The idea of the human consciousness as a collection of data that can be stored in a sufficiently advanced computer and even moved into a new body has become more common in science fiction throughout the recent two decades. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief (2010) prominently features whole societies built around the idea that consciousness can not only be transferred between bodies, but also customised, reprogrammed, “hacked”, and subverted. Then, there is the rather underrated movie Transcendence (2014), built on the assumption that true artificial intelligence is harder to achieve than uploading a mind into a computer, and thus creating an intelligent machine, or Source Code (2011) where the mind of a soldier is kept alive and repeatedly projected into a specific body to uncover a terrorist plot.
Central to all those plots is the idea that everything which makes us who we are is the result of brain activity which is sufficiently similar to computer function and data processing to be copied effectively into a machine and copied back into a biological vessel, i.e. a brain. I have asked a biologist friend how viable that is; she told me that there are some more elements involved in the whole of a human personality than just brain function. Apparently, we are also strongly influenced by hormone levels and other physiological factors like the workings of our adrenal glands, our sexual organs or how our body feels to us. The adverse effects of transferring a human mind into another body or even a machine is often addressed by the authors of science-fiction literature and screenplays. In many stories, the subjects of such processes become “inhuman” as a result.
The term infomorph as we understand it today is rather new in science-fiction writing; it was first introduced by Charles Platt in his 1991 novel, The Silicon Man. The underlying concepts are not new at all though. The idea that part of us is potentially reproducible, transferrable and separate from our physical body is almost as old as human imagination itself. Religions all over the world believe in an immortal soul or spiritual self that continues to exist even if our bodies die. In some belief systems, this soul moves on to an afterlife, in others it gets reincarnated into a new body where it will become changed but still retains part of its “personality”. Besides religious and spiritual belief, there are also many legends about the separation of mind and body. Tales of possessions, hauntings by disembodied spirits and out-of-body experiences can be found in virtually every culture.
In the modern age, such mystical stories were largely replaced by narratives that imagined “scientific” and “technological” explanations for the separation of mind and body. In H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer In Darkness (1931), alien creatures extract a man’s brain and preserve it in a container while keeping his consciousness intact and connected to devices which replace his ability to sense the world and speak. In the story Professor Dowell’s Head (1925), the Russian author Alexander Belyaev imagined a visionary surgeon finding a way to remove a subject’s head and transplanting it onto a new body while keeping the brain alive. With scientific advances in neurology which lead to the understanding of the brain as an electrochemical information processor and storage system, and the parallel development of ever more powerful computers, we began imagining the possibility to fully extract and transfer a mind by means of information technology. In the end, the hopeful vision remains the same: The essence of who we are transcends the body and would endure beyond its death. Over the centuries, we traded our imagination of a mystical immortal soul for a quasi-scientific hope; another way to preserve who and what we are—the infomorph.
Becoming The Machine
In the EVE online mythology, capsuleers are subjected to extremely demanding training which is supposed to prepare them mentally for taking the next step in human evolution. A major hurdle in this training is the dissociative experience involved with the linking a capsuleer’s mind to the hull of a ship. The game’s lore addresses the neuropsychological difficulty capsuleers face during the effort to overcome their sense of proprioception. That complicated word describes our conscious and subconscious awareness of the body. It tells us how our limbs are positioned even when we are not seeing them, and this sense is so strongly developed, that our brains often still “imagine” a limb that is lost. As a result, many amputees experience phantom pain, tingling or awareness of a missing body-part. Having one’s proprioception impaired or disturbed would therefore be a profoundly unsettling experience. Likely, you have had a brief glimpse of what that could feel like at the verge of falling asleep. If you ever jerked awake momentarily shocked because you could not feel your body anymore, then you know what I speak of.
Now imagine a training program where you are being put through that experience deliberately and repeatedly for extended periods of time, to prepare you for a mental state that enables you to switch from the proprioception of a human body to one that encompasses a spaceship the size of a skyscraper. The thought is quite staggering; it comes as no surprise that many capsuleers-in-training fail to cope with that.
While overcoming the proprioception problem is a fundamental part of the path towards becoming a capsuleer, something much more profound lies at the end of that road: The willful destruction of one’s original body as the last step towards becoming a being of pure information. We are told, that the process of scanning and storing a mind for transfer is so invasive, the brain becomes irreparably damaged by it. As a result, a capsuleer’s body gets killed at the time of transfer. This does not simply record the mental state as a set of electrochemical processes, but actually creates a computer model of the complete brain. The brain then gets reconstructed on the atomic and molecular level in a new clone body. This procedure forces the subjects to overcome some of their most primal fears and instincts because they have to go knowingly and willingly into death. Sure, thousands have done it before, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier.
When I was a kid on a holiday in Greece, I saw some older boys and girls jump into the sea from a high cliff. It looked like fun and I wanted to try it too. Still, it took me two days of several attempts to work up the courage and make the jump, even though I had seen the others do it multiple times every day. Now imagine that such a dare involves taking your own life. Every sufficiently advanced living being has a built-in sense of self-preservation coupled with a healthy fear of death, and a capsuleer-in-training has to suppress those instincts. We are told by the game lore that a large percentage of those who remain at this stage of the training are unable to take that one last step, despite all the rigors they have endured and overcome.
Those who do manage to cross that threshold might actually be exemplars of an evolutionary step. The Geneticist Richard Dawkins proposed in his influential book, The Selfish Gene that life does not simply have an instinct for self-preservation. On a much more basic level, Dawkins suggests, life has a built-in mechanism to replicate. Self-sacrifice and death become a feasible approach when there is a significant potential that it will ensure further propagation. What better chance of propagation could there be than achieving a state where several fully functional bodies at their prime can be occupied repeatedly?
The Capsuleer State-Of-Mind
The players who fly around ships in EVE represent all that’s left after years of physical, scientific, technical and psychological training. At this point, we face an interesting conundrum when it comes to the internal consistency of our shared virtual world. If capsuleers are these incredibly advanced human beings, how is it that effectively, many of them act stupid, psychopathic, unethical, lazy, or in other ways pretty flawed when we apply our real-world yardstick of ethics and values. Sure, it’s just a game; people simply play without thinking about the moral implications of their actions. It’s not like EVE makes an effort to guilt-trip people with the tragedy of the thousands who die in stupid fleet welps. The game would be pretty depressing if it dealt too much with that. On the other hand, the way capsuleers are played by us could be explained by their flawed nature.
The combination of cloning, burn-scanner and capsule has only existed for a bit more than a decade. Nobody really knows what the long-term effects are. What is it really like for a capsuleer to wake up from the dead and find that their hair is different, that they are missing recent scars, and that their body smells and feels different from the last time they experienced it? That alone can make people a little weird in their heads. At the same time, capsuleers have become both more and less than other humans. Through their transformation, they become effectively immortal, but they also lose part of their humanity in the process. They do not age anymore, and, much like the ships they fly, their bodies become replaceable vessels. In fact, much of the time a capsuleer’s ship effectively is their body. Considering that not everything that makes us who we are resides in the brain, some aspects of a capsuleer’s humanity are irrevocably lost by becoming an infomorph. As I mentioned, the tales of disembodied minds being transferred into machines often contain that cautionary aspect. The subjects of those procedures become strange, inhuman, potentially even insane. It is not a significant stretch of the imagination to assume capsuleers could suffer from similar mental disorders, especially as every time they die and get reborn, they are removed further and further from the human condition.
To not only separate the mind from the body, but also assume the form of immense starships which could destroy cities and move through space at superluminal speeds is quite likely to lead to a number of sociopathic disorders, too. During this progressive desensitization, a capsuleer would potentially become more out-of-touch with the crews that man their ships or those of others. After all, to them the crew is basically a group of organisms who move through the insides of the massive war-machines that the capsuleer minds inhabit. They are part of their bodily functions, so to speak. It would be as if the bacteria in your intestines could talk to you—a very strange thought indeed.
In the end—despite all the training and preparation—the capsuleer’s mind is originally human: Having all the flaws and limitations. Who can say what happens to such a consciousness, developing over years under such extreme conditions.