The idea of the copy-pasted brain, and the moral quandaries that could stem from it, has enjoyed a quiet revival in sci-fi recently, with World of Tomorrow as the must-see standard-bearer. Hertzfeldt, whose work always tends towards the absurd, had never experimented with the genre before making this short, which was his first digitally produced film. As Emily and her clone drift through the “outernet,” the virtual reality through which all people in the future apparently communicate, the environment pops and crackles around them. But for all of his fantastical imagery, Hertzfeldt triumphs by focusing tightly on his protagonist’s emotions, which are seemingly haywire thanks to their being a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive,” the clone proclaims, while acknowledging that she has occasionally fallen in love with inanimate objects in the past.
It’s hard to say too much about World of Tomorrow without spoiling its delicate balance of world-building and surreal humor. But its central, hypothetical concept, that of transferring your mind to a new body or a computer, has long been debated within scientific and transhumanist communities. Emily Clone is something of a great-granddaughter to Emily Prime, who will give birth to her first clone, who then gives birth to the next one, and so on. But is she a separate entity altogether or just a continuation of Emily’s lifespan? This clone is strange and affectless, but certainly possesses pathos and consciousness. If humans create these “backups,” are we generating new life, or extending our own?
My colleague Conor Friedersdorf examined this vaguely horrifying idea from a socio-political point of view last year. It provokes so many questions—how would criminal justice function in such a world, especially if life was mostly lived within a computer and physical concerns were forgotten? How could we conceive of any human experience without the bounds of mortality? “Nuclear war could come tomorrow,” Conor wrote. “Those of us who survive it might spend the rest of our days in misery. But that misery would be relatively short. Radical life extension via mind uploads would seem to risk inconceivably long, possibly endless misery.”
The idea of crime and punishment in a world where everyone’s brains are downloaded to computers is the subject of Richard Morgan’s seminal sci-fi novel Altered Carbon. There, consciousness is stored digitally and transferred to a new body upon death, if you can afford it; the rich constantly hop into new, youthful bodies, while the poor can linger in digital storage for decades. Coincidentally enough, Netflix announced Wednesday that it would produce a 10-episode TV series based on the book, which filters the concept of an uploaded mind through that of a cop show, wrestling with the warped morality of a world where it’s very difficult to actually kill someone and practically impossible to imprison them.