Would you do it?
Imagine a machine that can move you from place to place. Not a plane or a car, but a booth you step into. You tell the machine where you want to go. It takes you there. To you, it seems like no time at all has passed. To everyone else, maybe a minute or two. When the booth at the other end opens you see Stonehenge or your best friend’s house or anywhere else on Earth. Anywhere with a booth.
Would you do it?
Me, I wouldn’t even think about. I live in Adelaide, South Australia. I love it here, but it’s a looooong way from anywhere. At the moment this goes live, I’m in a hotel in Brighton on the other side of the world. It’s taken me over a day’s worth of taxis, airplanes and trains to get here. If I could skip all that in favour of just stepping into a booth (a bit like a TARDIS) and giving it directions, I would do it in a flash. Literally a flash–of electrons and photons rushing along a cable at the speed of light.
Before you decide, let me tell you how this machine works. Let’s call it “d-mat”, for starters. When a d-mat booth closes its doors and the machines start working, what it does is scan you from head to toe, outside in. To do that it uses something a lot like lasers. When it’s finished, there’s nothing of you left–not physically, anyway. That’s all been burned away. But you’ve been scanned right down to the tiniest detail, so “you” now “exist” as a pattern in computer memory. That pattern can be sent anywhere–and sent it is, to the place you want to be.
There, it all runs in reverse. Lasers in the other booth spin and weave an exact copy of you, molecule by molecule–and suddenly, as though by magic, you are back. Most importantly, you are alive. You feel the same as you did back in the first booth. You’re completely unaware of the lasers or the pattern or the cables. You’re just you, in a different place.
Let me ask you the question again. Now you know about the lasers (which really, when you think about it, destroyed you in the first booth) and the fact that what you will be a copy at the other end (not the original you, not one speck) would you do it?
Lots of people wouldn’t. There are so many questions. How can you be sure you’ll be exactly the same? What happens if something goes wrong–the power is cut or your pattern is lost or it’s changed somehow? What if there’s some special part of you–a “soul” or whatever you like to call it–that isn’t copied? Will you only think you’re alive at the other end, but actually you’ll be some kind of hollow zombie?
These are all creepy thoughts.
Me, I probably still would do it. After all, the way we get around today might seem a bit mad to someone not born in our time. We drive or fly in metal boxes with huge tanks full of explosive material over long distances, narrowly avoiding other such boxes full of other people. The slightest collision could see us all killed. We spend huge amounts of money on these boxes, and spend lots of time and even more money looking after them. In return they pump horrible fumes into the air that threaten to make us sick or even ruin the planet as a whole. Wouldn’t we be better off witouth all that, in exchange for a small amount of risk?
Also, the thought of not existing for a minute or so, between being scanned and being rebuilt–is that any different from going under an anaesthetic or being knocked out? Or even going to sleep at night? One moment we’re fully conscious, the next we’re not there at all. We always come back.
One of the amazing things about people is that we think we’re the same person we were when we were much younger, even though we looked and acted very differently, even though most of the cells in our bodies now didn’t exist back then. Why does the thought of being altered in even a tiny way by such a machine give us the heebie-jeebies?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this quiz. But it’s something to think about. Hopefully not late at night when you’re trying to sleep. (You WILL come back. I promise.) Philosophers have been using ideas like d-mat for decades to try to nut out who we are and how we feel about being who we are. I like to do the same thing, but with chase scenes and kissing.
(Originally published by Big Book Little Book in 2013)