The arrival of the digital self: “res digitalis”

The Cartesian mind-body dualism extended to the digital realm. “Cogito, digitalis, ergo sum”

The mind-body problem

The mind-body problem has been one of the most fascinating problems addressed in philosophy, neurosciences, and psychology. It is about the relationship between mind and body, which elicits some important questions such as: What is it for the mind to be housed in a body? What is it for a body to belong to a particular subject?

This question takes us to dualism, which is a vision of the philosophy of mind, historically addressed  by many philosophers since the ancient Greek times of Plato and much notably by who is considered the father of modern philosophy: Descartes, widely regarded as the more influential philosopher on the mind-body-problem.

Descartes’s propositions asserted that those mental entities or properties (res cogitans) are as fundamental as physical entities or properties (res extensa). Without going deeply into the details of philosophical arguments and just going directly to the fundamental inference, the Descartes’s conceivability argument for substance dualism concludes that someone can exist without a body, from which we could infer that a person is an immaterial, thinking thing. Having a body is not essential for a person to exist. It follows then the well-known dictum: “Cogito ergo sum”.

From this assertion, it follows the mind therefore is a special type of substance that, in principle, could continue to exist even if all physical substances are destroyed. But on the other hand, the mind is biologically attached to the body to exist. It is paradoxical, so the mind-body problem remains an open philosophical debate.

The emergence of the digital self

The self is a psychological construct that constitutes the totality of the individual, consisting of all characteristic attributes, conscious and unconscious, mental, and physical. It has been studied and researched over the years by the psychology of self, exploring the different views, approaches and models by eminent psychologists such as William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Karen D. Horney, Gordon W. Allport, Heinz Kohut and many more. We live most of the time in the physical realm, with our self being constrained to our mind-body, psychologically interacting with our daily experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But wait a second, at least until now, because it is changing without even us realizing.

It happens that nowadays we no longer live in just the physical realm, since we spend gradually more part of our time online. The 2021 daily time spent with the internet per capita worldwide amounted 155 minutes per day on mobile and 37 minutes on desktop. But this figure is steadily growing as we “augment” our physical body and senses with wearables, IOT and smart devices. The infinite storage capacity of the cloud, combined with devices that capture everything we do, produces a lot of personal data that eventually becomes a sort of “digital self”. The data created in the cloud, captures progressively the glimpses of our personality, intentions, desires, thoughts, feelings, preferences, matches, emotions, lifestyle, biography, professional skills, and so on.

We also take care of our digital self, devoting time on self-presentation and impression management through a diverse sort of activities such as posting in social networks, editing selfies or videos with distortions, and filters; publishing a well-crafted professional LinkedIn profile, writing a sounding article, or uploading videos on content platforms; interacting, responding, or reacting in community sites; chatting, and texting all day long in messaging apps, and so on.  

All the rich set of data created by our interactions, transactions, views, and listening, extends or augments our perceptual senses and physical bodies, generating continuous data related to our physical presence in the world. As our digital self grows up, our online footprint will become more pervasive, and more representative of us as a person, being co-created with multiple others digital selves as we grow up our online footprint at the same time.

Perhaps it is not so far-fetched to say that hypothetically speaking the emergence of our digital self, is producing a third entity or property: “res digitalis”, further the mental entities or properties (res cogitans) and physical entities or properties (res extensa).

A being that falls somewhere in the middle of physical being and being of mind has been created by the digital age: the res digitalis. (Kim, 2001)

The permanence of the digital self

The resultant digital self, an entity just composed of data, seems to be entangled to mind-body, but has a different remarkable property: the permanence. When someone dies, two beings cease to exist: the vital, breathing physical being, and the being of that person’s, the mind, but the digital self can continue to exist.  The permanence of the digital self is producing a growing body of research about the psychological impact on mourning of posthumously permanent digital beings. It is not surprisingly then, the emergence of new “service offerings” to preserve and take care, alleviate, and support the mourning of the posthumously digital beings.

The disposition of physical remains has not changed throughout the history, but the disposition of digital remains is producing a paradigm change that is becoming important as we have the potential to stay connected with our loved ones even after death by preserving their digital remains. Online memorials are surging, and increasingly more popular, people becoming more attracted to use them to preserve the digital memories of their loved ones.

This new paradigm growing, and now we have the possibility to dispose of the digital remains on the social networks. Facebook profiles are now durable by default. If Facebook is made aware that a person has passed away, the policy is to memorialize the account. Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away.  Twitter Memorial Accounts are coming soon and has announced that, next year, it will create a new memorialized account type for users who have passed away and a memorialization process. Instagram  offer the option too of memorialized accounts for our loved ones. You can as well have your own personal archiving to preserve your digital memories on the Digital Preservation site of the Library of Congress. The digital social profiles of our loved ones, pictures, interactions, postings can be preserved, as being valuable as online memorials, as gathering places for the community of mourners (Brubaker & Callison-Burch, 2016).

The internalized digital self

Whether we want it or not it is true that our digital self exerts a new kind of influence unto us to such an extent that, we are tempted to imagine that it is part of us. Perhaps from a psychological perspective we are close to, or we are indeed now, experimenting an internalization of our digital self.

Internalization is a process where an individual incorporates something (or a representation of that something) into one’s ‘self’, where the ‘self’ in question may take many forms, such as for example a person, or other external objects. In psychoanalytic theory, internalization plays a key role in the formation of the super ego, that represents parental and societal standards, morality, and rules internalization.

One vital element within the construction of the ‘self’ that has been impacted by our internalization of technology is the memory. Via social media platforms we are collecting and storing the ‘self’ outside of the physical body, altering the way in which we are relating to and identifying the ‘self’

 Caffrey, -.L., & Gill, -.S. (2017).

How much valuable and important is our internalized digital self (or profile)? Just look at the market value of the technology media companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft. It is valuable not just because is an isolated thing or asset. It is valuable because it is internalized on us, as we react, actuate, think, and believe in response to the targeted impressions directed to our digital profile (or self). 

The social networks influence in political elections, people’s opinions and people’s decisions, is happening all around the world. Through well-crafted media messages dispersed in the social networks, we receive impacts and impressions targeted to our digital profile. The digital realm is the front door, that knocks our senses to read, watch, or hear the media impressions, impacting correspondingly our mind as well. We process the impressions unconsciously (or pretendedly consciously). Then later our body reacts, decides, and actuates accordingly, “cause and effect”, originated from the personality mirror of our internalized digital self.

Going beyond: The embodied digital self

Altered Carbon – Image from Netflix Series

Taking a step far ahead, science fiction depicts striking futuristic scenarios, projection of our aims, expectations, aspirations, and visions of what we consider feasible realizations. Even though the digital self is in its infancy, in a primitive and rudimentary development, however it is without a doubt, a real thing we relate with in our online live every day.

The embodiment of the digital self is remarkably portrayed in the Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon cyberpunk novel (available also as a TV series in Netflix). It depicts a future, where a person’s memories are recorded onto a disk device (or uploaded to the cloud for the rich people), which is implanted later (even several times) in the vertebrae at the back of the neck, which can be transferred to new bodies after death. It is worth to comment, because its main argument is about digital-self permanence and embodiment, illustrating the psychological implications and effects of the mind-body attachment.

This futuristic scenario brings up one important result of the mind embodiment. We are not just mind or just physical bodies. Our whole sense of self is deeply embodied, it’s not just purely mental or cognitive, our self is a whole mind-body entity and property. And hypothetically from now on our whole self could potentially become a whole triad: mind + body + digital self.

Final thoughts

A digital-being is not exactly a physical thing, and although it shares many essential features of physical things, it does not belong to objective time and space.  It is scattered with bits of data all over the cloud, physically stored and dispersed somewhere. Remarkably this non-locality in space and time, became crucial during the pandemic because it helped us to asynchronously remain emotionally connected with our loved ones. Given that the physical face to face contact became difficult or impossible, our communication over the social networks and messaging platforms became essential to emotional bond with our loved ones, no matter where exactly our digital presence is.

It is now common that we interact and actuate using our digital self in the social networks, messaging platforms, media, and internet technologies available. My digital self has become an internalized psychological construct of my mind-body self, mediating perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and feelings with other digital selves that respectively represent other physical beings, without even having a face-to-face relationship. Internalization of our digital self is just the beginning and is happening now. Fictionally speaking, embodiment of my digital self could probably come later in a distant future.

The mind in principle, could continue to exist even if all physical substances are destroyed, as stated by Descartes. A promising hypothesis is the digital self in principle could also continue to exist as well, possibly making us omnipresent. Then plausibly it is not wrong to say the dictum: “Cogito, ergo sum”, could become “Cogito, digitalis, ergo sum”.


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