What Would It Mean for Humans to Become Data?

Years and Years’ transhumanist character demonstrates the conundrum posed by merging human and machine.

Lydia West as Bethany in Years and Years.
Lydia West in Years and Years.
HBO

In the premiere of the HBO/BBC miniseries Years and Years, two parents are worried. Their teenage daughter Bethany has been hiding behind a 3D animated emoji mask and has scheduled a talk with them. Trying to figure out what they’re up against, they sneak a peek at her internet searches. When they discover that she’s been searching for information about being trans, they’re relieved; they can handle a transgender child.

Except when it comes time for their talk, Bethany tells her parents she’s transhuman and that she wants to “live forever as information.” The show represents transhumanist technology and aspirations, many of which revolve around upgrading and digitizing the human body, as a movement that will bring positive, negative, and downright confusing implications, ultimately changing the human race. The real question is what exactly that means. Humans opened the Pandora’s box of merging technology and biology a long time ago, and we’re now speeding head-on into the consequences, despite not knowing what humanity will become.

Bethany’s “coming out” scene hinges on the fact that the changes she desires are far more dangerous—and, for her parents, far more difficult to stomach—than gender reassignment. Bethany’s excitement at escaping the mortal coil brims with typical teenage naïveté: “Transhumans are not male or female, but better,” she tells her parents. For Bethany, that means no longer being human. “I will be data!” she enthuses.

Transhumanism, or the belief that humans should use technology to escape suffering and to expand human abilities, has gained momentum in tech-advanced circles for decades. The idea has even inspired fringe political parties, including in the U.S. Transhumanists create and support technologies such as robots, artificial intelligence, brain and body enhancements (for both the injured and for those who want an “upgrade”), nanotechnology, bio-printing organs, genetic modification, and consciousness transference—basically, sci-fi and superhero tech.

Years and Years, whose finale aired Monday on HBO, explores the near future, focusing on the years 2024 to 2030. It illustrates political, cultural, environmental, and technological trajectories, tugging on current trends to offer realistic, if discomfiting, glimpses of the near future. The North Pole has melted, the U.K. receives 80 days of rain in a row, and nuclear conflict punctuates growing despair across the globe. Given that backdrop, is it so illogical to decide that an earthly existence isn’t the best idea? Bethany uses the word escape to describe her desire to shed her individual and species-level identity. Her focus on shedding the trappings of the human body eclipses any concerns about retaining some measure of humanity—and perhaps that’s precisely the point. That humanity, after all, is the source of planetary (as well as human and animal) destruction.

The show demonstrates the dangers and far-fetched nature of Bethany’s goal, including when her friend goes through a botched optical upgrade on an unlicensed clinic at sea. But toward the end, the series morphs from treating transhumanism as a destructive idea. Instead, it begins exploring the benefits of integrating with data—and how the concept could become not mainstream, exactly, but common enough. Bethany receives a government-funded upgrade that allows her to use cameras as eyes. She can tap into satellite data, access barometric readings from the ocean floor, and monitor her friends’ and family members’ online activities. She still has a body, but her mind has begun the transhuman transition. While she isn’t data herself, she has access to limitless amounts of it; she is basically a superhero. The technical and practical benefits make up only part of the equation. After her surgery, Bethany describes the access to that information as “joy in [her] head.” Even though technology can strip humanity away, it can also deliver the most sublime of human emotions.

Thus, the show illustrates technology’s ultimate conundrum: Technology itself is neutral, as the aphorism goes, but in the hands of humans, it can become a vehicle for destruction or for deliverance. For a show that often represents technology negatively, the choice to cast it as an instrument of salvation is interesting, if not confusing. But perhaps that’s the point: Depending on who wields it and how, technology can be or do just about anything. That also means that those who wield it can be or do just about anything.

Such technology transcends human experience. Bethany’s omnipresence helps her aunt Edith expose the illegal and deadly camps where the government imprisons immigrants and refugees. When Edith begins filming at a camp, Bethany closes her eyes, spreads her hands wide, and enables a global broadcast of the footage. In demonstrating omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, she taps into the province of gods. Such status represents a new identity—not simply human, but not (yet) data. Bethany becomes transhuman, which the show depicts as evolution rather than as a wacky cyborg plan.

What would it mean for humans to become or create gods? Would that transition involve reaching the pinnacle of existence? Data is digital lifeblood, not just for Bethany, but for the camp’s detainees and for citizens who seek truth. If controlling data elevates Bethany from human to god, then what would happen if someone actually became data? This parallels the ultimate question: What happens after we die? Some people believe the physical body is only a vessel and that the essence of a person—the “soul,” spirit, or something else—continues to exist in some form. While the notion of an afterlife might seem incompatible with science, achieving immortality as data is another form of the same idea. The only difference is that instead of God, technology facilitates that ascendance. As journalist Meghan O’Gieblyn puts it, “What makes the transhumanist movement so seductive is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself has obliterated.” Preserving one’s consciousness as data may be the ultimate upgrade, despite questions around how much of the human experience can be translated into data (not to mention the associated physical and societal dangers).

Humans have been data-driven beings from the beginning, but can all human experiences be captured via data? In the season finale, Edith, dying of radiation sickness, becomes the first character to try to become data by uploading her consciousness so it can continue to exist in the cloud. Through technology, she attempts to forge a new, transhuman identity.

This turn might seem more at home in Black Mirror. Battlestar Galactica, Altered Carbon, Old Man’s War, and so many sci-fi stories feature people (or Cylons) who can be resurrected in another body after they die. In Chappie and Caprica, the dead’s consciousness finds a home in a robot body. And in some stories, such as “San Junipero” (the only episode of Black Mirror with a happy ending), Transcendence, and Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, the uploading of people’s minds results in everything from eternal bliss to mind control to killer computer viruses. While sci-fi demonstrates some interesting possibilities, no one knows what uploading a mind or the transition to becoming data would actually entail. But the fact that a television drama explores these ideas underscores their forthcoming transition from fiction to reality.

Even though no one really knows how to map, store, or transfer someone’s consciousness, a few companies have begun trying. A startup called Brain Backups wants to map the “connectome,” or the “genome of the brain.” Nectome is trying to find a chemical way to preserve one’s memories beyond death. LifeNaut gathers people’s data to create a mind backup as well as a robotic “mind clone.” Are these steps along the way to humans becoming data? Perhaps. Regardless, the countless unanswered questions about what it means to become data aren’t preventing researchers from heading down this path.

Years and Years captures that lack of understanding. As the copying process ends, Edith has a realization: “I’m not code.” She says to the technician, “All these bits you’ve copied—they’re not facts. They’re so much more than that. They’re family.” But becoming digital is the dying Edith’s only way to stay connected to her family, revealing further parallels to a religious afterlife—and to eternal salvation. Much as Bethany describes her digital connections as “joy,” Edith’s final words as she completes the transition are “I am love.” But for all the resolve of that statement, the season ends with Edith’s grandmother turning on her smart device and asking, “Edith, is that you?” That is precisely the right question. Would your mind file be you? Is the sum of all my quantifiable information me?

No one knows what it would mean for humans to become data or to exist forever in the cloud, but we do know that such an advancement would fundamentally change humanity. That’s neither inherently good nor inherently bad; change is constant and inevitable. Some people worry that we’ll lose our humanity, but what does that actually mean? And is that necessarily bad?

Transhumanists want to break free from the slow, natural cycle of hominid evolution. They would argue that doing so would be a confirmation of humanity, rather than a loss of it, because regardless of the ensuing changes, human intelligence and innovation made that shift happen.

Technically, we’ve used technology to benefit our lives and our bodies for a long time. With wrenching verisimilitude and “we built this world” blame, Years and Years suggests that the same trajectory that brought us antibiotics, vaccinations, surgical techniques, and so much more will deliver us to a place where we control our own evolution. Juan Enriquez, founding director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School, argues that Homo sapiens will become Homo evolutis—perhaps not by 2030 or in our lifetimes, but by our grandchildren’s. Whether via genetic modification, nanobots, A.I., cybernetic upgrades, or mind files uploaded to the cloud, humanity races toward change, and in that way remains itself.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.