You might be dead, but you can still win arguments
Since the dawn of life, there has been death. And since the dawn of death, there have been endless vain attempts, some gallant and some desperate, some real and some imagined, some tragic and some inspiring, to grasp the key that unlocks immortality.
One of the earliest literary works, the Epic of Gilgamesh, is preserved on twelve clay tablets recovered from the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s ancient library collection and depicts a hero’s search for the secret to everlasting life. Jumping forward almost two thousand years, Oscar Wilde’s fictional character Dorian Gray was consumed by his desire for eternal youth.
The human preoccupation with preventing death is as alive today as it was in the times of Ashurbanipal and Wilde.
Google “immortality” and you’ll find, for example, websites for the Immortality Institute, which engages in “advocacy and research for unlimited lifespans”; ImmortalHumans.com, an online newsletter providing “news and developments about humankind’s drive towards biological immortality”; and the official website for Alex Chiu’s “External Life Device [for] Physical Immortality”, a metal ring that is the subject of US Patent # 5,989,178 and that, according to Mr Chiu, “allows humans to stay physically young forever”.
Traditionally, the pursuit of everlasting life has been exclusively within the purview of scientists, writers, daydreamers and cranks. However, the meteoric expansion of social networks and new trends in online business are providing strange new opportunities for the everyperson to extend their worldly impact beyond the grave.
Online companies such as Deathswitch provide automated systems for post-mortem communication with friends and relatives. The program automatically sends information such as a person’s “final wishes, unspeakable secrets, love notes and the last word in an argument” to selected persons once the software “deduces you are dead”.
Eerier yet, Intellitar Inc.‘s Virtual Eternity is a Vanilla Sky-like online community that allows you to “create an eternal legacy” by making a smiling, moving, blinking and talking avatar that “looks, sounds and acts like you”. The idea is that your family, friends and even yet unborn descendants will continue to converse with this digitised immortal version of yourself long after the physical version has departed.
While such online tools are currently in the social periphery, communication after death has a place in more mainstream online media as well. Israeli start-up Willook offers a Facebook app that enables you to create an audiovisual or text-based farewell message to be published on Facebook after your death. This formalises an existing trend. For a while now, sick teenagers have been known to ask for messages, videos or blog entries to be posted to their social networking pages on their behalf after they die.
When a friend of mine passed away in a tragic accident a couple of years ago, my Facebook news feed bizarrely reminded me that “104 of your friends are attending Dave’s Funeral. Don’t forget to RSVP!” My friend’s Facebook page has become a digital shrine, with friends, years after his death, continuing to post photographs, videos, and messages such as “i dont know if you’re still checking facebook but i miss you” and “dude I just remembered that I still owe you a beer”.
As a society, we have not yet had to grapple in any organised way with the potential impact of information technology on the finality of death. Eventually, we will have to. As scientists continue to discover new ways to extend physical life, so too will software developers and businesses continue to come up with new tricks to enable a person’s digital footprints to continue their trail long after the person has died.
Deathswitches and avatars feed our instinctive hunger at least for permanency, if not immortality. But as these tools continue to grow in sophistication and functionality they will begin to blur the definitiveness of life’s most ancient full stop, making it more difficult for those left behind to let go and move on.
I don’t know how I feel about my Facebook homepage reminding me every year about my deceased friend’s birthday. And I would feel strange talking to an Intellitar version of him online. At the same time as providing comfort to those grieving a loss, these tools may in some ways detract from the sanctity of life. Your avatar isn’t you - it’s just some lines of (pretty clever) computer code. Programs such as Virtual Eternity may encourage people to latch on to hollow digital versions of the departed rather than holding onto genuine memories of the real deal.
That having been said, people deal with death differently, and there will no doubt be many who embrace the technological afterlife. What’s more, appreciation for these tools will only increase as future generations become further embedded in the online world. Like it or loathe it, one thing is for certain: it’s no longer just Casper, Frankenstein and Edward Cullen who enjoy the ability to communicate beyond the grave.
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