Consider this another Convivial Society experiment: an open discussion thread. I’ll introduce a topic and the thread is open for anyone who wants to chime in.
This time around, let’s talk about digital media and the dead. Technology has a longstanding relationship to death. Although that relationship predates the 19th century, things get especially interesting at that point. Early on the telephone presented some users with the possibility of communicating with the dead. And we should remember that until the invention of the phonograph it was not possible to continue hearing the voice of the deceased after their death and how strange that would’ve seemed to the first people to hear such a thing. Likewise, it was exceedingly rare before the advent of photography for loved ones to have an image of the dead to remember them by.
Digital media has, of course, introduced new possibilities. By now, most of us have encountered the social media profiles of friends who have died, for example.
The theme presented itself again recently when the following tweet from a young college student went viral:
Relatedly, consider this recent patent by Microsoft for a chatbot of a specific person trained on social data. Reports on the patent have focused on the potential use of such a tool to imitate a departed friend or loved one. It reminded me of the case of a VR replica of a deceased child, which I wrote about almost exactly a year ago. Or of the growing cases of holograms of the dead performing on stage or AI generated scenes with dead actors.
So that’s it. That’s the topic. It seems to me that these developments raise a host of questions, and I’m not even sure I know what they all are. Clearly there are question about economic justice. Who profits from this professor’s ongoing classes, who gets squeezed? Or questions about consent. Did he agree to have his image and voice used in this way? But there are deeper questions still. Questions about grief and memory and the meaning of death.
Please feel free to comment below in any of these directions or others.
I'm going to start in a slightly different place, but then circle back to the digital aspect.
Having started our little farm a little over three years ago, one of the most surprising things has been the amount of death we've experienced, even before any butchering took place. A rooster who gave his life to protect the hens from a stray dog, little kittens, a baby chick. Prior to this we had lived pretty sanitized lives. It was quite difficult at the beginning (and it still is hard) but I think slowly it has forced a change on my mind/spirit. I'm not in control, and such ideas are illusions. "These things happen," is a phrase oft repeated by Yorkshire farmers in James Herriot's work.
It is strange, but doing work in the physical world has had a dual impact on me. 1. I don't procrastinate as much, because if you don't do something, there are real consequences, often for animals that you love, including death. I am no longer working in abstractions. 2. I also don't feel guilt for not getting as much done, because I understand and appreciate my limitations.
Wendell Berry notes in the Unsettling of America that soil that is alive is full of death and decomposition. The state between death and life is not as stark as we might imagine.
Which brings me to the digital, which to me personally, would be more like sterilized soil, lacking both life and death. Having taught a number of asynchronous classes online, I have at best felt 1/4 alive on them, so I actually think that the class mentioned in the tweet above is more a difference in degree not kind in comparison to classes being offered in higher ed now.
Hello and thank you for bringing the specific topic to this experimental thread. I’m actually a doctoral researcher funded by the ESRC in the UK studying chatbots such as the one patented by Microsoft or the one heavily alluded in the Black Mirror episode. Although my research focuses on the sociotechnical critique of these machines on issues surrounding companionship, intimacy, mental health, care and sex, the topic of death always creeps up. The news regarding the Microsoft death chatbot -partially belonging to the overhype for such technologies created by media outlets- came as no surprise as this was the initial idea behind Replika, a very successful companion chatbot with up to 7 million subscribers. Replika was initially created to mimic a dead friend and has evolved as a chatbot friend/supporter/ lover. As a result, while being very familiar with the topic, the Microsoft news still made me flinch. Just a human reaction I guess. For anyone who is interested further in the topic, there are tech products such as https://www.hereafter.ai/ or https://storyfile.com/ that are marketed as providing end of life digital solutions. For example, storyfile was inspired by the need to preserve the memory of the Holocaust through documenting the life stories of the few remaining survivors. These products are more appealing and “humane” for death management and grief, compared to chatbots. I think this is because death is, after all, a very personal matter. The deal-breaker for me is the accessibility of a chatbot, which available 24/7 as the person is actually still alive. Obviously, my position is heavily influenced by my studies, which explore how affective relationships with chatbots can become.
To conclude and answer the wider question for the meaning of death, a dead friend chatbot may represent the inability and strong denial of our current culture to let go. It looks to me as an approach to grief that isn’t necessarily healing (again, depending on the use and case) because it stems from the idea that we will “manage” it with our perfect tools. A very “modern” approach to grief and a capitalistic approach to grief as well, if I may use these words. Thanks for opening up this discussion, would love to explore more.
I find myself thinking, here, about the ways in which the density of recorded images and videos already changes the ways in which we relate to our own pasts: how we look back on the past selves of our childhood via curated (often by search and AI) highlights; and how we make memories and identities differently given the knowledge that what we are recording will become a way through which we remember.
I've just turned forty, and my children are seven and five. They'll grow into adulthood with an incredibly repository of information about their younger selves and lives accessible for viewing and re-viewing. Their parents and friends and grandparents will be woven through this too; and it's a wonderful but also a strange thing to think that (probably, given life's profound uncertainties) over time this repository will become a way they not only remember but also re-live and relate to their beloved dead, not to mention younger versions of themselves, others and their world.
The data is only going to grow denser, more in need of curation, and more ripe for productisation. What will be the emerging needs and opportunities in this space? I suspect, although this is only speculation, that the uncanny simulacra of VR replicas and ML-driven simulations will not be what people want, or indeed what technology is best at delivering in terms of human needs and desires; I'm suspicious of the atavistic, headline-grabbing nature of these stories, for much the same reasons as stories asking "is-this-robot-a-person" are invariably PR nonsense that taps into wild fears and hopes but doesn't tell us much about the actual future challenges tech will pose.
Prosaically, what will it mean for my children's memories of their younger selves and lives and family and world to exist in a proprietary cloud owned by Google or Apple; what will it mean for their children; what will be the services and expectations and emerging legal rights around the future of this beloved data?
The further my imagined horizon extends into the future, the harder to parse the weight of this accumulated past becomes, partly because so much can be gleaned from the analysis and triangulation of this data, not just about us, but about our world and its events; about the ways in which the past as a whole could be simulated, rather than just its people; and how entering into a game-like version of the world at various points in the past might be more of a product than conjuring up individual avatars; something that wears its artificiality, features and facilitative UX on its sleeve, so to speak; that's more like a custom interactive photo album than an encounter with a chatbot pretending to be a parent.
What will the weight of this (proprietary) past do to our future present, to our sense of time and self. Will it shift social media's games of self-presentation into something constantly more consequential? Or increase the significance of boundaries we place around public and private, the granularity with which we seek to control slippage between these selves?
I have no idea, of course. But I do feel, when capturing my family's life with my phone, that its products are for *us* and not the world; that none of it is to be shared publicly; that their negotiations with these accumulating records will, one way or another, be likely to prove a large part of who they believe themselves to be, and us to have been.
not sure I have much to add to this conversation other than the lens that... in Australian media there are specific protocols around how to talk about indigenous people who have died. Taken from the ABC (the national publicly funded broadcaster here) website:
"Bereavement practices of Indigenous Australians vary in different communities and regions. There is often sensitivity to seeing and hearing the name, image or voice of Indigenous people who have died. The naming and depiction of recently deceased people is often prohibited under customary law and the mourning period may last for weeks, months or years. There may also be a preferred way of referring to the deceased person.
It’s important for content makers to verify and, where appropriate, observe local practices in content about recently deceased Indigenous people."
The idea that the family, community, and longstanding (ancient) cultural practices of the deceased person have some authority over whether their name can be spoken, or their image can be seen... it feels kind of heartening and solid. Grief is such an intense emotion and societies are generally not amazing at allowing space for people to process intense emotions in an "acceptable" way. And when we see new technologies potentially interfering with our grief-norms or showing us the cracks in our socially-informed philosophical frameworks about death... it's all a little unsettling.
The recent example of this that stands out in my mind is Kanye West gifting Kim Kardashian with a hologram of her deceased father. It was really creepy, but I find that when I try to articulate what bothers me so much about it, the words are hard to find. I appreciated how this whole trend was explored in an episode of Black Mirror called "Be Right Back," in which a woman decides to try out a new technology that initially creates a virtual version of her deceased boyfriend, and then ends up with an android that looks just like him with all the social data uploaded into it but is different enough from him that it causes her tremendous frustration and anguish. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Be_Right_Back
And since I'm on the sci-fi track, I'll just mention that even in the original Superman from 1978 explored these concepts with the interactive hologram of Jor-El in Fortress of Solitude, where he spends 12 years interacting with his deceased father and being educated on his origins. It was also explored in Harry Potter with the Priori Incantatem spell, which seems to conjure the dead. But Dumbledore explains to Harry, "No spell can reawaken the dead. All that would have happened is a kind of reverse echo, a shadow... which retained Cedric's appearance and character." The animated portraits of deceased people were the same. They retained some essence of them and could be interacted with, but they weren't really them at all.
I'm curious to explore how people will eventually plan for their digital afterlife—by that I mean, what will the scope of their "leave-behind self" be? Will there be specific archives dedicated to memorializing an individual? To what degree will the filling of the digital vault be an active or passive decision and the next question which seems to flow from that would be: what's put in it?
Many more thoughts, which I may share later, but for now, that's the thread I'm pulling on.
I work in entertainment law and I've thought about this from the perspective of what rights my clients might be licensing to someone that could be used, as others have mentioned, to create holograms or entertainment works that were not created during their lifetime. An easy example is the Tupac hologram performance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGbrFmPBV0Y). As deep fakes, virtual reality, and virtual worlds become more commonplace, I worry that at least some of us will lose our ability to die.
The immediate and permanent natures of electronic systems have lent themselves well to information preservation efforts in particular. I imagine the general public will increasingly care about managing what occurs to their data and work posthumously, more so than how data is managed when they are alive, since the former has a stronger permanency to it.
Managing information among the transition of death is integral to this entire topic. We leave behind many influences on the world, and soon we’ll be able to use technology to better tend to the trail we leave behind for others on the way up these mountains. Grieving processes, burial customs, and cultural beliefs surrounding death exist among all human cultures, but is just about to be addressed via culturally accepted discussion and technology. I was rudely awakened to this when I saw the chaotic effects of an unexpected passing within my family.
This post is also quite a coincidence, as I’ve created a program for myself to manage my work, info, and preferences in case of my unexpected death/incapacitation. It started with me writing down emergency information on physical notes, and grew from a realization that we could encode necessary logic/security into electronic programs. It’s similar to Bitwarden’s Emergency Account Access and various Dead Man’s Switch services. If anyone’s been thinking about using one themselves, do comment as I’d love to share and trade thoughts. The discussion of these topic areas re: death is so important but it seems underserved in modern culture. Thank you Sacasas for introducing this discussion!
Meese et al, “Posthumous Personhood and the Affordances of Digital Media,” addresses three aspects of this issue: services that offer pre-death planning for exercise of automated, digitally mediated agency after death; the management of a deceased person’s digital presence by a living person; and various projects for the algorithmic animation of a deceased person’s digital presence. This is a 2015 piece so no doubt lots of developments since then. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13576275.2015.1083724
I really appreciated my husband's piece on digital resurrections in Star Wars, with his pov as an actor: https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-undeath-of-cinema
"An acting teacher of mine passed on what she claimed was an old saying, advising actors to be “the real frog in the artificial garden.” This means that the sets and costumes and given circumstances of a fictive world, be they ever so fanciful or abstract, are simply reality for one’s character. One should react as a real person would to these surroundings, telling the truth under imagined circumstances. This is not just a bargain the actor makes with the audience in exchange for the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The actor’s realness helps the audience to suspend disbelief, modeling what it is like to live in the reality of the story.
How will it affect audiences to know that the actor himself, the human face and body we identify with, is a piece of cinematic illusion? Reality, usually that of the actor, is our bridge into the fiction, fantasy, or surreality of the work. There is nothing any longer to hook us in when all we can see in the artificial garden is the artificial frog.
Acting, again, is the art of presence. The first taboo that Rogue One’s use of at-will resurrection violated was an artistic one. We don’t want actors who are the puppets of directors, each facial tic reflecting a director’s decree rather than a performer inhabiting his character’s reality. But that’s precisely what we get when we Frankenstein together an uncannily lifelike facsimile of an actor and give technicians the puppet strings."
The opportunities for monetizing such a chillingly easy way to rewrite history are endless. I was immediately reminded of former MGM head Melnick, having reviewed Chayefsky's screenplay for "Altered States" writing to Chayefsky, "Stunning, brilliant, breathtaking - but we can fix it!"
So many great thoughts already and I don't have anything substantial to add, but a quote from "The Social Network" (funny enough) comes to mind. It's the line that Rooney Mara's character says to Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg: "The internet isn't written in pencil. It's written in ink."
Initially we think of that applying to the things we say on the internet. Our opinions, gossip that might come back to haunt us, etc. But in the context of this thread it carries a bit more weight. Ryan's comment above about "losing our ability to die" seems to be a logical conclusion of that line.
One way to broach this vast subject is to invoke your own distinction – will we conceive of people’s lives as a database or a narrative in a digital future?
As a database we would have a heterogenous collection of digitized information that could be modelled and activated by an AI. These data will train a machine learning algorithm to answer questions about my “life” and enable my digital twin post-mortem to circulate in the digital world. I would live on through the answers to the questions that might be asked of it.
But who would ask? How could I ensure that my experience as coded into a database could contribute to a higher good, a desirable human project? How could I be sure it would find a place in “’the life everlasting”?
As a digital narrative, my posthumous existence would comprise a movie, an ensemble of bits of videos, situated audio streams, messages, phone calls – all the digital detritus that might be scraped up by an AI agent managing posthumous lives. I could then be prismed through a range of different story lines, intersecting with the lives of others. This would allow for multiple narratives rather than the one official biography, multiple links with other people’s timelines and narratives.
Or do we actually want a digital monument to ourselves (or even extend this notion to a whole community or eventually to the life of the entire planet)? This model has been experimented with in the form of “arks” that carry our planetary story as a kind of unchanging message to extraterrestrials.
This trend began with Carl Sagan’s Golden Record that radically summarized the human condition (a kind of obit for Earth?) sent off on the 1977 Voyager mission. Since then there have been several attempts to encode the human story into a collection of facts etched on a glorified chip capable of surviving in space. The Long Now organization is currently working on this, as is Nova Spivak – compendia of data that “summarize” the planet in the event of a total disaster.
Inventing our own digital monuments – presumably a mix of database & narrative – could be another way of not just remembering our lives, but contributing (as digital twins) to the world of the living. These entities would have to be private enough to prevent our voice and images being stolen for commercial ends; but intelligent enough to enable us to live on rather in the way in which, pre-digitally, historical characters gained a new “life” as characters in literature, opera, film, etc.
I like thread idea. This topic isn't of great interest to me but I'm looking forward to more of these.
I do remember recently hearing that Microsoft had patents on a chatbot that mimicked the dead, and that recalled or seemed like, as you have mentioned, a Black Mirror episode. And of course it is, “Be Right Back”, S2E1. But this is an old cyberpunk trope, going back to Gibson’s ROM construct of a dead hacker that helps the protagonist break into a secured space. Like you I am curious about the role of individual will here, what that person would have wanted? At some point in the future would we consider these as two separate entities now, since the “prime” died and the “clone” now is experiencing differently? Isn’t death valued because it is so permanent? But this also raises questions about how to honor or remember the dead in our daily lives. Thank you for opening up this discussion.
I do not necessarily like or dislike this thread! If available I would have said I am ambivalent to the thread in fact.
However, since you force me to consider it, these digital remains are but the gift of time.
I realize, however, that most everything is monetized in our lives these days, so I expect many arguments will be made in favor of economic realities.
Let me share a Koan for your consideration: by Wu-Men:
“Do not say that I am deceiving you today. The fact is that it’s necessary for me to speak before you, and therefore sow seeds of confusion in your minds. If a true seer should see what I am doing, what a laughingstock I would be in his eyes. But now there is no escape from it.”
Brian Sekha 🙏
Consider the possibility that nothing will be forgotten and everything will be available for immediate recall. Hive Mind Immortality whether you want it or not.