Discussion Thread: Death and Digital Media

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.