TechnologyMourning and the afterlife in digital culture
As we put more of ourselves into the digital æther what happens after we pass away? From zombie Twitter accounts to Oculus Rift memorial visits, technology enables many new ways to mourn you.
2045 A.D – that is when the futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts the singularity will not be near but here. As the theory goes, the Kraftwerkian vision of man machines will have finally arrived when we upload our minds into the cloud. At that point, our species would be rendered immortal by algorithms and machine nanotechnology. Call it the dawn of homo sapiens+.
But until the singularity delivers godlike existence to such a vain species, humanity will have to settle for technologically advanced memorials and digital or virtual afterlife. Some have existed for years, others are just arriving, and many more are likely to come -- from post-death social media profiles to digitally enhanced headstones.
A brave new world of death is out there just waiting to be experienced.
As the BBC Channel 4 series Black Mirror so perfectly illustrated in its second season episode, 'Be Right Back', social media profiles are essentially distinct simulacra of ourselves. Instagram accounts might hold enough photographic data to reconstruct a near exact 3D virtual replica of a user; Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts contain enough of our thoughts and tastes to approximate our minds; and YouTube other video services and digital recordings could potentially piece together our voices (if supplied).
Our these digital simulacra actually us in any real sense? Are they any more authentic than, say, letters sent between lovers, journals and memoirs, or home videos? Some developers and businesses seem to think so.
"Be Right Back" episode of
Directed by Owen Harris, Written by Charlie Brooker
When a young man dies, his partner finds out that she can stay in touch with him by creating a virtual version of him through his online history.
For a fee, people can store their usernames, passwords and account information in AssetLock and Cirrus. Executors can then be appointed to handle the dead user's digital assets. This could prove useful in contacting Gmail contacts who might not have heard of the user's death.
Such services, coupled with Facebook's "legacy contact", would also allow a guardian to manage the social media account. The guardian would then have to deal with friend requests, download photo archives, and prevent the dead from popping up as a "suggested friend". This feature would also allow the legacy contact to delete the dead user's account.
On the opposite end of the social media spectrum, platforms like LIVESON allow people to tweet after they've died. And what would a web 2.0 service be without artificial intelligence (A.I.) that can learn?
"LIVESON will keep tweeting even after you've passed away. But to do that, you need to teach it," the company states on its homepage. "LIVESON's A.I analyzes your original Twitter feed, learning about your likes, tastes and syntax." Users can even help it become better by supplying feedback while they are alive. And, like Facebook's legacy contact, users can appoint an executor who can decide whether to keep the account "live".
Dead Social also allows users to tweet from the afterlife but adds Facebook posting functionality as well. "In today's world we have lots of friendship groups both on and offline," the Dead Social site reads. "Our free service allows us to create secret messages to be released once we have gone. This evokes memories and discussion around us and amplifies the voice that we had whilst we were alive."
My brother passed away in 2013, I still visit him in Skyrim to see the last thing he saw there. I never move his character or do anything, I just sit there and look at what he last saw before passing away.
Avatars of the dead
Immersive video games -- for both PC and console -- also present opportunities for a digital afterlife. As Reddit user lastrogu3 recently explained, he and his brother Taylor grew up playing video games. While lastrogu3 migrated to PC, Taylor stuck with his X-Box 360 console, developing a deep love for exploring the video game Skyrim. As lastrogu3 notes, after Taylor died his Dark Elf avatar named Bear became "frozen in time".
“My brother passed away in 2013," he posted. "I still visit him in Skyrim to see the last thing he saw there. I never move his character or do anything, I just sit there and look at what he last saw before passing away. I miss him a lot but wanted to share." lastrogu3 even gave Reddit users the coordinates of Taylor's avatar, where a virtual shrine was set up in his memory.
↑ skyrim screengrabs – I still visit him in Skyrim to see the last thing he saw there. I never move his character or do anything, just sit there and look at what he last saw before passing away. I miss him a lot but wanted to share
In the virtual reality game, Second Life, users can "bequeath" their avatar and world to a designated person in the event of death. Second Life developers Linden Lab will even notify virtual friends of a person's death, provided the executor has an official death certificate. Beyond this, a person's avatar can go on "living" until payment lapses and Second Life avatars can hold memorial services for the dead.
But another project aims to surpass the virtual reality afterlife potential hinted at with Second Life.
Developers talk about
An introduction to Project Elysium and the developer team behind the project being developed for the Challengepost Gear VR Jam Competition. A preview of the complete video documentary currently in production with Colourblind Films.
Project Elysium, as it is called, would allow people to have a "personalized afterlife experience" with dead loved ones via the Oculus Rift. Developed by the Australian-based company Paranormal Games, Project Elysium would allow users to construct (somewhat like the aforementioned Black Mirror) a 3D model of the deceased, with which they could interact with in some capacity. What sort of emotional reactions would virtual reality provoke in users? Well, that remains to be seen.
As the Skyrim shrine proves, digital and virtual memorials can take on unexpected forms, far beyond mere homepages or social media profiles for the dead. And with VR headsets like Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus about to hit the market, the number and complexity of these virtual memorials should only grow with time.
Monuments, for instance, offers a headstone equipped with a QR code. Once scanned by the bereaved, users are taken to a memorial page, which can feature information from the deceased and their loved ones. As Monuments notes, this could include "an obituary, family heritage and history, photos, comments by friends and relatives and even links to share content on popular social sites such as Facebook or Twitter."
Now imagine this technology combined with Project Elysium and a VR headset. Creepy? Perhaps. But that doesn't mean it won't be attempted. Indeed, it wouldn't even be the most disturbing memorial in existence.
Our free service allows us to create secret messages to be released once we have gone. This evokes memories and discussion around us and amplifies the voice that we had whilst we were alive.
↑ Cremation Solutions, which uses facial recognition technology to create 3D-printed urn replicas of the deceased's face, accurate right down to freckles and blemishes.
← Conceived by Dutch designer Mark Sturkenboom, the 21 Grams sex toy holds exactly 21 grams of their loved one. So, in a very real sense, one could have their lover inside them forever -- or at least until it gets boring.
This distinction goes to Cremation Solutions, which uses facial recognition technology to create 3D-printed urn replicas of the deceased's face, accurate right down to freckles and blemishes.Family members can even add a wig to enhance the already ghostly effect. Imagine literally seeing a dead one's face right after having a midnight snack. Talk about seeing a ghost.
If a person's idea of a memorial is of a more sexual variety, there is a technology solution -- a glass dildo that houses the dead's ashes. Conceived by Dutch designer Mark Sturkenboom, the 21 Grams sex toy holds exactly 21 grams of their loved one. So, in a very real sense, one could have their lover inside them forever -- or at least until it gets boring.
If the bereaved is not so perverse, then other options exist. The dead can also be turned into records, trees, diamonds and perfume, amongst other things. All of this is to say that technologically-advanced memorials and virtual afterlives are really only limited by the human imagination. And, as technology has proven again and again, our wildest dreams more often than not become reality.