Death in the Age of Virtual Immortality
The internet changes how we live, but will it change how we die? By the time we pass away, we will have amassed huge amounts of information about ourselves in digital form, stored on social media sites, in inboxes, and online photo albums. Enough information, certainly, to sustain the eternal life of digital copies of ourselves – chatting and posting away into eternity.
The internet giants, as well small start-ups, are not leaving our digital remains alone. Facebook turns dead users' profiles into memorial sites, and sites like eterni.me, a strangely corporate-looking website full of videos of babies, graduations and precious family time, are selling eternal (digital) life. They do this by preserving your information and using it to create a digital avatar, a digital creature which replicates your online behaviour. It can chat to your friends when you are offline – and will, if you wish, keep going after you die.
Becoming virtually immortal is already achievable. But is the possibility of an eternal digital afterlife appealing? And why should we care about what Facebook does to our digital selves when we die? content's Filippa Ronquist talks to Carl Öhman, a PhD student at Oxford University, about his chosen field of study: the digital afterlife industry.
How did you become interested in the digital afterlife industry? It is pretty niche.
For me, it all began as a philosophical question. I didn't approach it from the angle of death, instead, I was interested in the philosophy of information. The question that fascinated me at the time was: what if we had collected all the possible information that exists about a particular person, and we put that information into some piece of hardware, then what is the difference between that and an actual person? (Apart from appearances, of course.) I was discussing this with a friend who told me about eter9.com, this freaky website which essentially does just that, it creates digital avatars of its users using all the information it can gather about them, and I realised that there was a plethora of companies out there doing similar things. I have a background in sociology and politics, so it quickly turned into a study of the ethical and economic consequences of the digital afterlife industry.
How widespread is the use of digital afterlife services such as digital avatars and chatbots?
It's difficult to say, but I know that eterni.me, for example, has around 30,000 users. There's a company based in San Fransisco called Replika, which although it doesn't focus on the digital afterlife as such, is pretty similar to eterni.me, and claims to have about half a million users. Replika is an artificial intelligence chatbot which replicates your own behaviour and thought as you keep on chatting to it, slowly becoming your digital twin.
Are you tempted to create a digital avatar of yourself?
Not really. Personally, I'm not very interested in death. And I haven't met anyone else who has created a digital avatar of themselves either. As you say, it is pretty niche.
What aspect, if any, freaks you out the most about the companies who make business out of digital afterlife?
To me, the really scary thing about this isn't the weird start-ups creating digital avatars and chatbots. I don't think either of those will ever be a huge commercial success. Instead, what I find scary is the stuff that happens on a larger scale. Soon Facebook will own most private conversations carried out on the internet. A huge chunk of history will be privately owned. What will they do with that information?
I don't think necessarily think there's any ill intent on the part of Facebook. They're not going to create a freaky zombie world full of digital avatars of your dead friends and relatives, to come haunt you. However, storing data on servers is costly. You have to make up for that cost in some way. Facebook will have to find a way of doing that. At the moment, they're listening to the parents of bereaved children to understand what the best way of caring for dead people's profiles is. They're trying to please their customers, and in doing so, they can generate more revenue from friends and relatives browsing memorial sites.
It is estimated that by the end of the century, there will be more dead user profiles on Facebook than living ones. Unless they start deleting people's data, Facebook will have to think of ways to make up for that cost. That's where it starts becoming morally dubious – you can see how there's an incentive on the part of Facebook to make death consumable, to beautify it and sell it.
Hasn't death always been commercialised and beautified?
Sure, but today it's possible to do it on an unprecedented scale. I'm coming at this from the angle of the philosophy of information. I believe information is an essential part of who we are, of our identity. We have always been able to manipulate information, to write certain things out of the history books, for example. But until now, we have never been able to alter identity in the same way that we do now. Information has always been an essential part of our identity, but today a much larger part of our communication is written down, recorded and filmed. There's greater possibility of manipulating that original information today than there ever has been – in that way, I suppose, there's a greater sense that our identities are threatened. It's not just about our relatives beautifying us by choosing the prettiest picture of us to go in our obituary.
Why do we care about what happens to us after we die?
I think it has to do with the concept of human dignity. It's a concept which applies whether we're alive or not. The body and the conscience can die, but a person still lives. And that person must be shown dignity, and treated with dignity.
Do you think there is appeal to living forever, as an online self?
Being alive is very different from existing. I wouldn't be able to live forever online, because living involves being conscious. Existing is a different matter – of course I will exist after my death. The information that forms a part of my identity will live on, but that is very different from being alive.
This question is interesting to consider both from the perspective of oneself and the perspective of one’s relatives. Whether I would want to keep existing as a digital version of myself is one thing. My family's opinion might be different. Imagine, for example, that you've just been in a terrible accident, and you've become brain dead. Your family are at the hospital, having just found out about your current condition. The doctors tell them that if they would like, they can gather all the information that exists about you, pull together years and years of data from all your social media profiles and other digital activity, and create an artificial intelligence device to pop into your skull in place of your brain. Would your family accept the offer?
How does the possibility of a digital afterlife change our conception of death?
In one way, I think the digital afterlife industry is changing social norms surrounding death quite profoundly. In modernity, we try to hide death. Most people today have never seen a dead body. Not only do we hide dead people, but we also hide our grief and our sense of loss. With the internet, however, there's a possibility of making death public again, and I think we're already seeing an increase in public mourning online. Perhaps this is only because death online is abstract, sanitised, and far removed from the death of the organic body, which is something we are still deeply repelled by and try to hide at all cost.
When it comes to our own death, I'm not sure the possibility of a digital afterlife changes much. Biological death is the end of being conscious, and that is what matters. Whether or not we can keep on existing as digital selves, we will have a hard time coming to terms with the end of consciousness.
Carl Öhman's article, The Political Economy of Death in the Age of Information, will appear in the next issue of Minds and Machines. It is co-authored by Luciano Floridi, Professor and Director of Oxford's Digital Ethics Lab.
Interview by Filippa Ronquist