Touchscreen Headstone: Speculations on the Digital Afterlife

Brian Michael Murphy
June 5, 2017
Comments 0

“ wants to rely on the real substance of twenty-first-century life: online activity. There are other companies that offer related services: Legacy Locker and Entrustnet allow users to nominate an “executor” who will act out their digital wishes after death, including passing on account information to designated heirs. Deathswitch sends personalized messages to pre-selected contacts. Life.Vu offers online memorial pages for loved ones who have passed away.”

—Laura Parker, “How to Become Virtually Immortal,” The New Yorker, April 4, 2014

On an episode of the Netflix show Black Mirror, a woman loses her husband in a smartphone-related car accident. He was always staring at his phone. At his funeral someone tells her of a service that will allow her to talk to him. All she has to do is upload her pics, videos, voicemails, texts, emails that carry his words, his voice, his image, the way he moves, his personality, and the company can create an bot, a simulated version of him that can send texts back and forth, saying the kinds of things he would say, with his sense of humor, his sarcasm, his emotional timbre.

The new widow is outraged by the suggestion. She does not want to use such a service. Soon after, she finds out she’s pregnant and wants nothing more than to tell him, for her to be there with him. So, she signs up for the service, and they chat. The bot says things he would say. To be able to text with him is exciting, soothing, and heartbreaking.

Eventually she says, “I wish I could speak to you.”

“What are you doing now then? Duh,” he replies.

“I mean really speak.”

“We can speak.”

Her jaw drops open. Soon enough, he calls her on the phone, and she talks to this digital imitation of her late husband.

Soon enough, she orders the most expensive product the service offers, an android that looks just like him, that carries his personality, that arrives at her home in a box. I’ll let you watch the episode yourself to see where it goes, but as you can probably guess, it gets pretty dark. The show is called Black Mirror, after all.

This storyline has already begun to migrate from the realm of fiction to the real possibilities of our digital afterlives. When Eugenia Kuyda, CEO and co-founder of the AI company Luka, saw this episode, she had recently lost her best friend, Roman Mazurenko. She used open-source AI technology developed by Google to build a neural network that simulated Roman’s personality, based on text fed into it by his family and friends from their digital archives of texts and emails and other communication he’d sent. Soon enough, they were able to text with Roman’s “memorial bot,” his “digital monument.” These are a couple of the terms used in news articles to describe Roman’s simulated, postmortem digital communicator. But calling it a bot seems insufficient, banal, too familiar. Let’s call it an afterself. Yes, Roman’s afterself, living out his digital afterlife.

Can we see were this could go? First, let’s imagine some of the effects on human relationships. If this technology were widely available and affordable for the average person, who decides if an afterself is created? Do you get to decide whether or not you want an afterself to come after you, to speak to your survivors? After all, the afterself takes in texts and videos and pics from everyone you know, and could reveal things about you that one friend knew and another friend didn’t, or that a partner knew but a parent didn’t, and so on. As Roman Mazurenko’s mother said, texting with Roman’s afterself helped her to get to know her son better.

And if it is you who decides, what if your decision puts you at odds with your family? What if you decide in your early 40s that you don’t want an afterself? What if your spouse says, “But what if you die before me? You plan to just leave me absolutely alone? That’s so selfish!”

Or what if you do want to have an afterself, but your spouse, or children don’t want you to have one? They think it will make it harder to accept the loss of you. Will your next of kin be able to sign up for the service, like the woman in Black Mirror? Will there be legal battles to shut down an afterself? Will an illegal shutdown of an afterself by a hacker constitute a kind of manslaughter? What standing will these afterselves have?

Will we have to begin planning, along with retirement, and college funds, and wills, and everything else, for our digital afterlives too? Will there be a disruptive and illegal but popular service that creates a customized virus to move through the cloud, erasing every trace of you, a digital abortion of the afterself?

And just to take it too far for a second, how will these afterselves be regulated? Will they only be able to contact people who’ve already contacted them? What if an ex-boyfriend’s afterself is created by his parents, without concern for how it affects you. What if he texts you? Yes, you can tell yourself it’s not real, and ignore it. Or can you? It sounds just like him. And soon enough, you fall into old patterns, inside jokes, recollections of fun times. It’s only when he begins hitting on you that you wonder if flirtation from a digital grave constitutes a kind of necrophilia, which is still, for the moment, against the law. Maybe you block him, cut off contact and again, you remind yourself that he’s not real. You know he’s not real. But why, then, do you feel like you’re losing him all over again?

You can see where this is going, right? The line between life and afterlife blurs, and death as an event recedes, becomes even more difficult to discern. The digital afterlife might begin long before the end of biological life. I wonder about some of the businesses that might emerge in such a future. Take VR, for instance. I can imagine a company called Bucket that offers VR experiences for people who ran out of time, and suddenly realize they won’t be able to climb Everest or afford a ride on a space shuttle through one of those new private space travel companies. So for a much smaller fee, you can send the company your bucket list, and while lying in your adjustable hospital bed, pushing a button to order yet another popsicle, you can finally see how it feels to reach the zenith of the highest mountain in the world, and look down on the clouds. Once they put stereoscopic cameras on space probes, you’ll be able to land on Mars, look back at earth, tiny and shining like the stars surrounding it.

And then, let’s imagine a person who is very near the end of their biological life, traditionally referred to as death. And let’s say this person really wants their family to be with them, but their family doesn’t really like them, and refuses to see them. This person can hire Bucket’s sister company, Afterself™, to create virtual versions of loved ones.

And maybe it’s augmented reality, so you can actually see them surrounding your hospital bed, holding your hands, forgiving you, saying they’ll never leave your side, and they never do, never needing to go to the bathroom or get up for a drink of water or sleep. They are there, smiling, crying quietly, or moaning and wailing if you’re into that (you just need to let your Afterself™ consultant know, and they’ll update your preferences).

It’s hard to say how far back the afterself will reach into biological life, maybe before you’re in a hospital bed, maybe as soon as you retire you’ll enter into a virtual and augmented reality extravaganza, where you can finally go to Venice with your spouse of forty years, but you can go when you were young, back when you really wanted to go but couldn’t afford it, or when one of you was away at war, and you can go to the Venice of a hundred years ago, before it was swallowed by its own beautiful canals.

But we’ve no time to think about all of that, because our fictional afterselfer is almost out of time, and he’s about to experience the ultimate product in Afterself™’s array of services: Heaven. The pearly gates. He doesn’t believe it’s real but that doesn’t stop him from feeling accepted, embraced by all the light and the angels and the clouds, and the God smiling down, arms extended.

He gives in to the experience, doesn’t think about all the other options he could have chosen for the beginning of his afterlife. He could have imagined a different version of Heaven, or Paradise, experienced the weighing of his soul on golden scales in the Egyptian underworld, or stood by the banks of the River Styx and handed his gold coin to the gnarled hand of Charon, the boatmaster. He could have taken a tour of hell with Dante, and almost did, but thought better of it. Among the more expensive options were experiences drawing on stories not in the public domain, like running through strawberry fields in the Shire from The Lord of the Rings, or enjoying a meal in the great hall at Hogwarts.

No, he wanted to see Heaven, if only for a few moment, and see all the people he’d loved and lost standing there awaiting him, scan through the crowd and find that one face he could always rebuild in his mind, even decades after they’d loved each other and left each other for reasons he couldn’t even recall. “Just being young” is the way he’d often described it in the decades that followed. And he would find that face, make virtual eye contact and say all the things he’d never been able to say with his body, and finally, for the first time since they’d broken up, he would feel at peace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter