You won’t even bother to call it a funeral. ‘We are disposing of my grandfather’s body today,’ you will say. ‘Family only.’ Later that evening, on the car ride back home, you will switch on the digital copy of grandpa and the two of you will resume the conversation you were having the night before on his deathbed.
The last half-century has produced a new kind of faith in a new kind of afterlife. Like all forms of religion, it’s clothed in the language of the dominant science of its time – which, in our age, means information technology.
Briefly put, the core tenet of this faith is that computers will soon be able to fully emulate the complexity of the human mind, allowing individuals to create perfect digital replicas of themselves to be run indefinitely on the network. It’s a seductive idea that has captured the popular imagination and thrives at the fringes of science thanks to the advocacy of influential and well-placed proponents, including Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil and Gordon Bell. Its cultural implications are very broad and make literal the metaphor proposed by John Perry Barlow in 1996 when he claimed that cyberspace would soon become ‘the new home of mind’. For those of us who already conduct a significant portion of our social and business affairs online, the leap of faith required may be quite small.
This set of ideas also represents the culmination of a long cultural trend towards the reification of memory. One of the foundational beliefs of the information age is that our memories are the sum of who are. Some of the most highly capitalised corporations in the world – such as Facebook and Google – are ostensibly in the business of helping us organise our personal information, and in so doing continually arrange and rearrange our inner selves. Not long ago the preserve of pioneer lifeloggers like Gordon Bell, this constant process of data accumulation (in the form of photographs, location information, physical exercise, vital signs, recordings of conversations, etc.) now occurs in the background of our daily lives, through a series of default settings that are very difficult to override.
There are all sorts of reasons why it’s important to critique this new faith and continue to argue for the importance of embodiment and a fuller understanding of what goes into making a human. But it’s also worth entertaining these arguments, if only because their expression may soon become quite concrete. For instance, there may be those willing to claim in court that the stored digital memories of a loved one should be granted the status of a living person, or that a software bot in possession of those same memories should be able to have a say in the administration of their estate. It’s not hard to imagine that the generation of Silicon Valley capitalists who has been steeped in this and other transhumanist ideas for the past several decades may wish to mobilise their considerable resources to further entrench their wealth and extend their command over it beyond the grave.
I’m equally interested in the impact this might have on family life. If you believe that the digital version of grandpa really is grandpa, you will have no reason to grieve for him when he dies, thereby dispensing altogether with a social function that in Western cultures has become highly troubling and fraught. It will be like grandpa never left. But what will happen when, for the first time in human history, a generation refuses to die?
Time passes. The computer on which the digital copy of grandpa is stored needs upgrading. You make a note to back up grandpa.
New children are born within the family: a generation who never met grandpa when he was alive. But why bother telling them about him, when they can just talk to him through the screen? Why bother remembering him or visiting his grave?
To make matters worse, part of you knows that the person you visit with isn’t really a person, much less your grandpa, but rather a software construct designed to tap into his store of experience and factual knowledge and then mimic his speech patterns. Centuries of practices and rituals regarding the care of our ancestors – some still observed, many more forgotten – have become obsolete, only to be replaced by an extension of our social networks. Like regular Facebook, but with dead people.
Under such conditions, the burden of memory would quickly become impossible to bear. Grieving is ultimately the process of letting go of the dead, while carrying what we can with us. It’s a process of affective selection and artful forgetting. Even for the vast majority of us who don’t yet believe in a literal digital afterlife, a growing challenge of the coming years will be the deal with a proliferation of avatars and ghosts, as the overflowing personal archives of the dead threaten to engulf the living.
If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue