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The future of death – why I will never die (sort of)

September 7, 2016

Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply, 1991

I have seen the future of death. Well, if not the future, certainly a future.

No, I’m not a prophet, but the other day I did have a bit of a revelation about what death will come to mean to the millennials and their children.

Let me explain. I’ve long been aware that there’s a huge number of dead Facebook users. Anyone with the password of the deceased can continue to post in the person’s name, until Facebook finds out. Likewise on Twitter.

A few months ago, an old friend passed away. His family launched an appreciation page on Facebook. Several months later, the page is still being populated with pictures and stories about him.

Then I saw a story about a woman who inserted into her wedding photo the image of her brother, who had died shortly before the wedding. His smiling face – slightly ghostly – shines out from the family group.

A few days ago, I read a piece in the London Times about teenage girls who spend most of their waking live outside school on their smartphones. Instagram and Snapchat mainly, Facebook only occasionally (yuk, that’s for parents, it seems).

And then I thought about Big Data, sucking all this chatter into all those huge digital islands. The islands are getting bigger and bigger. Even moderate users of the internet have launched gigabytes of stuff into cyberspace.

Take me for example. Over six hundred blog pieces, tens of thousands of emails, website visits, online searches and e-purchases. If you digest all this stuff, you will know pretty well what I think about life, what I like doing with my time, what I like buying, the kind of books I read, movies I watch. You’d probably even discover that I buy my underwear from Marks and Spencer.

So when I shuffle off, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that some smart data aggregator will be able to raid each of the islands and assemble a near-as-dammit a comprehensive digital picture of me, run it through a few algorithms, and turn Steve back into a living, commenting, reacting and feeling digital entity. Assuming anyone would want to approach me for wisdom and guidance, which is highly unlikely.

Be that as it may, future entities with which you will be able to communicate might not be alive, but permanently pickled in cyberspace.

In the real world this is nothing new. In some parts of the world shamans communicate with the dead on behalf of the living. In those cultures, the dead are as much a part of everyday life as the living. Even in my little country, you can go to a medium and talk to your granny, deceased cat or whatever.

In other cultures, mummified grannies hang out in people’s front rooms, and are wheeled out to take part in family occasions. In the movie Gladiator, Maximus talked to the little figurines of his dead family on a regular basis. But when the dead talk back, do they say much beyond sage pronouncements, and reminders to loved one to repair the broken ballcock in the downstairs loo? Computers, quite conceivably, will be able to go many steps further.

So will we have social media sites populated by the dead and the living, where the living maintain the personae of the dead, consult them, photo-shop them into family occasions, such that it will be impossible to distinguish between the living and the dead? And will this come naturally to those millennials who spend more time with friends online than they ever do in person?

As computers get to know more and more about us, will they be able to predict how we might react, emulate our humour, and at some stage become the person, who thereby gets to be immortal? So that one day, cyberspace becomes one vast forum populated by departed personalities busy talking to each other and the living.

The implications are many and varied.

Will the living be able to consult a cloudy oracle to get advice from their departed parents, sisters and best friends? The desire is definitely there, as we have seen with the shamans, the mummies and the mediums. And a couple of days ago came the sad story of the best friend of a woman who killed herself accidentally doing the same thing because she though that by dying temporarily she would be able to see her friend. Only she didn’t make it back.

Will the living be able to befriend the dead in order to tap their wisdom? What if we could talk to Einstein, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs? Perhaps. Plenty of source material for our animating algorithm to work out what the Bard might have to say on a number of subjects. The others? I guess it would have to dive into biographies to supplement the animation. But what of the philosophers, artists and leaders of tomorrow, whose every waking hour plays out on the social media. What of Donald Trump, for that matter?

Will machines get to know so much about us that they will be able to create a digital DNA built from our experience, likes, dislikes and opinions? And ultimately, as close a replication of our personalities as makes no difference? Will our descendants be able to get the answer to “what would Jesus do?”

Take out the digital bit, and this is nothing new. After all, a sizeable proportion of the world’s population order their lives according to the supposed acts and thoughts of no more than a handful of profoundly influential men. The hard work of interpreting and rationalising those deeds and utterances was undertaken over centuries by thousands of scholars.

What if the work of those scholars could be undertaken by computers? Could we be about to witness the birth of the first digital religion?

Think also of the arts. Computers are already creating movie trailers automatically. Some bright sparks recently came up with the anatomy of a fiction best-seller by analysing the themes and language embedded in five thousand successful novels. So it can’t be long before a computer can produce an endless series of James Bond novels without the publishers having to pay excessive royalties to high-profile authors such as Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd.

And what if there are algorithms that work out what moves us in the works of the great composers? Wouldn’t we welcome Beethoven’s Twenty Ninth Symphony and Mozart’s Seventieth Piano Concerto?

And then, if machines can replicate the thoughts, the creative process and the beliefs of the dead, why not do so for the living? So that we can set our avatars to work running countries, businesses and families, while we sit around watching box sets of Game of Thrones? Avatars that remember our “better nature”, and don’t get side-tracked by illness, depression and hangovers. At which point, as Stephen Hawking suggests, our avatars question the point of having us around wasting money and resources, and decide to dispose of us. They simply carry on doing their thing after we die, slowly degrading though lack of updates.

At which point there will be no more living, only the living dead.

Even if the computers leave us be, there are downsides, of course. Imagine the dead fighting the dead, and bringing the living down with them. Imagine still having to deal with cantankerous relatives poking their noses into our business long after their physical deaths. At what point do we replace a digital leader with another one? And how about giving the living a chance?

If you think this is all crazy stuff, you’re probably right. But do you suppose that the Taliban wouldn’t have digitally re-animated Mullah Omar after his death three years ago? After all, it was only recently that his followers admitted that their reclusive leader had expired. What’s more, you can’t snuff digital leaders out with drone strikes.

And what of the clique around Uzbek leader Islam Karimov? It took his courtiers three days to admit to his death. What if they could have kept him “alive” for a couple of years while they worked out the succession? And what would Venezuelans not give for the return of Hugo Chavez, even in a digital form?

Are we moving to an age when there are no more living, only the living dead?

Yes, I know none of this is startlingly original, but hey, it sure is fun thinking about it.

From → Media, Religion, Social, UK

  1. John Butler permalink

    Very anthropomorphic. Most species, if not all, await our demise with eagerness (if they could be so aware-they will certainly benefit from it). More important are the living: you really should buy your underwear from a reputable outlet that sells organic cotton (John Lewis does). Inorganic cotton causes growers and pickers terrible health problems. Christian Aid’s slogan: “we believe in life before death” was the subject of a newspaper crossword clue I happily noticed the other day.

  2. John Lewis? There’s a thought. I tried Debenhams’ offerings once, in Riyadh of all places. The product was not great. As a Waitrose fan (like many in my tribe), I might well try John Lewis next time I have an underwear purge. Christian Aid’s slogan is the answer to a question posed in a line from a song by the much underrated and not very successful Birmingham band, Slender Loris, whom I had the privilege of managing (not very successfully) in the mid-70s: Do you believe in life before death? If only a few more people who get their vests from Raqqa would do so…..

  3. Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s “Lives” foresaw this possibility in the middle of WWII in 1942 with a series of dinner parties hosted for historical figures, being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as our dinner guests in a bygone year. The invites were written on slips of paper and placed under a stone statue of a lion outside the local town hall.

    Why buy underwear? I simply cut the corners out of disposable plastic shopping-bags and tie the handles round my waist. Debenhams by preference.

    • Which leads to in interesting question: who would one like to speak to now? For me, W.G.Grace (I’m reading his autobiography), Genghis Khan, Augustus, Beethoven and G.B. Shaw would be a good sample…

      As for underwear, I replied to an earlier comment that my experience of Debenhams was not great, but maybe their shopping bags would be an improvement. Great idea! S

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