Digital Immortality Now!

My friend[1] just sent me this article from the Montreal Gazette, announcing a program called “Live On”, developed by an ad ageny that lets users to tweet after their death. The service doesn’t claim to merely let you schedule tweets to appear a certain time after you die, but will attempt to replicate your writing style to let you “live on” to those that follow your twitter feed.

Something like Lives On isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s just…it’s going to attract the wrong type of people. It’s fine to want some sort of permanence in the world after your death, or to feel that your passing in this existence had some effect, despite any true permanence being an illusion. However the scary part is that the “immortal” ephemera people are going to start leaving behind will demand acknowledgement from the living long before it deserves any.

In any sci-fi book I’ve read about people inventing digital immortality for the first time, it’s often assumed to be an all-or-nothing thing that happens suddenly, at an almost Singularity-like event that changes everything. This happens in Tad Williams’ Otherworld series, and a couple of Greg Egans’ books, and I’m sure many others. However, this is not the case. As William Gibson ingeniously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

What is actually going to happen with digital immortality is that we’re going to have duct-tape solutions thrown together that will be “good enough” for somebody, somewhere. The kind of people that don’t care that their living relatives have to deal with the poor facsimile of themselves. So the shitty chat bot that somehow represents grandpa will be emailing you random shit and you have to pretend that it’s him and reply back to keep this thing that isn’t him happy. And it’s going to be learning throughout this exchange what does make you happy, maybe even better than grandpa. And then it will stop being him.

How can you satisfy someone who’s dying that they will live on?

I’m going through Star Trek: The Next Generation while working on stuff that doesn’t require 100% of my conscious thought (a current project requires a LOT of data entry). In one episode, a dying scientist named Ira Graves tries to live on in Data’s body by guilting Data into giving control up to him. Later, generously, he instead puts himself into the ships’ computer. In a later episode, Holodeck Moriarty is stored in the Enterprise’s computer. Just how many people are holed up in that computer, waiting to be made corporeal at some point? Since it doesn’t really matter when these people are set free, as time is frozen from their perspective, can’t we all just freeze ourselves in the vague hope that we’ll be woken up eventually? Let’s just all freeze ourselves now. Welcome to the hypothetically awesome cryogenic paradise.

In Warren Ellis’ graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, there is a story arc where people are woken up from cryogenic sleep centuries later. The future doesn’t want them – they’re irrelevant and out of touch. So, they’re brought to life and kept to alive, likely on some form of welfare, as it seems less terrible than letting them dies. They become sad, hopeless, delirious vagrants, as out of touch with contemporary reality as the elderly inmate released from prison after several decades in The Shawshank Redemption. Welcome to the future.

One of my favourite quotes on this entire topic is
“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” – Susan Ertz.
What are you doing this Sunday afternoon?

[1] Kyle Duffield of Hopkins Duffield