Structured eternity

by | London, United Kingdom

Monday, 8 August 2011

tags: emergence, europe, technology

From the ancient quest for the ‘philosopher’s stone’ to today’s databases of digital death and afterlife services, we have been looking for creative ways to address the possibly biggest concern of mankind: transience.

This year’s Orange prize winner Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, as well as HBO’s hit TV series True Blood are just two prominent examples tackling the timeless curiosity and mystery surrounding death and myths of the afterlife from a contemporary viewpoint. If John Keats were to battle mortality today the same way he did two centuries ago, he would probably be tweeting profusely.

“The fact of the matter is that all of us today are creating a [digital] archive that’s something completely different than anything that’s been created by any previous generation,” Adam Ostrow points out in his TED talk After Your Final Status Update, in which he discusses the posthumous potential of the vast collection of posts and tweets we’ll leave behind us.

Besides mentioning existing online services that can arrange to deliver your prewritten notes, emails, posts or tweets after you die, he proposes an Artificial Intelligence system that could process the vast amount of digital content in one’s lifetime, resulting in a robot that would be able to continue living a life of its own after the person’s death.

However, how much of the digital content we create is actually an airbrushed version of our true selves? Not only do we strive to portray a consistent and well structured brand of ourselves online, our digital identities across various social platforms may vary depending on who is watching i.e. following.

What underlies this concern for digital reputation may well be a worry about losing control over it. Perhaps there is some awareness of the digital afterlife underlying the immediacy of sharing content, while privacy concerns reflect a fear that our social media interaction may be posthumously revealed like famous writers’ correspondence when we can no longer control it.

Taking Ostrow’s proposal for a digital ‘reincarnation’ in the shape of AI robots, what we are actually controlling could be a form of evolution, with or without us realising it. In fact, the House M.D. episode Private Lives is based on the assumption that even in the digital world “everybody lies,” by omission or otherwise, including the avid bloggers that seemingly give account of everything that goes on in their lives.

Hence, when we, consciously or subconsciously, decide to filter certain aspects of our life in the design of our preferred digital selves, we are dictating the features of a digital afterlife that could take our place in the shape of a robot or otherwise.

Yet, at the dawn of the Semantic Web, which will be able to create and interpret meaning independently of human intervention, it’s uncertain whether we’re as much in control as we think. Paradoxically, we may be creating self-sustaining ontologies able to assume a life path of their own.

In conclusion, the easier it becomes to leave an abundance of digital footprints, the more we are drawn into the anxious pursuit of perfection, restlessly structuring, multiplying and modifying our digital identities. Now we need to be even more careful – they may end up replacing us.

© Sandra Mardin 2011

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