Imagine if you could live forever in a Gucci dress, explain what you really think about sex, settle a score with a friend who is no longer a friend. Perhaps you might even reveal that one big secret you could never tell anyone when you were alive. Well, quit imagining.
These days, death – that once-final frontier – isn’t what it used to be. It has been reinvented, resulting not only in unlimited wish-fulfilment options, but also potential sci-fi creepiness, indiscretion, lack of closure and a few legal questions. Technology has changed much of how we do things, so why not this profound life passage?
Now, death doesn’t have to be the end. You can live after it, employing new digital tools aimed at giving you a voice from beyond the grave. There is no such thing as last words if you want to keep sending your thoughts out into the world. Some time this year, a digital service called LivesOn will be launched as an experiment in artificial intelligence that allows a verisimilitude of you to exist online after the physical you kicks the bucket. A collaboration between Queen Mary, University of London and the Lean Mean Fighting Machine, a digital agency in the British capital, LivesOn analyzes your Twitter feed (the things you like, what you comment on, even your syntax) so it can speak for you. Its tagline? “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.” So far, more than 10,000 people have signed up for trials, co-founder Dave Bedwood informed me in an e-mail exchange. (All you have to do is nominate a LivesOn executor will who will decide whether to keep your account live.) Bedwood stresses that the tool is also “useful for the living ... people using [it] will help it get to know know them, and will almost be creating a twin. This twin will then be able to scour the Web and find out all the things you want to see, read, be entertained and informed by. Which might allow the real you to be less tied to a computer.”
DeadSoci.al, a service that stores Facebook and Twitter messages for future dates, launched recently. Facebook, which houses over five million accounts for people who are no longer alive, offers the option of turning a personal page into a virtual memorial, effectively freezing it while leaving the opportunity for visitors to pay tribute. But this also allows you to keep letting everyone know what you’re up to – from heaven. The DeadSoci.al site encourages users to set up an account and start building up an inventory of messages that can be sent out after death on specific dates – the birthdays of loved ones, perhaps – or to your widow every week. (Hey, she never has to live without those jokes that brightened her day!) James Norris, one of the founders of DeadSoci.al, got the idea after watching a television ad featuring the late British comedian Bob Monkhouse, who stood by his tombstone and talked about the prostate cancer that killed him. Brought back to life via computergenerated imagery, Monkhouse was promoting prostate cancer awareness; DeadSoci.al is a way for people to “extend their social legacy,” Norris explained to one media outlet.
It’s not surprising that digital afterlife has given rise to seminars on corresponding legal issues, such as appointing executors to manage digital assets and legacies. If you think, in other words, that dying will be the end of your worries, think again. There is digital life after death and you may not approve of it.
There is also, of course, the problem of your loved ones being denied the closure that funerals and final goodbyes allow. Can you really believe your best friend is gone when she’s still tweeting from The Other Side? Grief, on its own, is hard enough, a time of heartbreaking disorientation and readjustment that can last for years and sometimes never abate.
When death goes high-tech, the process could become harder. Still, I have always thought of the divide between life and death as a gossamer veil. Who hasn’t felt, sometimes, that she can reach out and almost pass a hand through it to touch a loved one? You can hear the voice of your grandmother in your head long after she died. You can go to a place and feel the presence of the dearly departed because it was his or her favourite location. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you can be together again because you have seen a play or visited a museum someone you miss would have loved.
And why shouldn’t technology facilitate the perception of that transparency? After all, mourning rituals have been changing in recent years. Tattoos let your loved one live on – on your thigh – if you wish. And to deal with the lack of space in cemeteries, especially in land-starved places such as Hong Kong, there are companies that will filter the body’s carbon from human ashes, expose it to volcanic heat and pressure and – poof! – nine hours later you can be wearing Bob on your finger as a quarter-carat certified diamond!
Grief is a complex human emotion, which should be expressed any way that seems appropriate. And I do think technology could be a good bridge to help ease the passage for those left behind. There are now smart headstones that allow you to swipe your smartphone on a gravestone QR code and, with the right password, see videos, hear the voices and look though pictures of the dude who’s six feet under. It makes death seem less scary, and helps preserve memories. After 9/11, many of the victims’ family members couldn’t bear to erase phone messages their loved ones had left when they knew they were going to die. When you no longer feel you can remember what someone looked or sounded like, that moment can be more devastating that the death itself.
Besides, I think that technology allows memorials to move stylishly beyond the cemetery. I’m thinking that, when I die, I would like a QR code embedded in a rock on a beach on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, where I like to go in the summer. When you swipe it, there I will be, looking out to sea, talking about what I love about the air. Holograms will be in wide use by then. So I’m thinking that a long, white linen dress will be the perfect life-after-death outfit. And my friends and family can come for a visit. Hey, we could have a picnic.