I’m back tanned and rested. I know travel to warm places in the middle of the winter is hardly PC for someone with my interest in sustainability, but it did feel great. Being human involves lots of contradictions.
After going through the pile of accumulated stuff on the computer and otherwise, I started to catch up with long overdue reading. In the pile I found an copy of a recent NYTimes magazine with an article that created very strange overtones. Rob Walker, the author, writes about life continuing in cyberspace after the body dies. A perfect target for one of my rants against information technology. The article begins with this line, “The Internet promises a kind of immortality, a digital echo of the lives we lived. Which is exciting and also terrifying.” I have been concerned by just the opposite effect of the Internet and its communication and social networking programs. They diminish our inherent human quality of care and aliveness.
Much of the article focuses on all the personal things that are already hanging out there in cyberspace and will stay there when we die until the servers conk out or somebody removes them. Unsurprisingly, this new form of personal presence has spawned new businesses–removing all traces of that cyber-presence after you die or hiring a ‘legal’ executor to manage your digital estate.
Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders.
At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000. Academics have begun to explore the subject (how does this change the way we remember and grieve?), social-media consultants have begun to talk about it (what are the legal implications?) and entrepreneurs are trying to build whole new businesses around digital-afterlife management (is there a profit opportunity here?). Evan Carroll and John Romano, interaction-design experts in Raleigh, N.C., who run a site called TheDigitalBeyond.com, have just published a tips-and- planning book, “Your Digital Afterlife,” with advice about such matters as appointing a “digital executor.”
But that was not what really captured my interest in the article. I quickly formed a picture of the cyber-presence as a kind of soul that lingers after the body dies. Sure enough that’s where the article went. The ineffable character of soul in the Jewish tradition leaves a fuzzy, ephemeral memory trace for all who care to continue to hold the deceased in their lives. The soul floats in a space to be judged for the kind of life led by the body that held it. Since souls are a creation of the ineffable G-D, they can not be pictured any more than G-D can be, nor does their resting places correspond to any mundane picture.
Cyber-presence changes all this. The totality of one’s digital records-pictures, tweets, emails, cookies and a myriad of other chunks of data create, a kind of immortality.
VirtualEternity.com, from a company called Intellitar, also claims to convert the personal data you provide into an avatar — sort of like one of those chatbots that some online companies use for automated but more humanish customer service. “We want to give users the gift of immortality,” an Intellitar founder has said.
Will this affect the way we live our lives? Is immortality really a gift? Immortality has created lots of mythic mischief. Will our humanity go the way of these myths? I hope not, but now it seems possible. This gets to the question of souls. Is the eternal cyber-presence a kind of soul, the mysterious entity in which our new-found immortality is embodied?
In her 1999 book, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” Margaret Wertheim contextualized such speculations as attempts to, in effect, “construct a technological substitute for the Christian space of heaven.”
Wertheim pointed out that cyberspace had become a new kind of place, where alternate (or at least carefully curated or burnished) identities could be forged, new forms of collectivity and connection explored, all outside the familiar boundaries of the physical world, like the body and geography. It’s not such a long journey to follow those assertions to the “view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body but by an information code,” as Wertheim wrote. “This is the belief that our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” She called this idea the “cybersoul,” a “posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die.”
Wertheim, it should be noted, saw the cybersoul notion as both flawed and troubling, and I would agree. Life’s essence reduced to captured data is an uninspiring, and unconvincing, resolution to the centuries-old question of where, in mind and in body, the self resides. At least other imagined versions of immortality (from the Christian heaven to the Hindu wheel of life) suggested a reconciliation, or at least a connection, with the manner in which a physical life is lived; the cybersoul’s theoretically eternal and perfect persistence ignores this concept. Most of all, though, fantasizing about living forever — in heaven or in a preserved pattern of data — strikes me as just another way of avoiding any honest confrontation with the fact of death.
An utterly fascinating story. If it was not the NYTimes that carried it, I might have thought I was reading some sci-fi pulp e-mag. I agree with Wertheim. The ability to create a life record in bits and bytes that do not have to correspond with the life story being created in the material world by one’s actions can be abused. The rewriting of history happens when those involved want to change their place in history. The critical role of authenticity in producing flourishing can become easily lost. Authenticity requires that the aim of action correspond to something the actor cares about, but in the existent world. Spirituality is one of the basic domains of life, but not in the sense of creating one’s immortality. It’s important to one’s Being, but only during a lifetime. Sustainability depends on human action to perfect the present world, not some distant, immaterial world.