In one of Black Mirror’s near-future dystopias, dead Domhnall Gleeson lives on through a virtual avatar, synthesized from a lifetime’s worth of emails and social media posts. If this sounds preposterous, it’s only because social media currently offers an extremely lo-fi version of individuality. As fidelity improves, one piece of information at a time, our feeds will better represent our thinking, our ways of being, and, from the perspective of others, the experience of being around us. Online immortality is a decidedly one-sided affair (the internet is not gonna save your life), but that doesn’t mean it’s not achievable.
Currently, the idea of interacting with a dead friend’s automated Facebook feed seems creepy for two reasons:
1) Members of the first generation to grow up on social media aren’t dying of natural causes.
2) We still have reason to believe in a disconnect between the person and profile.
The majority of our interactions still happen IRL, and we can still tell the difference between human and bot. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we’re moving toward a future where all of our interactions happen onscreen. Would it be reaching to say those interactions are becoming increasingly bot-like, even if there are humans behind them?
In Black Mirror, Gleeson’s wife is, at first, leery of talking to her dead husband’s avatar, but, swayed with grief and longing for companionship, she eventually relents. Because he was such an avid social media user when he was alive, his avatar’s impersonation is spot on, even if it is limited in its bot-ness. It’s so good that his wife soon lets herself treat it like the real thing. Virtual immortality: achieved. Living forever through our avatars is just a matter of convincing our friends that they’re real — or real enough.
That process is already underway. The immense database of autobiographical information we’ve created online is like Uber (or Uber drivers, if you want a better parallel) for data-based business model-wielding entrepreneurs. Marius Ursache, the man behind the virtual avatar creation tool Eternime, is one of these types. He told Inverse he wants to mine data to “extract personality traits” and “train” avatars with memories, biographical data, and opinions. Ultimately, he says, “the avatar will act initially as a biographer or interactive diary, and later on as a memory-extension and personal assistant. It will have the personality of the owner, as much as possible.” Somewhere in the far future, he says, that avatar will be able to synthesize new “thoughts” based on the information collected. Like our oft-cited founding fathers, we’ll be able to have opinions of current events that take place after our deaths.
A similar project is underway over at ETER9, a social media network that allows users to “eternalize” their social media presence. Essentially, after you die, your Digital Counterpart will continue to post and interact with your friends based on your online behavior.
While many are too creeped out to take the idea of virtual immortality seriously, the fact that Eternime has gathered 30,000 signups and ETER9 has collected 5,000 in its beta phase shows how many people are willing to entertain the idea of virtual avatars carrying on their legacies and, by extension, treat others’ avatars with the same degree of gravity.
Why we want this is less clear, but it’s too early to pass judgment. The idea of a child learning about his family’s history through conversations with his long-dead grandfather’s synthetic personality is deeply weird but also understandable and even sweet. Ditto the thought of your digital self consoling your wife at your funeral with stories you’d fed it 10 years ago. On some level, we’d be giving our loved ones a present — our personalities — made over the course of a lifetime. It’s the ultimate in handmade gifts.
If we’re nothing more than the sum of our thoughts, then the data left behind by the hypothetical “perfect” social media user — one who faithfully keeps an online log anyway — will contain all of the information needed to recreate that person. Doing so, for better or for worse, will always be impossible. But we might be able to get close, either close enough to comfort and too close for that.