What happens after you die? Well according to the gospel of the good book (the facebook that is) you are guaranteed immortality in perpetuity as long as the Facebook shall live. Mankind has agonized and lamented over the answer to this question for as long as we have been capable of recognizing our own mortality. Entire religions influencing tens of millions of people have arisen based on the promise of an answer. Now for the first time in history we may be seeing some quantifiable results thanks to social networking services such as the Facebook.
Facebook has reached a point of maturation and scope that it is estimated that over 3 million of its users may actually be deceased. I first encountered this phenomenon of digital ghosts when an acquaintance, Barry Bernard, unexpectedly passed away. He had gone to the beach and was sadly drowned by a rip current. His last status update eerily stated “Getting ready for a fun day at the beach”. Since it is facebooks explicit policy to never release password and login information Barry’s literal “last words” haunted the main page of his profile for months as people poured out their emotions over his death on his Facebook wall.
Facebook spirits began materializing in earnest with the new “reconnect” feature that encourages users to interact with other users whose accounts have been idle; the goal of the feature: to bring infrequent users back into the Facebook fold.
My sister’s best friend, Christina, passed away from a lifelong battle with cancer over a year and a half ago. Now Facebook’s reconnect algorithm recognizes her accounts inactivity and frequently pops-up her profile picture suggesting that I interact with her in some way. The first time this happened I was taken aback as well as offended by Facebooks machinic insensitivity towards a person that has passed away, clearly I cannot “reconnect” with her. However the more I thought about it the more I thought that maybe this is the beginnings of digital immortality.
In fact the issue of what is to become of digital avatars or online personas of individuals who have passed away has spawned new services that offer to manage your post-humus internet footprint, services such as Legacy Locker. Legacy Locker offers a monthly fee or a lifetime membership to manage your digital assets after your death. They provide databases to store all of your email, banking, passwords, social networking data etc… as well as whom to release this information to upon your death.
Facebook recognizing this issue has created a memorializing service. Only upon a family members request and only after investigating that the individual is in fact deceased, Facebook will move a profile to “memorialized” status. Once a profile has been memorialized it will prevent new friend requests as well as disable non-friends from viewing the profile. However, all other features remain enabled such as wall posting and photos.
Not only does Facebook now memorialize the departed it has even played a role in their departure. Cyber bullying has been a buzz word in the media since digital social networking’s inception, social misfits in real life can now be bullied twenty four hours a day seven days a week in digital life. With the advent of cyber bullying however there have been real world deaths, the teenage victims taking their own lives in some cases. Their online husks now become inverse memorials to the technology that enabled their tormentors to reach them. Granted they didn’t have to be a part of Facebook but if you’re not on Facebook you might as well be a non-person anyways.
There has been some media attention surrounding the issue of the deceased and Facebook but it is still not such an issue as to be on the public mind. As this technology grows and becomes more imbedded in our lives however, these are issues that will not be able to be avoided. Especially as the intelligence of these networks and computer intelligence increases in general. We as a society will have to devise laws as to the rights of the digital deceased.
Consider this, if a young individual now begins using a product such as twitter and continues so until their natural death that could be over 80 years of mundane and idiosyncratic information collected about nearly every detail of this persons life. As machine intelligence evolves along with this collection of personal data matrices it could be perfectly possible that the machine could reconstruct a simulacra of the deceased, continuing their twitterings and musings about their daily lives based upon constructions and analysis of their accumulated personal data, literally picking up where they left off.
I already see this happening in the example of Facebook popping up my deceased friend Christina, when she pops-up I sometimes click on her profile, scores of people still post on her wall daily about how they miss her, or about some old memory. I feel this constant interaction is due in large part to the “reconnect” feature. If this were an era pre-FB the bereaved would mourn for a time and eventually people, all but the closest family members, would move on. It is as though Facebook is the master and the profiles the marionette. Though Christina cannot respond, perhaps it is only a matter of time.
The techno-determinist and digital immortality proponent Ray Kurzwiel posits that it is through incredibly advanced scanning technology that we will be able to record every facet of our human brain and upload it, in one fowl swoop, to a digital format, existing forever as digital selves. I personally have found his method of digital integration further in the realm of science fiction than anything possible, as what is to say an exact copy of a brain would produce that brains personality. Perhaps it is much more likely that we have already begun the migration to a digital existence as we upload every minute detail of our daily lives, and slowly over time and through the evolution of machine intelligence we will all be reanimated in the ether of cyberspace.