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Life and Death in the Digital Cloud


I have always thought that a day will come when human beings can live forever. It’s just a matter of time before we figure out how to do it. The more interesting question is what form our defiance of death will take.

Will we take anti-aging pills to magically stop our bodies from aging? Will we plug our preserved brains into new bodies made of sterner stuff? Or will we download all our memories into a supercomputer that replicates human consciousness before our bodies die?

After watching Charlie Brooker’s “Be Right Back” in the British TV series “Black Mirror,” I’m beginning to believe in another possibility: Instead of resurrection or preservation, technology could recreate with the manifold digital footprints you leave in your virtual life.

Compiling a database of photographs, tweets, voice recordings, emails, chat logs and status updates, an artificial intelligence program could pick up a dead man’s online mannerisms, tastes, preferences and memories from his digital interactions to reverse-engineer his personality.

This was the unsettling prospect offered to the protagonist Martha, who had suffered the devastating loss of her fiance: a service that lets you talk to the dead. The computer gathers enough of her fiance’s digital footprints to let her talk on the phone with him. She enhances this virtual reincarnation by reminding him of certain memories he’s meant to have, which he retains.

The virtual life that once seemed nothing more than a thin simulacrum acquires a life of its own through artificial intelligence, which calculates a life “essence” from the bits of personality sprinkled into the digital infrastructure. “You,” or something that behaves and speaks very much like you, lives on in the machine.

This may sound like sci-fi taking reality to a logical extreme, but here’s something that might creep you out: It’s already happening.

LivesOn, a social media service in beta testing, uses artificial intelligence to mimic an individual’s Twitter activity, keeping an online persona alive after the physical self has kicked the bucket. “When your heart stops beating,” goes the company’s tagline, “you’ll keep tweeting.”

Other apps, like IfIDie1st, offer people a “once in a lifetime chance” at posthumous fame by broadcasting AI-generated messages on various social networking platforms. “Immortality is right around the corner,” intones the ghoulish advertisement, “along with death.”

We already speak of living multiple lives — one offline in the “real world” and as many virtual online lives as we care to manage. Some, particularly those of us who cannot live a waking day without smartphones and social media, already live in a culture of “real virtuality.” This occurs when digitalized networks of communication are so inclusive of cultural expressions and personal experiences that virtuality becomes a fundamental dimension of reality.

Our smartphones and iPads keep us perpetually connected, and increasingly our physical self is defined as much by our online profiles and postings as by our “real-life” interactions. Each tweet and “like” we share goes into weaving an elaborate digital garb that can represent us forever in the cloud. Your digital footprints are not easily erased; the Internet has the never-forgets memory of an elephant.

Rarely do we know how we look in our amorphous digital garb, or what it says about us. Data taken in aggregate can reveal information about us that we did not intend to share. Combining information from multiple sources, companies have long been able to develop dossiers from discrete consumer behavior data.

Target, for instance, is notorious for its ability to predict consumer patterns through analyzing shopping habits; the company even went so far as to discern a teen girl’s pregnancy before her parents so they could begin marketing maternity items to the mother-to-be.

Our ability to extrapolate habits from consumption data is constantly improving, and considering that habits — rather than conscious decision-making — shape 45 percent of the choices we make, the possibility of immortal virtual identities is not so far off.

Most people living in “real virtuality” are probably still too young to think about digital death while they are busy leading their digital lives. But the specter of death will not go away until scientists discover the secret to immortality for the offline self.

While we wait for that biological solution, it’s worth contemplating what happens to our digital identities when we die: Do we want to have them erased, or do we want to preserve them indefinitely in the ether(net)? Do we want to keep our digital selves alive for our loved ones? Will we create digital wills to address this, or will we let the corporate giants see to this for us?

These are new problems for a digital generation that’s living more online by the day. It is already a truism that the Internet has changed the world completely, and us along with it. And now it even appears that the perennial question of death is further complicated by the prospect of digital immortality enabled by apps. Congratulations, or should we say commiserations?

Chi Ling Chan can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @callmechiling.

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Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at [email protected]