Are you leaving behind a digital inheritance or a digital zombie?

As I was researching for the post on the Facebook app, If I die, I came across a Ted talk by Adam Ostrow. His talk was titled: After your final status update. It is about his idea for the future of our digital inheritance. He pondered the possibility that all the digital content we create during our lifetime, could be used to create digital personas. These in turn can interact with the living even after our death. Click here to view the video. Here is a transcript excerpt of his talk that inspired me to write this post.

But what if those robots were able to interact based on the unique characteristics of a specific person based on the hundreds of thousands of pieces of content that person produces in their lifetime?

Finally, think back to this famous scene from election night 2008 back in the United States, where CNN beamed a live hologram of hip hop artist will.i.am into their studio for an interview with Anderson Cooper. What if we were able to use that same type of technology to beam a representation of our loved ones into our living rooms — interacting in a very lifelike way based on all the content they created while they were alive? I think that’s going to become completely possible as the amount of data we’re producing and technology’s ability to understand it both expand exponentially. Now in closing, I think what we all need to be thinking about is if we want that to become our reality — and if so, what it means for a definition of life and everything that comes after it.

Do the contents we are creating accurately describe us?
Adam mentions in his talk that on average of 200 million tweets are posted in a day and each user creates about 90 pieces of content on Facebook in a month. By the sounds of it, we are creating a lot of content. There should be enough input for some machine to analyse all the content we have created and generate a digital persona incorporating our interests and views. Theoretically this digital persona would create new content on its own and continue to interact with the world and no one might be the wiser for it.

But how much of the content we are creating is new content and how much of it is forwarding content created by someone else? Of course you might argue that the act of forwarding in an indication of our interest. Is it really? Or do we think about what others would favour and post accordingly? Of all the videos uploaded on YouTube, what proportion are rip offs of TV series and movies and how many are original? (One user uploaded a video of a popular TV series and added the disclaimer “No copy right intended”. I wonder if the producers would agree with her. :-)) How about the YouTube stars? Is the image they are presenting really theirs or are they saying and doing stuff just to attract the clicks? How would their loved ones react, when this digital persona is brought to life? Would they feel as if they are communicating with someone they know or would they think that it is a stranger?

Do I want this to be my reality?
Two aspects come to mind when I consider this question. One aspect is would I want to “live” on after death, albeit in a digital form? A part of me says yes. Otherwise why do I blog? There are other ways I can improve my writing. Don’t we all feel the need to leave some kind of “legacy” behind? Leave something that would make others think of us after we are dead? What about all the photos we take and videos we make? Even having children could be seen as a way of keeping a part of our genes alive. It might sound narcissistic. But I think that human beings are somewhat narcissistic; some more than others. But would I want some algorithm to calculate what I would post, if I were alive and do it on my behalf? I don’t think so. I might want people to read what I had written but not what I might have written.

The second aspect is would I want to digitally interact with a dead person? Every one deals with loss in a different way. In the movies, grieving people often watch home videos or photos showing the person, who passed away. Wouldn’t a hologram of the loved one sitting next to me and conversing with me- using words written by my loved one- be more satisfying? Wouldn’t it be great to get an answer to a question and the answer would be what your dad would have told you had he been alive? On a superficial level I would say yes. If I really think about it, I would have to answer with a No.

Saying goodbye might be the hardest thing to do. But wouldn’t having a digital replica to hang on to only prolong the grieving period? The temptation might be great to hang on to an inanimate being; especially when we are feeling lonely and vulnerable. The movie Lars and the Real Girl comes to my mind. In the movie, shy and single Lars compensates his loneliness with a Real Girl doll. The whole village plays along, treating the doll like a real person and giving him the feeling that he is in a real relationship. Eventually he doesn’t need the doll and she dies from an “illness”, giving him the opportunity to meet a real girl. I think there is a danger of people withdrawing from reality and leading a life with a digital persona, if they feel alone.

Definition of life and what comes after it
I do not want to get into a religious discussion here. I am Christian and my definition of life after death is different from those of other religions. I would like to sum up the points I made earlier though. In my opinion, if it possible to live digitally after death, we all might spend more thought over the contents we generate in the digital world. After all these contents would make up the “genetic” code of our digital being.

From the perspective of the one living and interacting with a digital zombie, it could mess up the rest of our lives, if we become dependent on it and use it to delay dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. I would rather manually go through the posts, photos and videos instead of having a machine do it for me. I think it is a necessary process of dealing with death. On the other hand, to have a hologram repeating but not creating new content is a much comfortable way to do through the digital inheritance of a person than surfing through posts on the internet.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Are you leaving behind a digital inheritance or a digital zombie?

  1. What an interesting concept. But when I think about the trivial nature of so many of our FB and Twitter updates, I think our digital inheritance would be one-dimensional and boringly repetitive!

  2. i completely agree with the fact that dealing with the grief of a loved one’s death is as it is very difficult and such digital zombies will only make the process tougher! well written!

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