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Grave Digger


By David Ryan Polgar

Facebook notifications are useful for providing birthday reminders. I can’t say that I’ve ever bought a “virtual gift” to send a friend, but I do appreciate the nudge to send someone a birthday wish. Glancing at the end of the month, I see that my friend Michael will be turning another year old soon. Only problem: Michael is dead.

Do I wish him a happy birthday?

Social media in 2014 includes socializing with the dearly departed. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to separate the living from the dead. In the offline world it is obvious: the living are walking while the departed are confined to coffins or urns. The online world, on the other hand, is more ambiguous: there is nothing to clearly establish that one’s online avatar belongs to a living, breathing person by the same name. They may be dead, the profile may be run by a representative, or, arriving soon, their avatar may be producing original content based on a computerized personality that has been created to mimic the living person.

Welcome to the future of dying. Your soul may get to go to Heaven and the Internet.

As our world is becoming increasingly digitalized, we are erasing the normal boundaries that separated the living from the dead. Throughout the course of history we have been on a quest for immortality, and now we may have made it feasible in certain respects. In the online world you never need to go away. In fact, your post-death avatar can continue to act in ways that suggest that you are still physically living. In the case of Michael’s birthday reminder, it is mentally jarring because I associate Facebook profile photos and birthday reminders to those that are living. I’m being hit with a certain analog versus digital world dissonance.

Two major questions that couples typically discuss regarding their end of life are: Burial or cremation? Also, at what point should you not resuscitate a loved one? Now there is a new question: what happens to their online existence once they are physically dead? Who, if anyone, is going to keep up their Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram account? We tend to laugh the first time we’re posed with this question.

This is not a sci-fi scenario or a joke. This is now. This is a question we are going to have to deal with. Do you want a post-death online presence? If so, in what fashion? Should you have a memorial site on Facebook?

Services are popping up to satisfy a desire to have a post-death social media presence. One that has received a good deal of attention is LivesOn, a system for staying on Twitter after you have passed. Run by an administrator of your choosing, you would create a style now that is utilized to send out 140 character missives after you are long gone. Their slogan is: “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”

Death, it seems, in no excuse to let your Klout score decrease.

Consider what a major dilemma this is presenting. In a pre-online world, it was safe to assume that if you saw me moving my lips and making words then the words coming out of my mouth we from me. Now that we have moved to an increasingly online world where our bodies are less verifiable, it is less guaranteed that the words connected to my corresponding picture are authentically mine.

What can be mentally confusing about this scenario is that it blurs the line between the start of life and the end of life. It is what noted media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls the narrative collapse. We are moving away from the strict confines of a clear start and a clear ending (a narrative book versus a video game) and have reached a point of fluidity that alters space and time, the living and the dead.

Let’s imagine that I am diagnosed today with terminal cancer. Do I want to communicate to loved ones after I die? Should I setup a reminder to wish my wife Happy Anniversary every year?

This type of post-death communication comes up in Susan Schoenberger’s novel, A Watershed Year. One of the major plot points of the novel has a potential love interest character (Harlan) die early on from cancer. Unbeknownst to the main character, Lucy, Harlan has set up his email account to send out timed messages to Lucy that start arriving well after he has left the earth. Part of the story is how Lucy incorporates Harlan’s advice into her life, along with the struggle to understand a man who becomes more transparent after he is dead.

Schoenberger came up with the idea back in 2004; well before the concept of post-death emails were a actual option. When I talked to her about the reaction to Harlan’s emails, she stated that most of her readers find the concept romantic.  There is always a fine line between a romantic gesture and crossing the line towards “creepiness,” so it will be interesting to see how society responds to our evolving technology with post-death communication.

In 2014, it is becoming more common to establish timed emails to send out after we pass. The question then becomes, should we?  I asked Schoenberger if she would use a similar technology. “If I knew I was dying and had some time to plan for it, I might write letters to my children or record a message for their future children.”

It’s a natural impulse. New technology is allowing us to add a great deal of texture to creating an enduring legacy. Despite the shifting of time, planned post-death emails offer authentic words from a living individual who is now dead. It’s a more precise message in a bottle that washes ashore on command.

I haven’t heard from my father since January 2013, when he died of pancreatic cancer. No message in a bottle. There are many days that I wish—expect, perhaps—an email from him. Reminders to pick up firewood, plant my tomatoes, or pick his blueberries. For a man noted for his gallows humor, post-death communication would seem to open up a world of comedic possibilities.  Alas, nothing.

But what if I could chat with him right now? Would I?

new endeavor out of MIT will be allowing just that. By using Artificial Intelligence (AI), an avatar is created that is based on the life experiences and writing patterns of the deceased. Their websites asks, “what if you could be remembered forever?”

This is a complicated question we are going to be wrestling with soon. Expanding AI is opening a door into complicated philosophical questions. If I receive an email tomorrow from my father that was written before he died, I can clearly associate it with my once living father. If I chat with an avatar of my AI father, is it really him? If I treat the avatar as my father, is it bothersome that humans can be reduced to an algorithm?

I have a deep sense that we are so much more than an algorithm. Now where do we draw the line?