Considering a digital afterlife

The in-depth New York Times article by Rob Walker, Cyberspace When You’re Dead, discusses many issues related to digital legacy. The paragraphs below succinctly capture some of the concepts central to the developing focus of this website.

The idea of the self escaping bodily death by transforming into an age-proof, sickness-proof essence that can be uploaded into a computer or network dates back at least to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 novella “True Names.” A year after that, William Gibson gave us the word “cyberspace” to describe a new place where humans might exist, potentially forever, outside the physical world. By the 1990s, as the Internet became a familiar presence in many people’s lives, some began to suggest that this was no mere science-fiction scenario; it was the future. Vinge was among those (along with, notably, Ray Kurzweil) to discuss the transformation of humans by technology, coming in a matter of decades, referred to as “the singularity.” The Carnegie Mellon robotics expert Hans Moravec, the artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, the computer scientist Rudy Rucker and others articulated visions of a future in which technology might truly free us from “the bloody mess of organic matter,” to use a phrase of Minsky’s. In her 1999 book, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” Margaret Wertheim contextualized such speculations as attempts to, in effect, “construct a technological substitute for the Christian space of heaven.”

Wertheim pointed out that cyberspace had become a new kind of place, where alternate (or at least carefully curated or burnished) identities could be forged, new forms of collectivity and connection explored, all outside the familiar boundaries of the physical world, like the body and geography. It’s not such a long journey to follow those assertions to the “view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body but by an information code,” as Wertheim wrote. “This is the belief that our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” She called this idea the “cybersoul,” a “posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die.”

And that, essentially, is what is implied by Gordon Bell’s assertion that his MyLifeBits project is a way to “leave a personal legacy — a record of your life.” Or to put it more prosaically, it’s the same thing meant by calling your digital traces on social networks the “nucleus of one’s personal brand.” It’s what the uncanny avatars of Lifenaut and Virtual Eternity hope one day to encapsulate. It’s at the heart of “singularity” theory.

Wertheim, it should be noted, saw the cybersoul notion as both flawed and troubling, and I would agree. Life’s essence reduced to captured data is an uninspiring, and unconvincing, resolution to the centuries-old question of where, in mind and in body, the self resides. At least other imagined versions of immortality (from the Christian heaven to the Hindu wheel of life) suggested a reconciliation, or at least a connection, with the manner in which a physical life is lived; the cybersoul’s theoretically eternal and perfect persistence ignores this concept. Most of all, though, fantasizing about living forever — in heaven or in a preserved pattern of data — strikes me as just another way of avoiding any honest confrontation with the fact of death.

The entire article is worth reading.