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Everyone knows, of course, that you cannot live forever, but did you know that you may be able to become "virtually immortal"? Some of the latest attempts at immortality are not biologically based, but digital. One such scheme is called Eternime (eterni.me), and its online pitch begins, "We all pass away, sooner or later. We only leave behind a few photos, maybe some home videos, or in rare situations, a diary or autobiography. But eventually, we are all forgotten."
To this sad fact of life (and death), Eternime then offers a solution:
What if . . .
• You could preserve your parents' memories forever?
And you could keep their stories alive, for your children, grandchildren and for many generations to come?
• You could preserve your legacy for the future?
And in this way your children, friends, or even total strangers from a distant future will remember you in a hundred years?
• You could live on forever as a digital avatar?
And people in the future could actually interact with your memories, stories and ideas, almost as if they were talking to you?1
An Avatar for You
Eternime launched its beta test in December 2015, and by the end of March 2016, it already had over 31,600 subscribers on board. Its website says it is growing slowly by "letting in a few people every week," making it sound fairly selective and exclusive, but anyone can request an invitation to join, and once you receive and answer it, Eternime promises to let you build an avatar that will interact with you while you are alive and speak for you when you are dead.
Your avatar will learn to emulate you from the accumulated photos, emails, tweets, and status updates that you upload to a personal digital archive, as well as from your direct interactions with it. Then, after you die, Eternime's algorithm will produce a digital avatar of you that others can interact with. The avatar will mimic your personality and respond to questions as you would.
While Eternime is currently the largest program to offer a digital afterlife, it is not the only one. Virtual Eternity launched in 2010, but failed due to lack of interest. It may simply have been a few years ahead of its time, however, because Eter9, the invention of Portuguese entrepreneur Henrique Jorge, started in 2015 and is currently the major competitor to Eternime. Both sites, however, may be overshadowed if Facebook decides to get in on the digital legacy business. Facebook has already made several investments in advancing artificial-intelligence technology, and it now allows users to appoint "heirs" to manage their accounts after they die.
Eternime's founder, Marius Urasche, says that in addition to providing you with an afterlife, your interactive avatar can become "your main path to personal development" while you're alive. He envisions a kind of digital guru, modeled after you, which will help the non-digital you remember important events, reflect on your life, and become a better person.2 Essentially, you invent your own mentor to guide you while you're alive and to represent you after you're dead. Of course, as Eternime and Eter9 both point out, the more you interact with your avatar by uploading social media data and chatting, the more "like you" the avatar will be.
One Eternime Twitter feed says that having a digital afterlife is "a logical extension of the technological shift [of] moving more aspects of our lives online."3 Certainly, many people are already consumed with digitally documenting their lives via social media and smart phones. Companies like Eternime offer them something that sounds tantalizingly close to a kind of immortality. Hence, what may have started as a fringe fetish of the techno-elite is now becoming mainstream.
How did this happen? To trace the path of this development, we will need to look at the history of lifelogging.
Not Exactly New
Lifelogging, as it has come to be known, is the personal side of Big Data. Anita Allen, writing in the University of Chicago Law Review in 2008, described a lifelog as the assembling of a comprehensive archive of a person's daily life using pervasive computing technologies. In other words, it is a digital record of the individual's existence.4 Unlike photography, or even blogging, which focuses on important events and has a particular audience in mind, the objective of lifelogging is to document the day-to-day activities of a person's life—often through the use of unobtrusive or wearable devices.5
Lifelogging was popularized by Gordon Bell, an innovator working with Microsoft. In the late 1990s, with help from programmers Jim Gemmell and Roger Lueder, Bell set out to digitally document every aspect of his life, including mundane emails, daily photographs, and records of every website he visited. He digitized most of his papers and documents so that they, too, could be searched using Gemmell and Lueder's algorithm. The project was called MyLifeBits, and even though it ended in 2007, Bell continues to log much of his life.
For him, lifelogging is more than a memory aid or a device for personal improvement; it is a means of leaving a digital legacy. In his book Total Recall, Bell says outright that he hopes for this kind of immortality, "where a digital version of yourself lives on and interacts with posterity. . . [W]hat if a hundred years from now, your heirs could ask you questions and you could answer?"6
Just as Eternime and Eter9 are the realization of Bell's vision of a digital legacy, early lifeloggers like Bell and Steven Mann, who donned the first wearable camera to record his life, are the realization of Vannevar Bush's vision for a supplement to human memory. In a seminal article published in 1945 in The Atlantic Monthly, Bush proposed a machine that could store and retrieve in a compressed format an individual's books, records, and communications. He described this machine as a "mechanized private file and library," and since it would serve as an extension to a person's memory, he dubbed it a "memex."7
Bush made several accurate predictions concerning the future of technology. For instance, he predicted that cameras would one day be made small enough for people to wear like jewelry and that they would be able to take an unlimited number of pictures. He figured that people would be able to store and easily retrieve all of these pictures in his hypothetical memex.
Morality, Peace & Reality
Even at its conception, lifelogging was envisioned as being more than merely practical; it was also considered a moral endeavor. Bush believed that "man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems."8 Today, we have the Quantified Self Movement, which takes an analytical approach to lifelogging by digitally tracking certain (or all) of a person's behaviors as a guide toward personal betterment. Usually this is done with the use of wearable devices, such as FitBits, or with apps that allow the user to constantly input data.
Bush also predicted that the memex would give its users peace of mind in that it would free them to forget some things because they could always be brought back to mind later. Thus, an individual could enjoy his activities without having to make a conscious effort to remember all the details. As he wrote,
[Man] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.9
This concern is what drives Gordon Bell to document his life, because he, too, is obsessed about the fallibility of memory. Bell wants to "remember" things perfectly by creating e-memories that will "make the truth of what we did and what happened around us more available, clearer, and less obscured by nostalgic make-believe."10 For him, the digital life is the true life.
Twenty years after his 1945 article about the memex, Vannevar Bush wrote a follow-up essay called "Memex Revisited," in which he reflected on how digitization had changed.11 Yet even in 1965, the developed world was only at the beginning of the digital era, and computers were still million-dollar tools reserved for research institutions. Now, of course, digital technology is ubiquitous—and personalized. Furthermore, our capacity for storing digital data is practically limitless. The latest in Big Data technology allows researchers to collect and store petabytes' worth of data (one petabyte equals more than a million gigs) that can be analyzed using sophisticated algorithms. Personal computing is constantly changing, too. Since 1997, when Gordon Bell started MyLifeBits, the advent of technologies like smart phones and cloud storage has made lifelogging even easier.
To Capture or To Experience?
Today, most people engage in one form of lifelogging or another. For instance, many people create a sort of digital autobiography by uploading on Facebook and Instagram photos of everything from the milestones in their lives, like their graduation or wedding, to trivialities like the latest dish they ordered from their favorite restaurant. Music fans will view entire concerts through their phones, as though capturing the concert were more important than experiencing it. Others must have a selfie for every new experience or get-together, and many create personal documentaries using selfie sticks. Lifelogging means that we can be our own paparazzi!
But as sociologist Sherry Turkle points out in her book Alone Together, incessant lifelogging doesn't just capture more details of people's lives; it changes the way they experience life and the way they see themselves. Many people have grown accustomed to interrupting their lives in order to document something. Like Gordon Bell, they act as though an experience is not "real" until it has been digitally captured. While studies show that loggers rarely look back at most of their lifelogs, they continue to spend inordinate amounts of time obsessively compiling them.12
Turkle once quipped that the modern attitude has become, "I document; therefore I am."13 Eternime and Eter9 both advertise that the more data you give them, the more "like you" your avatar will be. Your data, they say, constitutes a true rendition of your life. So it is only a small step from there to assuming that the data is you.14 You are your digital archive.
This line of reasoning makes the notion of digital immortality no longer a fringe fetish but a strikingly plausible endeavor. When a lifelog becomes you, your life is reduced to a collection of experiences, and your digital footprint becomes your identity.
Every person is a unique individual with intrinsic moral worth. It is natural to want to be remembered and to have a sense of having lived a meaningful life. The problem is how to satisfy those desires. Our postmodern culture largely looks to technology as providing the way to do it. Big Data technology, sophisticated algorithms, and personal digital devices supposedly let us construct our identities, provide our own meaning, and procure our own immortality.
But this is a false hope. For one thing, we cannot control whether jpegs will become obsolete tomorrow or if Eternime will go bankrupt in five years. And ultimately, we have no way of knowing whether anyone will ever even look at our lifelog, much less interact with our avatar. How sad it will be for someone to spend his limited time on earth optimizing his avatar and making a digital life for the future instead of interacting with real people and living the real life he has now, only to find, in the end, that he has built a house in cyberspace where no one ever goes. •
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