Una Mullally: Digital immortality takes the sting out of death

Our obsession with maintaining an online presence is now creeping into the afterlife

Christmas is a bad time to be on social media. The passive aggressive tweeting about family's shortcomings, the Instagram feed cluttered with over-the-top gifts, the Christmas tree competitiveness, the Facebook updates of screaming children knee-deep in whatever future-landfill Santa has delivered.

The only thing to do is to log off. Social media gets clogged at Christmas because the innate desire it taps into – ‘I want you to see how great my life is’ – is bolstered by festive fairy dust. Make-up is applied better, meals are supercharged, interiors look nicer, and there are new goodies to brag about.

While people are mindlessly Snapchatting themselves into oblivion, or thinking more in tweets than in thoughts, or choosing to take a photo of something and slap a filter on it for Instagram rather than actually digesting the image in the moment, there’s another digital sphere to worry about: the digital afterlife.

Earlier this year, Facebook announced a new tool to ensure you can annoy people even after you’re gone. The ‘legacy contact’ allows users to hand their account over to someone to manage when they die. This social media heir can announce to your ‘friends’ that you’ve died, and other cheery things such as the details of your funeral service.


Poker with Che Guevara

Here’s hoping they’re not in charge of your status. Perhaps there should be some readymade ones that can be posted from the afterworld. “Playing poker with Che Guevara and my great-grandmother.” “Anyone else think it’s way too hot in here?” “Just bumped into Dev. He’s looking well.”

Maybe there is a logic to handing over the keys to your Facebook account when you've kicked it. A friend might do you a favour and close the account straight away so the world won't know how cringe-inducing your were in years to come. In order to get you off Twitter when you've died, a family member must present Twitter with a death certificate and evidence that the account to be deactivated belongs to the same person. There are serial stalkers who back off more easily than social media companies.

But the digital afterlife is becoming more sophisticated than online shrines on Facebook accounts or the mourn porn across social media that famous deaths create. "Who wants to live forever?" asks Eternimi, a startup that was developed as part of MIT's entrepreneurship programme.

“What if,” Eternimi asks, “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?” Eternimi aims to collect your stories and memories, and “curate” them, creating an “intelligent avatar” your loved ones can then interact with.

The desire to live forever – and it does seem that in the future that will be a technological outcome rather than a medical one – is the ultimate act of narcissism, shifting “I’m here” to “I am still here”.

What's funny about people wanting to hang around in this digital afterlife is the lack of engagement tech-addicts have with their current life. But death would be one of the ultimate attention-getters. How many likes would a status from the afterlife get? Probably more than your eggs benedict. In Minority Report, Tom Cruise kicks back with a digital 3D projection of his dead family. He's almost able to touch the holographic figures. This idea of a technological presence when you are very much offline is gaining traction.

Safe Beyond is an app that declares "Life continues when you pass away" as its blatantly incorrect tagline. With it, you can leave messages for your loved ones to receive on a specific date, such as anniversaries or birthdays, or Monday nights: "put out the recycling bags." There are messages people can view after an event such as a wedding: "I know I'm dead, but what were you thinking?" And there are social media messages, farewell posts on Facebook and Twitter, which you can compose before you die. This PS: I Love You approach to death shows the level of our compulsion to be online, even when we're not alive any more.

Mind uploading

Ray Kurzweil

, the inventor, futurist and author, has been talking about singularity and expanding our brainpower for years. He predicts that by creating synthetic neocortexes, we will be able to connect our own brains to others and that eventually we’ll have access to the so-called Cloud of digitised information in our own brains, making us more intelligent.

Many transhumanists such as Kurzweil talk about mind uploading, or transferring our consciousness to some kind of device or network, making us immortal in a strange sort of way.

Previously, the idea of immortality in a science fiction context always seemed to involve some element of cryogenic freezing. Living forever digitally is more of an abstract approach, one that encourages us to think differently about what being immortal actually entails. And even though it can be harder to grasp, it’s also probably more realistic. But who would want it?