“Death, thou shalt die” is no more just a poet’s challenge. A doctor-turned-designer-and-entrepreneur has now taken it up, promising to give to humanity a form of immortality that would dispense with, or redefine, the idea of the soul. All that people have to do in order to give themselves eternal afterlives is leave copious imprints in cyberspace. These would then be collated and fed into artificial intelligence algorithms — which are on the brink of being developed — in order to create their virtual avatars once they are dead. These would look, sound, move, interact, and indeed be, so like them that the experience of bereavement would be radically altered — minimized, claims this entrepreneur — for their families and friends. The raw materials for such a posthumous self would be all the data from Facebook, Twitter, emails, Instagram and other photographs and video, location information and information stored in Google Glass. These would, in turn, be customized and curated by the seeker of immortality during his or her lifetime, so that death becomes merely a transition from real to virtual, and a lot more fun than trekking to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.
There is nothing strange, or pathetic, about not wanting to be forgotten. Human beings have continually invented various kinds of immortality to deal with the grimness of death. What is particularly interesting in this case is the shift in the notion of what might constitute posthumous personhood after the disappearance of the flesh-and-blood person. In seeing the totality of somebody’s cyber-life — especially of social-networking activity — as making up the most immortal part of his or her existence, the history of the definition of what it means to have lived seems to have stumbled upon something like a milestone. The internet, together with its various extensions, has complicated the experience of self-invention irreversibly. It has given to people who have access to it various new possibilities of expression, and therefore of being, which may be divorced from, or at odds with, their everyday lives in the actual world. Indeed, the distinction between the real and the virtual may itself be vanishing as a result of this shift. Thus, old fears find new consolations. There is no forgetting, there is Facebook.