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From dust to pixels: Editorial on the emergence of ‘Death Tech’

In Kerala, a couple has engraved a QR code on the tombstone of their son. Is ‘Death Tech’ yet another manifestation of the human desire for immortality?

The Editorial Board Published 26.03.23, 03:49 AM

Is it time to write an epitaph of the epitaph? This may well be premature. But what seems undeniable is that the epitaph or, for that matter, traditional ways of commemorating the departed is evolving with technology — say, the QR code — replacing the sombre tombstone or obelisk. A couple in Kerala recently opted to have a QR code engraved on the gravestone of their son. When scanned, the code leads the viewer to an audio-visual capsule of the 26-year-old’s luminescent life. Incidentally, QR codes on gravestones are not quite novel; they have been around for over a decade now. The frenzy of connectivity fomented by the Web 2.0 ethos has led to the creation of a market for interactive, digitally connected graveyards.

QR codes on tombstones make up just one slice of the giant $100 billion pie that is the ‘Death Tech’ industry at present. Death Tech allows the living to build a bridge of sorts with the twilight world of afterlife. Facebook was one of the early players in this field when it started its memorialisation feature. The Facebook account of someone who has passed on can thus be turned into a memorial site, run by a legally-appointed legacy contact. If QR codes and social media are a means of remembering people through their deeds and other memorabilia, there is also technology that allows people to resurrect the dead, so to speak. In 2020, the musician, Kanye West, gifted his then-wife, Kim Kardashian, a talking hologram of her late father. Unsurprisingly, Artificial Intelligence is powering a range of revivals, from recreating the voices of dead celebrities to animating still photographs. There are even bots that can be programmed to behave just like the departed souls. This is, of course, the metaverse where one’s digital avatar can, arguably, live on forever.

But the human enterprise for immortality must pay heed to Alfred Tennyson’s warning that “cruel immortality Consumes”. Indeed, the lure of Death Tech can be all-consuming, obscuring crucial questions pertaining to such issues as agency, privacy and personhood. For instance, the departed seldom has any say over this very public nature of memorialisation. What is significant is that the technology-induced human absorption with the self and that of the other has stifled support for post-mortem privacy in common law across the world. Technology, it must be remembered, is also mortal. What would happen to the memories of the departed stored in QR codes when the latter go the way of floppy disks that are now obsolete? Before the transition from dust to dust to pixels becomes a reality, cultures must understand that the tryst with immortality is mired in questions of ethics.

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