IN 2011, AS a researcher interested in death and mourning, I decided to explore the now ‘mature’ virtual social world Second Life. It is a vast, online geography that replicates with astonishing detail extravagant real-world places such as New York, Paris and London while also containing more mundane copies of shopping malls, beaches, churches, mosques, amusement parks, cafés and suburbs. These virtual places are populated with ‘residents’, people who set up lives with other users of the platform.
I stepped into Second Life with the aim of discovering how the condition of human mortality might reveal itself in a virtual world, and what
I found was significant: dozens of cemeteries that honour the deaths of Second Life residents as well as real-life family, friends and celebrities; rituals such as funerals taking place; and memorials on both public and private virtual land. I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York, military memorials, vampire graves and a memorial to transgender lives. I spent seven years visiting one particular cemetery – the Second Afterlife Cemetery – and walked through its graves, mapping the kinds of lives represented on headstones in text, photographs and video. This cemetery relies for its continuance on donations and rental fees for plots. It is a small business and a community service. Most graves are rented and so they come and go, and I’ve been able to document these changes. I’ve been told many stories about the lives behind the headstones and have been surprised by the strength of bonds created between the avatars that populate these spaces. I’ve had to wrestle with an avatar aesthetic of always youthful and exaggerated, stereotypically gendered bodies, and with the kind of emotional insensibility or dissonance of how these bodies – which replicate the age-defying, death-denying bodies of the cosmetic surgery industry – might be grieved.
I’ve found myself embarrassed by the technical failure of my avatar body to appear clothed in a cemetery – of all places – and I’ve stood near avatars I am interviewing at a cemetery plot thinking how slick they look compared to me. I’ve walked through cemeteries covered with snow while sitting in sweltering heat staring at palm-lined streets through my study window and I’ve experienced that double consciousness of seeing myself on-screen in a persona. And while I’ve also lost myself in conversations, forgetting time, my real-world physical place and rich sensory life will always matter more than the digital flesh of an avatar lifeworld.
WHEN A PERSON is no longer in the world – touchable, able to bend towards a face for a kiss, a loved hand ready for holding – the impact of loss always exceeds the recuperative, comforting, reverberating powers of their physical, analogue and digital remains. Paradoxically, the dead become more present because they are gone. And because they are utterly beyond bodily return, we need holding places for them. Souls go to places like heaven or come back to life in other bodies; bodies and spirits become part of elemental life incorporated into cemeteries, gardens, oceans and forests, or they become ancestors; the deceased live on in hearts, minds, material memories, genetic and mimetic traces, analogue and digital archives. These places revive or extend the ‘life’ of the dead.
In any time and place in human history, when new industries come into being there will always be an initial period of disruption followed by adaption as emerging technologies change how people think, live, produce, reproduce and communicate with each other. Today, biological and digital lives intersect with and overlay each other all the time. This we know. But what we might not consider enough – or at all – is that there are more types of death and temporality in stages of death and dying than ever before. For example, people live on in the memories of loved ones and friends both on- and offline, and through different kinds of traces: physical objects, digital objects, physical places, and digital places. And all of these have different lifespans, forms of control or custodianship of their own, making them complex to navigate legally, emotionally and socially in regard to their survival or future ending. Think of the contrast between a discrete physical memory object like an item of clothing, a watch, or a piece of jewellery compared to the materially indiscrete and complex memory object of a social media account.[i] A social media account is a co-created and shared story embedded in the digital lives, deaths and electronic afterlives of others. It isn’t a singular, tangible thing. A digital or electronic object such as a social media account also exists under the policy control and algorithms of corporate media entities that next-of-kin negotiate with in order to memorialise (for electronic afterlife) or delete (for digital death).
What should be done with these kinds of digital remains? Who should decide and be consulted if a social media account is going to be memorialised or deleted, in what is referred to as a second death? Just because legally recognised kin might have the legal right to decide, should it become a new death custom to consult with others (friends for example) who might be significantly invested in these kinds of remains as part of their co-created social stories and memories of the deceased? When should digital lives be put to digital rest and how much control do people really have over the digital deaths and afterlives of loved ones anyway?
The digital sphere is the new preserve of memory and it can be both reassuring and disconcerting.
Two other concepts are worth mentioning in this examination of the disturbed cycles of human agency in mourning: ‘born-digital death’ and ‘born-analogue death’. ‘Born-digital death’, as digital archaeologist Priscilla Ulguim put it in AP in 2018, ‘refers to those who have spent part of their lives generating content that never existed in analogue form. In contrast, those who lived and died without creating digital content are the “analogue dead”’.[ii] These two categories demarcate and signal both a significant intergenerational divide as well as a significant historical shift in the content, form and location of human remains. In The End of Absence (Penguin, 2014), Michael Harris considers a future in which there will be no pre-digital lives in living memory. In other words, the analogue generation who had all of their formative experiences and ways of being in the world without computers and digital sociality are fast disappearing.
TODAY, PEOPLE LIVE in physical and digital places, and this creates a complex array of stakeholders or participants in digital deaths and digital afterlives. Take the example of online gaming and virtual social worlds where avatars are projects of the self or characters put on and played in a larger story created with others. How ethically weighted for care in disposal are these kinds of avatar-based lives when their creator or animator has biologically died? Are they grievable on their own terms? The impact of a biological death in relation to an avatar life project will depend on the amount of time, money and social energy people might spend in their virtual world communities. People in the now mature, yet still alive, virtual social world of Second Life have businesses, houses, furniture, clothing, virtual pets and babies – things that form the basis of lives socially made and shared with others. Second Life is replete with lives that are mourned when a person dies in ‘real life’ or when a person who was meaningful in the lives of others disappears.
The fantasy of an avatar life might seem frivolous or shallow – perhaps – but real human life is also formed through fantasy. Fantasy is what keeps people alive, imaginative and able to cope with death. Our default reaction to virtual lives should neither be to pathologise them nor dismiss their emotional gravity. The amount of death culture in Second Life (funerals, cemeteries, memorials and gatherings in celebration of a life) speaks to the way these avatar-based lives are treated as grievable on their own terms.[iii]
Online social worlds like Second Life also enable different kinds of relationships and bonds to be forged outside the conventions and regulations of nation-state systems, religions and local moral geographies. For example, Second Life is a place of digital kinships: friends who become family, lovers who become second-life or first-life partners or both. I discovered a cemetery plot in which a row was set aside for close friends to be symbolically buried next to each other: many were already there, and a system had been set up to ensure that the last person will be taken care of.[iv] Places like Second Life can and do disrupt moral conventions around burial that have traditionally been based on a heterosexual family model in terms of who belongs with whom in socially and legally recognised relationships that matter. It is also worth considering how deeply affected human beings are by the deaths of fictional characters in novels, films and television programs. Walter White, Breaking Bad’s iconic character, has his own real-life grave in the Sunset Memorial Park in Albuquerque. This crossover from fictional death into real-world geography tells us about the creative fluidity of contemporary memorial culture and the boom in dark tourism. Travelling to memorials of historic, cultural or personal significance is part of the mobilities of the economically privileged and has a fetishistic dimension particularly in relation to sites of celebrity death.
Part of the complexity of digital lives, digital deaths and digital afterlives is the powerful role of the social media corporations that are deeply invested in our stories, fantasies, replications (avatars) and identity projects as revenue. The algorithms of machine learning relentlessly remember our digital lives better than we do. They certainly know our consumer habits and tastes. In knowing our relationships, they can unintentionally (if one can use such a human-centred word of moral consciousness) connect us to those who are biologically dead but still digitally alive thanks to their residual digital footprints in complex intersecting networks. When the biologically dead pop up on our screens, an algorithm is picking them up in our network of connections and bringing them back to us. Research shows that this is almost always experienced as quite shocking and, for most people, unwelcome. However, there is some discussion about whether, over time, people will get used to this glitch and incorporate the possibility of an unexpected ghosting into their understanding of the digital lifeworld.[v] If a physical death event was quite traumatic, it could be very distressing to be digitally ghosted: human beings are frightened by ghosts, by uncanny experiences, and digital ghosts are likely to trigger memories and feelings of loss when people are least prepared or in the mood.
We don’t have that much control over what happens to our information, the kinds of posts that other people make with our content or content that includes us, and the kinds of consumer and political profiling that is done on us as networked individuals. Our digital stories and trace histories are beyond our control. This means that we need to think seriously and deeply about our digital existential condition, as Swedish academic Amanda Lagerkvist argues, because we are living in a time of these haunted and haunting medias, these new kinds of ghosts. It is complex to navigate the transition from biological death to a digital afterlife or digital death, assuming that a digital death is really possible in any absolute sense. Wouldn’t it mean complete digital oblivion – no traces anywhere? People become digitally dead in the sense that others do not actively remember them in their networks, and in the sense that the biologically dead are not creating new traces and will likely fade away in the absence of new digital footprints. These digital footprints are part of our consumer lives and position as information commodities. Let’s not forget that we die digitally as consumers even though our digital remains may have residual value for corporate interests. We have many lives and deaths in a digital lifeworld. We die in terms of the absence of a living digital memory in contrast to our ongoing persistence in digital archives.
A USEFUL TOOL for considering how we encounter and resist our mortality is science fiction. Take the original Blade Runner movie, for example, based on Philip K Dick’s novel. Towards the end of the film, the replicant Roy announces his own death in front of Deckard, a man who has relentlessly tracked down and killed replicants passing as ‘humans’. Before his death, Roy could have killed Deckard but he does not: the replicant proves to be less murderous than the man.
‘Time to die,’ says Roy, bowing his head in tears of rain. Deckard, drenched, sits in the place of witness, challenged by Roy’s profound, reflective consciousness of the end of his time to shift beyond the discriminating distinction between replicant and human. This is an unusual reversal in science fiction: a robot wanting the right to die and thus become human through mortality.
Another film, Bicentennial Man, also addresses the issue of human replication. It is based on a novella by Isaac Asimov and offers a profound engagement with the idea of a machine-learning robot who becomes humanised. The main protagonist of Bicentennial Man, Andrew, belongs to the NDR robot series of his namesake. He has been built to develop intelligence over time through interaction and experience. Along the way, he develops the capacity to love and becomes bonded to a human woman. In doing so, Andrew becomes conscious of her mortality, and realises that his future will be one of endlessly living with loss. The inevitable, irreversible separation of her death is one he is expected to endure because, as a robot, the capacity for love has not been imagined as part of his machine learning – and because he has no legal right to die. Andrew, the Bicentennial Man, wants an ending because love makes him equal to if not actually human, just like Roy in Blade Runner. Ultimately, the Bicentennial Man is granted a death sentence. Shutting down his program, and positioned alongside his dying wife, he dies a happy man.
In the television series Black Mirror, an episode titled ‘Be Right Back’ engages with the subject of a replicant created as a substitute for someone who has died. The main character, Martha, is profoundly devastated by the loss of her partner, Ash, in a car crash. She is pregnant with Ash’s child when he dies, and she wants him back. She is encouraged to seek out a replicant service and, starting with a voice-bot of Ash preserved on her phone, she moves on to buy a fully embodied replication of his physical presence for physical and sexual connection. However, replicant Ash turns out to be nothing more than a transitional object, allowing her to move through her grief and eventually accept that the original real Ash won’t be coming back.[vi] But what happens after this realisation? In one scene, Martha attempts to throw replicant Ash off a cliff, but she cannot go through with this act; in this very moment, Martha realises that the replicant is human enough to baulk at his disposal. In the end, the replicant Ash simply ends up alone in the attic – discarded, packed away. What will happen to him as he languishes there alone, looking down in the garden at the family he has been removed from? Does he signify a future yet to come, one in which the android/robot in the attic is discovered when their human families or custodians die and have not taken care of their endings?
There is good reason to be morally sceptical of tech fantasies that promulgate these replacements or reincarnations of human lives along with their privileged sources of funding and beneficiaries. We might well wonder if they produce contemporary pharaohs entombed in computers with all the environmental costs associated with this form of ongoing life-support – just as the cryogenics movement did in the 1960s. When would such a digital life come to an end, and who would decide? Would it, in most cases, be a decision as such, or just a form of disappearing and deletion through obsolescence and forgetting – something that most of us live with through the missing memories, images and stories of our analogue family histories. Will the replicant in the attic have to be killed at some point, and would this be a murder? How should these reanimations of deceased humans come to an ending? Would the death of the replicant in ‘Be Right Back’ be two deaths or just one – one murder, two murders, or no murder at all? What is the moral status of – and our ethical responsibility towards – replicant forms based on digital traces?
These science-fiction narratives of replication not only resonate in contemporary fiction but also in contemporary digital practices in which the dead are recreated for afterlife extension or persistence through voice-bots, 3D avatars and holograms. But why do ‘we’ seem to always go in the direction of overcoming mortal flesh in our efforts to deal with mortality? To my mind, transforming into some type of post-biological death animation either as a voice-bot or avatar could be a deeply unsatisfactory, cold-blooded, melancholic abstraction, if it operates as the fantasy of post-biological death survivalism or reincarnation; in other words, if it is ego driven. On the other hand, if it is created for the purpose of mourning and remembrance it could be quite a different matter.
VOICE-BOTS CAN BE moving examples of post-biological-death animations. Key examples include Dadbot, made by the American technology journalist James Vlahos, and the voice-bot of a charismatic young Russian man called Roman Mazurenko. Roman’s dearest friend, Kudya, set about making a voice-bot of Roman with her start-up tech company in California, both as part of her own grief work and as a living memorial for Roman’s family and friends. Roman’s voice-bot has had mixed reactions: Roman’s mother deeply appreciated it and enjoyed interacting with it, while some friends found it limited, and even disrespectful.
Any digital transition and creative translation of a human life will always fall short of the original, which may be a source of grief for some and the closest, most intimate thing they can have to the original for others. A voice-bot enables a conversational history with the deceased to continue – the idea of which is certainly not a new disruptor. People talk to the dead all the time but the dead usually don’t talk back as voice-bots can. While Kudya set about requesting and gathering text messages recorded by Roman on the phones of his friends and family, Dadbot contained not only already existing digital data in texts and emails, but new digital content developed over a period of six months as Vlahos recorded conversations with his dying father.
While Dadbot is touching as a story of a son turning his much-loved father into a replicant for grieving, Kudya’s creation of a replicant of her male friend – as a young tech creative woman – is perhaps more interesting because it is outside any familial structure. But both are still examples of the memorialisation of men’s lives – lives that continue to persist in their seemingly greater importance in physical public memorials and online memorials too. We need to pay attention to missing women in digital replication in personal, public and corporate projects along with any missing media stories of their replication in digital life extension.
AS EVELYN WAUGH’S satirical novel The Loved One demonstrates, people are vulnerable to monetary exploitation during grief and loss. And we are vulnerable to this exploitation in our digital lives too. As digital death and afterlife industries emerged in the 1990s, posthumous automated message services were created. There are dozens of such companies, which have names like Deathswitch, if i die.org, Emailfromdeath, GhostMemo and Remember Me. These global services have disrupted various social protocols of announcing death, as is the case with other social media platforms. However, unlike a stranger or acquaintance inappropriately taking the role of posting information about the death of a loved one, automated death messengers are pre-programmed notices through which people who are already biologically dead seek to secure agency. This type of replication practice displaces and appropriates that grave social responsibility in which living humans – not the dead themselves through machines – carry this burden, which is a solemn privilege too.
When online businesses provide self-announcing death notices, this machine-automated act not only diminishes but breaks with a long-standing social ritual where others are tasked with delivering a message to those who most need to know. Fundamentally, it translates, transfers and transacts as a commercial process what is primarily a social responsibility, and, in the process, destroys or at least diminishes a social custom that did not belong to a corporate entity to appropriate for money in the first place. Even if these services are not particularly profitable, having insignificant actual up-take in real terms, their very existence is an expression of the pervasive infiltration of neoliberalism. To express this philosophy more concretely, when individuals take over the responsibility of announcing their own death, they shift ‘the burden’ of responsibility from the social register of obligations we have for the welfare of others. Death is a not just a biological event, it is a social event that requires a living social speech act. Importantly, it requires witnessing by and confirmation between living human beings, and machine automation circumvents this moral baseline. While people do create very moving death announcements of the passing of their physically embodied lives, expressing love, goodbyes and remembrance, this is not ethically sufficient on its own. Constructing a posthumous automated death announcement is, in truth, a conceit in every sense of the word. But perhaps someone could argue that it is an inevitable, unstoppable part of the changing affordances of born-digital lives that we will get used to alongside or in the absence of older forms of social practice.
The second major disruption created by automated messages is the capacity of the biologically dead to have social agency from the digital grave into an unknown, open future in which they prompt their own remembrance of, by and for others. Again, while some messages might be written with the best of intentions for release on important days of ritual such as birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, including anniversaries of the dead, protecting against the negative effects of these can never be guaranteed. These ghost messengers/messages may be well received at crucial emotional life stages and kept as deeply moving artefacts. But what if the content of these texts or video messages is presumptuous and even oppressive in the way it projects the life trajectory, milestones and forms of identity of loved ones? Messages written in the past for release into an unknown future are a mode of automated haunting – and ghosts can be good or bad, comforting or oppressive, or just ambiguous. Finally, aren’t these automated message systems really just another way of refusing to socially die? The dead grasping at more life through the lives of loved others is a common ghost story trope of the frightening kind. Shouldn’t we let the business of remembering and mourning belong to the living and let go of our egos for their sake? These digital processes of holding on to life with some kind of agency from the grave are really only possible in a world where physical mortality – that loss of consciousness and physical presence in the world – is somehow forgotten as being the deepest, most significant existential reality.
While digital afterlives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Reddit and so on might provide valuable content to reconstruct a post-biological afterlife via an avatar or voice-bot, these traces are often quite performative and curated, and may lack a much deeper kind of subjectivity that captures the ‘essence’ or character of a person. Those more revealing proximities of a self and a life might be found in the intimacies of emails or text messages, such as Kudya found when creating the voice-bot of Roman. And there is most surely an evocative richness in these types of creative animated artefacts. This is not just because they are rich in content or they incorporate remains of the body through the deceased person’s voice, speech patterns or phraseologies, but mostly because they are first and foremost a labour of love. They take time to make, to bring into being, and as such constitute a kind of gift not just to the living but to the dead – even if the latter don’t receive it. A voice-bot creation, like an avatar, requires creators to actively spend time with the deceased, sorting through their digital archives, being surprised by the photos, conversations or other relics they may find – just as people are often surprised by the things they find when sorting through the drawers and cupboards of their deceased loved ones.[vii]
AS IN ALL realms of life, human beings have adapted to and in turn adapted their technologies in terms of how death and dying are managed, ritualised, documented and archived. This adaption is not universal, nor is it global even in value or relevance. Inevitably, there are fraught periods in which new technologies are embroiled in ethical debates about their social value, or their capacity to do good as well as harm, along with debates about their uneven and unequal access and inclusivity.
Whatever the technologies at hand, be they medical, media or computational, human beings will continue to find ways of imagining and extending the afterlives of the dead. This is not just a matter of the egoism of human exceptionalism; it is, I would argue, more profoundly about the bonds of love. We do not want to leave and let go of those we love. Even as we grieve our losses there is never a zero point where the deceased are totally absent from our lives, memories, dreams and fantasies – they are far too intertwined in our biographies and bodies for this to be so. And while we like a good ending, we also like the idea of no ending at all in terms of never wanting to relinquish our bonds of love.
Biological death is still where the disruption of our emotional lives is truly located, and our digital lives and deaths matter because they are grounded in the anticipated reality and actual event of biological death. That remains the deepest cut.
[i] Gibson, Margaret (2014) “Digital Objects of the Dead: negotiating electronic remains” pp. 212-229 in The Social Construction of Death, edited by Leen van Brussel and Nico Carpentier, London: Palgrave.
[ii] Ulguim, Priscilla (2018) “Digital Remains Made Public: Sharing the Dead Online and our Future Digital Mortuary Landscape”, AP: Online Journal in Public Archaeology, Volume 3, p.155.
[iii] Gibson, Margaret and Clarissa Carden (2018) Living and Dying in a Virtual World: Digital kinships, nostalgia and mourning in Second Life, Palgrave.
[v] Bassett, Debra J (2018) “Ctrl+Alt+Delete: The changing landscape of the uncanny valley and the fear of second loss”, Current Psychology, published online first.
[vi] Gibson, Margaret (2008) Objects of the dead: memory and mourning in everyday life, MUP.