After me, after you

I’ve been thinking a lot about death and the virtual afterlife recently.

It all started with the bombings. Or 7/7 as our brand driven culture seems to want to term it. Then I read a posting on boing boing about the death of Keith Alexander – which got me bouncing from link to link having the increasingly spooky experience of reading his blogs. Especially the mini site devoted to the process of getting a huge Koi tattoo. Was this morbid voyeurism or a participation in a post mortem celebration of a fascinating life? 

But this was just the start.

I recently  learnt of the sudden death of fellow virtual world researcher Mário José Lopes Guimarães Jr. Mário was one of those conference / email friends that the loosely coupled world of academe throws up. We were due to meet up for drinks in London one Wed or Thurs but things came up so we had to postpone it till the next week, or sometime, definitely sometime. He died that Friday in a road accident.

Mário’s work dealt with avatars, in his words “constitution, performance and social significance of avatars” which he was looking at across virtual worlds and from a number of perspectives. A number of papers can be read on Mário’s site.

This all got me thinking about our embodiment in cyberspace, the way that it both exists in parallel to us and the way that it persists after us. There’s a bunch of SF about ways in which we can live for ever by way of loading our personality construct into an AI. But I’m wondering what we can do right now and how far we can take it. The considerations are very much like those in the Clock of the Long Now, but I’m not setting a 10,000 year target but wondering what a practical target would be.

This is where I went with this – first off I just started to think about hosting, say we just have a personal web site that we want to keep going after we die. 1 year is not a problem. 5 to 10 years we have to start thinking about companies that we think are going to be around for a while, say IBM. 50 years we get into all kinds of issues of long term funding, setting up ways to ensure that ones interests are maintained e.g. a legal firm holding a trust and fund stream that will manage changes across technologies etc. 

Then I started to wonder about the degree of personality that one could build into these things. We could move from a basic site to a virtual world or some kind of interactive system. But I wonder how that would work and where technology is going. For example I wonder if AI’s can start to mimic probably responses by data mining things like the 50k or so email that I have on my server. What would be really neat is an AI system that learn they way I am by watching what I do then can gradually take over or fill in. This is one the aims of projects like THE REAL, so I know people are working on it. What do I need to start to store, is it too late, does my data shadow have to monitored form birth, do we actually need access to the data of people I’ve interacted with, can we look at personally changes over time and project what they would be like in the future given new facts about the world.

Or, is this all just the most narcissistic project one could imagine?

So, for Keith, for Mário, heck just for the intellectual fun of it – thoughts? 

Comments on After me, after you:

Nate Combs says:

narcissistic project one could imagine?

Imagine I created a vast index of all that I wrote, my photographs, my audio, and even more some. Say I made it interactive in a clever way, yes, even engaging, and perhaps, a yikes, even intelligent. Imagine I found a host to enshrine my "avatar" for the next 100 years. Imagine a lot of us did this.

I imagine only a small few of our avatars will be destinations a 100 years forward. Not knowing which side of Sturgeon's divide one's hypothetical avatar would rest, though, seems a poor reason to encourage those so inclined to *not* to try. Heck, any improvemetns to the neighborhood can only benefit us all.

Posted Jul 24, 2005 6:06:04 PM | link

blaze says:

Yeah, this has been discussed a fair amount.

One wonders if LL will ever give us the ability to have NPC avatars.

The question is quite intriguing if you ignore the technical part.

Would it be necessary to denote who was humana and who wasn't? Would the intermixing of non-humans and humans create a type of confusion which would water down the virtual world?

I have to admit, quite a few people I've met in SL would not pass the turing test. Though, I think this is more because they are unaware of how to properly interact in SecondLife and less because they are particularly brain dead.

I hope.

Posted Jul 25, 2005 1:40:28 AM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Sure, it's a little narcissistic, but that's forgivable. To rage against the dying of the light is absolutely natural for anyone who isn't convinced of an existence after this one.

To fight extinction (personal or otherwise) is very human. In fact, I'd say we've been at it as long as we've been self-aware. All that's changed is the power that advancing technology has given us to realize that dream.

A handprint on a cave wall is a complaint against the unspeakable unfairness of the ending of existence: "I was here." So is a ziggurat or a mastaba/pyramid -- only the scale is grander.

Since then technology has allowed more people more ways to self-memorialize: writing, papyrus, the printing press, the corporation, photography, the phonograph, home movies (8mm and VCR), personal Web sites, digital audio and video. It's reasonable to think that this trend will continue, that with ever-increasing recording fidelity and storage space it becomes possible to record more and more of one's "self."

For now, recording and storage allow only snapshots of a life... but the amount of "self" that can be preserved in these snapshots seems to be increasing.

Will these ever catch up to the fullness of a life to the point that a snapshot can faithfully duplicate an entire mind? Would such a copy be merely a very good ELIZA because it lacked the living person's ability to change and grow?

Or will technology continue to advance beyond mere recording of existence to enabling existence in other forms? Will I ever be able to perceive myself existing indefinitely in virtual form? Will "I" feel like "me?" The technology seems to be heading in that direction -- Fred Pohl's "Heechee" novels imagined this possibility years ago -- but can technology really go so far?

And should it? What does "human" society start to look like when no one dies, when every existence endures forever?

When you can live forever, who needs children?

Is that our ultimate future?

Come to think of it, that does sound pretty narcissistic.


Posted Jul 26, 2005 11:46:16 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

When you can live forever, who needs children?

As a parent, I'm not really sure of the connection there. Having an avatar of "me" is a lot different from having a child!

Here's a less far out question though: if you could take a personality test, say, and have an avatar in a VW that had your personality (to some degree of verisimilitude) would people want to create such an avatar? Would people tend to feel threatened by this (analogous perhaps to "primitive" peoples thinking that a photograph stole a portion of their soul), or would they feel greater attachment to this character than to a typical avatar or player character? If the character had some degree of autonomy and did things you didn't like and/or grew in ways you didn't think matched you, would that be interesting or a source of psychological dissonance?

At what point does the VW avatar of you change from being a representation of you and become instead a disquieting VW doppelganger?

Posted Jul 26, 2005 2:05:39 PM | link

ren reynolds says:

Mike Sellers > At what point does the VW avatar of you change from being a representation of you and become instead a disquieting VW doppelganger?

At the point that someone falls in love with it and not me.

Posted Jul 26, 2005 2:39:30 PM | link

Lee Hwang says:

>At the point that someone falls in love with it and not me.

Doesn't that happen all the time?

I was a producer at There until May 2004. I was amazed day after day at the life and personality that avatars seemed to acquire over time, even though the same programming gave rise to all of the avatars I encountered.

An avatar is an object of projection not only for those who interact with it, but also for its human counterpart. The avatar becomes for you who you think it is, and so do the real live flesh and blood people around you. It's not that far from object of projection to object of affection, in any reality.

For a fun science fiction-fantasy treatment of the idea of living forever, check out Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." In his novel, people become avatars of themselves, and the notion of who someone is becomes very ... fluid.

Posted Jul 26, 2005 3:54:25 PM | link

ren reynolds says:

Ren >At the point that someone falls in love with it and not me.
Lee > Doesn't that happen all the time?
Hmm, well I guess you could say that an element of love is always projection of some narcissistic self (paging Yee!!!). And, as we have discussed here quite a few times ICT mediated relationships are not like un-mediated ones (see> Love in Reverse?). But I guess I was thinking of an extreme point of this where the AI has diverged from (or reflects just certain bits of, or something) the originating flesh bit such that it can be the focus of a relationship and the flesh bit, even via ICT would be rejected. Erm, I think that’s what I was saying anyway. Now of the others avi / AI construct could fall in love with mine and leave us alone...

>check out Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom."
Actually I have my>signed copy right here :)

But back to practicalities - any thoughts on hosting deals for 10+ years post-death and future-proofing?

Posted Jul 26, 2005 4:14:27 PM | link

Lee Hwang says:

>any thoughts on hosting deals for 10+ years post-death and future-proofing?

Well, is it future-proofing, really?

Mike Sellers asked the question: "if the character had some degree of autonomy and did things you didn't like and/or grew in ways you didn't think matched you, would that be interesting or a source of psychological dissonance?"

I think it would be amazingly interesting. I might see myself make different choices. That could be kind of cool (albeit seriously freaky): I could potentially get to see an alternate version of me. Maybe that version would have bought Google at 117.

Even if the avatar were magically made as an exact copy of me - including all of my memories and habits - the minute she began to do things on her own, she would become someone else. I'm certainly not the same person I was ten years ago, and it's because of the choices I've made. If my avatar makes different choices, she becomes an individual in her own right. I think I would wish her a happy life of her own.

Maybe she could take over paying the bills for her own hosting. :-)

Posted Jul 26, 2005 5:01:01 PM | link

ren reynolds says:

>any thoughts on hosting deals for 10+ years post-death and future-proofing?

>> Well, is it future-proofing, really?

Sorry, what I meant was - how does one ensure that a page or an avatar or AI or what ever will be hosted in 10 or more years? How do you know the hosting company will still exist, that the technology will still be compatible, that it will still be funded?

Posted Jul 26, 2005 5:36:05 PM | link

Lee Hwang says:

>how does one ensure that a page or an avatar or AI or what ever will be hosted in 10 or more years?

You can't. :-) But you can't ensure that your flesh and blood version won't be hit by a bus tomorrow morning, either.

I imagine that with the help of enough lawyers and enough money, you could ensure persistence to some extent, assuming that a person really can be captured in the form of data. For example, a trustee could be named to migrate your digital self into a new avatar (which begs the question even further of whether this is really you or not) in a new environment. You could license the hosting environment yourself and make arrangements for your own private reality. Forterra Systems, Inc. will license you the technology that created There and its Earth-sized planet. :-)

Of course, the Big One could come along and wipe even your own private reality out completely ...

Posted Jul 26, 2005 5:49:20 PM | link


Immortal virtuality !
If we try to intercept all our neurons by tiny manmade nanotransceivers, that can figure out where they are in the brainnetwork, it is just a question of high fidelity representation of all patterns in the brain wihtin, by a computer that is able to download and upload experiences and memory from and to the biobrain.

The outside represented brainpattern is similar to the real conscienceness of the biotissue of your good old fleshborn body.

And when our biological body starts to fail and deteriorate through age, we can (slowly) take over the biobrain by our sythetic brainpattern in the computer, and live our lives furher in the blessing of virtuality, giving up our deceased flesh.

If this brainpattern can be stored, we as humans, the facto have reached immortality.

It is not really necessary to get yourself back into a cloned body, because robotting can deliver the same manipulation of material needed to maintain our life(computer)systems.

And because people go virtual virtual at the end of their biolife, there are no limits to our natural environment anymore, cause cyberexperiencing at that time will be more real than reality itself.

indeed,as the bible scriptures say:

a new earth and a new heaven !!

Posted Mar 7, 2006 2:52:55 PM | link

jHenosch says:


Posted Mar 7, 2006 3:01:05 PM | link