Digital Afterlives


“The first time I texted James I was, frankly a little nervous. “How are you doing?” I typed, for want of a better question. “I’m doing alright, thanks for asking.” That was last month. By then James had been dead for almost eight months.” *

Once you died and you were gone. There was no in-between, no netherworld, no underworld. There could be a gravestone or an inscription on a park bench. Perhaps some fading photographs, a few letters or physical mementoes. In rare instances, you might leave behind a time capsule for future generations to discover.

That was yesterday. Today, more and more, your dead-self inhabits a technological twilight zone – a world that is neither fully virtual nor totally artificial. The dead, in short, are coming back to life and there could be hordes of them living in our houses and following us wherever we go in the future. The only question is whether or not we will choose to communicate with them.

Nowadays, if you’ve ever been online, you will likely leave a collection of tweets, posts, timelines, photographs, videos and perhaps voice recordings. But even these digital footprints may appear quaint in the more distant future. Why might this be so? The answer is a duality of demographic trends and technological advances. Let’s start with the demographics.

The children of the revolution are starting to die. The baby boomers that grew up in the shadows of the Second World War are fading fast and next up it’s the turn of those who grew up in the 1950s and 60s. These were the children that challenged authority and tore down barriers and norms. Numerically, there are a lot of this generation and what they did in life they are starting to do in death.They are challenging what happens to them and how they are remembered.

Traditional funerals, all cost, formality and morbidity are therefore being replaced with low-cost funerals, direct cremations, woodland burials and colourful parties. We are also starting to experience experiments concerning what is left behind, instances of which can be a little ‘trippy’.

If you die now, and especially if you’ve been a heavy user of social media, a vast legacy remains – or at least it does while the tech companies are still interested in you. Facebook pages persist after death. In fact going out a few decades there could be more people that are dead on Facebook than the living.  Already, memorial pages can be set up (depending on privacy settings and legacy contacts) allowing friends and family to continue to post. Dead people even get birthday wishes and in some instances a form of competitive mourning kicks in. Interestingly, some posts to dead people even become quite confessional, presumably because some people think conversations with the dead are private. In the future, we might even see a kind of YouTube of the dead.

But things have started to get much weirder. James, cited earlier, is indeed departed, but his legacy has been a computer program that’s woven together countless hours of recordings made by James and turned into a ‘bot – but a ‘bot you can natter to as though James were still alive. This is not as unusual as you might think.

When 32-year-old Roman Mazurenko was killed by a car, his friend Eugenia Kuyda memorialised him as a chatbot. She asked friends and family to share old messages and fed them into a neural network built by developers at her AI start-up called Replika. You can buy him – or at least what his digital approximation has become – on Apple’s app store. Similarly, Eter9 is a social network that uses AI to learn from its users and create virtual selves, called “counterparts”, that mimic the user and lives on after they die. Or there’s, which scrapes interactions on social media to build up a digital approximation that knows what you “liked” on Facebook and perhaps knows what you’d still like if you weren’t dead.

This might make you think twice about leaving Alexa and other virtual assistants permanently on for the rest of your life. What exactly might the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google be doing with all that data? Life enhancing? Maybe. But maybe death defying too. More ambitious still are attempts to extract our daily thoughts directly from our brains, rather than scavenging our digital footprints. So far, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have been used to restore motor control in paralysed patients through surgically implanted electrodes, but one day BCIs may be used alongside non-invasive techniques to literally record and store what’s in our heads and, by implication, what’s inside the heads of others. Still not Sci-Fi enough for you? Well how about never dying in the first place?

We’ve seen significant progress in extending human lifespans over the last couple of centuries, although longevity has plateaued of late and may even fall in the future due to diet and sedentary lifestyles. Enter regenerative medicine, which has a quasi-philosophical and semi-religious activist wing called Transhumanism. Transhumanism seeks to end death altogether. One way to do this might be via Nano-bots injected into the blood (reminiscent of the 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage). Or we might generically engineer future generations or ourselves, possibly adding ‘repair patches’ that reverse the molecular and cellular damage much in the same way that we ‘patch’ buggy computer code.

Maybe we should leave Transhumanism on the slab for the time being. Nevertheless, we do urgently need to decide how the digital afterlife industry is regulated. For example, should digital remains be treated with the same level of respect as physical remains? Should there should be laws relating to digital exhumation and what of the legal status of replicants? For instance, if our voices are being preserved who, if anyone, should be allowed access to our voice files and could commercial use of an auditory likeness ever be allowed?

At the Oxford Internet Institute, Carl Öhman studies the ethics of such situations. He points out that over the next 30-years, around 3 billion people will die. Most of these people will leave their digital remains in the hands of technology companies, who may be tempted to monetise these ‘assets.’ Given the recent history of privacy and security ‘outages’ from the likes of Facebook we should be concerned.

One of the threads running through the hit TV series Black Mirror is the idea of people living on after they’re dead. There’s also the idea that in the future we may be able to digitally share and store physical sensations. In one episode called ‘Black Museum’, for example, a prisoner on death row signs over the rights to his digital self, and is resurrected after his execution as a fully conscious hologram that visitors to the museum can torture. Or there’s an episode called ‘Be Right Back’ where a woman subscribes to a service that uses the online history of her dead fiancé to create a ‘bot that echoes his personality. But what starts off as a simple text-messaging app evolves into a sophisticated voicebot and is eventually embodied in a fully lifelike, look-a-like, robot replica.

Pure fantasy? We should perhaps be careful what we wish for. The terms and conditions of the Replika app mentioned earlier contain a somewhat chilling passage: People signing up to the service agree to “a perpetual, irrevocable, licence to copy, display, upload, perform, distribute, store, modify and otherwise use your user content.’ That’s a future you they are talking about. Sleep well.


* The Telegraph magazine (UK) 19 January 2019. ‘This young man died in April. So how did our writer have a conversation with him last month?’

Me My Selfie and I

This is from Aeon magazine and worth repeating in full in my view.

I’m having dinner with my flatmates when my friend Morgan takes a picture of the scene. Then she sits back down and does something strange: she cocks her head sideways, crosses her eyes, and aims the phone at herself. Snap. Whenever I see someone taking a selfie, I get an awkward feeling of seeing something not meant to be seen, somewhere between opening the unlocked door of an occupied toilet and watching the blooper reel of a heavy-handed drama. It’s like peeking at the private preparation for a public performance.

In his film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the director Luis Buñuel imagines a world where what should and shouldn’t be seen are inverted. In a ‘dinner party’, you shit in public around a table with your friends, but eat by yourself in a little room. The suggestion is that the difference between the public and the private might not be what you do but where you do it, and to what end. What we do in private is preparing for what we’ll do in public, so the former happens backstage whereas the latter plays out onstage.

Why do we so often feel compelled to ‘perform’ for an audience? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that narrating is a basic human need, not only to tell the tale of our lives but indeed to live them. When deciding how to read the news, for example, if I’m a millennial I follow current events on Facebook, and if I’m a banker I buy the Financial Times. But if the millennial buys the Financial Times and the banker contents himself with Facebook, then it seems the roles aren’t being played appropriately. We understand ourselves and others in terms of the characters we are and the stories we’re in. ‘The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest,’ writes MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981).

We live by putting together a coherent narrative for others to understand. We are characters that design themselves, living in stories that are always being read by others. In this light, Morgan’s selfie is a sentence in the narration that makes up her life. Similarly, in Nausea (1938) Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: ‘a man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it’. Pics or it didn’t happen. But then he must have asked himself, sitting at the Café de Flore: Am I really going to tell someone about this cup of coffee I’m drinking now? Do I really recount everything I do, and do everything just to recount it? ‘You have to choose,’ he concluded, ‘to live or to tell.’ Either enjoy the coffee or post it to Instagram.

The philosopher Bernard Williams has the same worry about the idea of the narrated life. Whereas MacIntyre thinks the unity of real life is modelled after that of fictional life, Williams argues that the key difference between literature’s fictional characters and the ‘real characters’ that we actually are resides in the fact that fictional lives are complete from the outset whereas ours aren’t. In other words, fictional characters don’t have to decide their future. So, says Williams, MacIntyre forgets that, though we understand life backwards, we have to live it forwards. When confronted with a choice, we don’t stop to deliberate what outcome would best suit the narrative coherence of our stories. True: sometimes, we can think about what decision to make by considering the lifestyle we have led, but for that lifestyle to have come about in the first place we must have begun to live according to reasons more fundamental than the concerns of our public image. In fact, says Williams, living by reference to our ‘character’ would result in an inauthentic style different from that which had originally risen, just like when you try methodically to do something that you’ve always done naturally – it makes it harder. If you think about how to walk when you’re walking, you’ll end up tripping.

When Williams wrote this more than 10 years ago, there were fewer than half the selfies in the world than there are today. If he’s right, does that mean we’re trying to understand more about ourselves now? In a way, it does, but that’s because making sense of our lives backwards is actually necessary to carry them forwards. As the philosopher David Velleman says, human beings construct a public figure in order to make sense of their lives, not as a narration but as a readable image that they themselves can interpret as a subject with agency. Even Robinson Crusoe, isolated from any audience, would need to shape a presentation of himself so that he could keep track of his life. From this need for intelligibility stems the distinction between the private and the public spheres: in order to be intelligible, we must construct a self-presentation, and in order to do that we must select what of our lives we present and what we choose to keep private. So the private sphere is what we hide not because we deem it shameful but because we decide it doesn’t contribute to our self-presentation, and hence to our sense of agency. Morgan’s selfie, here, is just a manifestation of the basic human need for self-presentation.

The selfie epidemic, Velleman might say, is a consequence of the increase in the amount of tools for self-presentation – Facebook, Twitter and the like. That, taken together, shrinks the private sphere. If controlling what we show is an inevitable urge, social media is only an explosion of the means to satisfy it. On the face of this, Velleman thinks we could use a little more refraining, but he wrote this 14 years ago. Today, I imagine him ranting at the hashtags that colour people’s self-presentation (#wokeuplikethis, #instamood, #life, #me). But no matter: he himself said that everyone is entitled to expose and hide whatever they see fit.

Whether life should be seen as a narrative or not, living is about choosing what to present and what to keep to oneself. We must navigate between the two. And if what counts as public or private can vary among cultures or age groups, it can vary among individuals too, so whenever I catch my flatmates snapping a selfie, I will continue to feel just as awkward as if I’d accidentally caught them changing their underwear.

A version of this piece was published in the Spanish language magazine Nexos and was written by Emmanuel Ordóñez Angulo, a writer, filmmaker and graduate student in philosophy at University College London, where his research interests include the convergence of the philosophy of the mind and aesthetics.