July 18, 2013
Death Of A Facebook User
I was originally introduced to the idea of digital ghosts by a friend who pointed me towards a Scott Adams blog post, in which he muses about our present day social media personas eventually becoming digital apparitions that could interact with future generations.
Imagine that every e-mail, text message, and Facebook or Twitter post you’ve ever written was analyzed (quite possibly by our friendly guardian angels at the NSA) and a reasonably accurate artificial version of you was produced. One that knew all of your stories and the different ways you corresponded with all of the people in your life was familiar with your opinions and prejudices, as well as your tendencies to begin sentences with so, and generally end them with exclamation points or ellipses… Actually, maybe that last part is just me, but you get the idea.
It’s not hard to imagine taking this a step further, and throwing in every video of you that exists, and a few thousand pictures as well. Our computers already know what you’re going to say, and now they can reproduce your voice, appearance, and mannerisms too. Adams envisions these digital reproductions interacting with the living in rather benign ways; being “present” for family gatherings, and sharing in the joy of a birthday party, for example.
The idea is given a slightly darker treatment in the excellent Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back.” We’re introduced to Martha and Ash, a more or less happily married couple who are separated by Ash’s untimely death. At the funeral, Martha is introduced to a new development that would allow her to “speak” to her deceased husband through AI software that does exactly what Adams describes. She is reluctant at first, until curiosity and loneliness get the best of her and she begins to chat with her dead love’s ghost. Since Ash was a social media junkie he makes an ideal subject; more clay to work with, so to speak. This digital version of Ash has his “voice,” and makes the same kind of comments and flippant remarks that the real Ash would, at least through text message.
Things progress in an almost inevitable way from there, as text messages lead to telephone conversations, and ultimately something a little more corporeal. I’ll try not to spoil too much for anyone, but naturally things don’t go quite as smoothly as Martha initially imagines. As much as this artificial construct sounds like Ash when it sends her text messages or speaks to her on the phone, it isn’t him, and herein lies one of the most interesting limitations of this entire process.
The persona we present in our digital interactions is almost never the same as our real world interactions with people. Obviously the way I write and the things I write about on Facebook and in my e-mail to friends and family are often very different than the way I speak in person. In real life, I’m slightly less sarcastic, swear more often, and don’t have enough time to think of nearly as many clever insults or comebacks. Also, as a wise friend of mine pointed out, even within the confines of our digital interactions, we take on many different personas. My dear mother would no doubt blush at some of the things I joke about with my closest friends, while those same friends would no doubt snicker at my polite and professional interactions with polite employers.
Still, it is fascinating to imagine what kind of ghost your corpus of writing would produce, and how the people who knew you in life would react to this imitation of you. Would they be impressed and awed by the similarities, or offended by the differences? “Holy crap, this ghost is even more annoying than Grandpa ever was!” I think it’s also quite likely that, as in life, our ghosts would adopt different levels of formality and candidness depending on their audience, and we can only wonder what might happen when those audiences overlap and the onlookers gain an unexpected glimpse into another side of your personality they never imagined existed.
I think this entire concept could take an entirely more sinister turn in the future, however. In case there was any doubt, we’ve recently received a definite answer about the amount of privacy we have in our modern digital lives: none whatsoever. If the NSA and other government agencies can collect seemingly any information they want about us, I think one of the many questions we should be asking is what happens to this data after we die? What right do we, or our families, have to this wealth of information about us?
I’ve had several arguments with friends recently about the legality and implications of this insane invasion of privacy, and while I tend to shy away from full-blown Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque paranoid conspiracy theories, I think it’s equally wrong to suggest that our governments are solely concerned about our safety and well-being. Identity theft is an ongoing reality of our connected lives, and while few people are going to mistake a hologram for a human, I think there’s a pretty good chance I’ll live to see surprisingly human androids in my lifetime. Whether or not such an android could beat the Voight-Kampff machine remains to be seen, but imagine if such a being also had access to every piece of data about a person created throughout their entire life. Many parents are currently sharing photos and anecdotes of every moment of their newborn children’s lives on the internet, and it’s easy to imagine that these children will be more exposed and connected to the internet than any previous generation. I think we have to acknowledge that the potential to abuse this data for deception is a very real possibility.
So, will this data one day become benevolent ghosts that can share their experiences and enrich the world for future generations, or will governments or corporations use this information to impersonate us for their own benefit?
Call me cynical, but I think it’s exponentially more likely that if they ever exist, these digital ghosts will likely behave exactly like their real life counterparts do on Facebook now. They will show us hundreds of pictures of their unremarkable cats. They will bore us with extremely specific details of their achievements in the office or in pursuit of an undergraduate degree, and they will most definitely walk into the room and proclaim that they’ve had an awful day, without providing any details, before sighing loudly and waiting for someone to acknowledge them.
Sometimes, I’m convinced that the future will be disappointingly similar to now, only slightly worse.
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