One of the few saving graces of “Troy” (a very loose adaptation of Homer’s Iliad) was the theme of “everlasting glory”. Agamemnon boasts: “History remembers kings! Not soldiers! I'll build monuments to my victory on every island of Greece”. The no-less proud Achilles was given a choice: either fight in the Trojan War and be remembered by all future generations, but pay the price of death, or refuse to go and live a long and happy life but be forgotten. He chose the former and the rest is history or in this case: two more hours of cringe-inducing dialogue.
Historical figures which have survived the patina of time have shown even less modicum of restraint than Agamemnon. Think of the “Great Pyramid” of Giza or the “Terracotta Army” of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Alternatively, think of the most brutal act to erase your enemy - not just from the map but from history as well. Genghis Khan (who was somewhat of an expert on the subject) ordered a river to be diverted through the Khwarazmian emperor's birthplace thereby removing any trace of the city.
The grand mausoleums described above reflect an interesting characteristic of human nature: the desire for immortality (in some shape or form). In contemporary times, the same symptoms can be best observed in both dictators and mega-philanthropists who gladly authorize the construction of buildings baring their name.
Whether in exploration, science or religion humanity has sought the proverbial Holy Grail. Or at least, like those historical figures, people have tried to leave a mark on this world that lasts. Painters, musicians and writers have tried to live through their work. The main assumption is that if some part of us survives then we can live throughout the ages.
A fundamental property of human progress has been the democratization of luxuries previously available only to the most rich and powerful: whether it is the literature or the flushable toilet. An ordinary mortal’s best hope for remembrance was to have children. That is until the Internet and portable computing reached the cold huddled masses. The Internet has allowed a person’s thoughts, memories and experiences in the form of Facebook pictures, blog posts and YouTube videos to be preserved for all future generations (at least in principle). It may not be the Fountain of Youth or a big mausoleum but it some kind of immortality.
In fact, it is E-mortality.
The Profile of Dorian Grey
Each day there are 400 million tweets sent and 300 million photos uploaded on Facebook; 100 hours of video footage is uploaded on YouTube every minute. The relentless sharing on the Internet is largely prompted by the simple fact that we are social animals and we crave attention from others. But perhaps we also unconsciously want to leave some traces behind. Perhaps the properties of the Internet such as “unforgetfulness” and easy access to desired information have spurred this human instinct for self-conservation.
With so many options to imprint our identity on the Internet the problem becomes how to do it most efficiently. But where there is demand there is supply. Let’s look at some of the more interesting examples of e-mortality services.
Memoto – a Swedish start-up which offers a stamp-sized camera that takes pictures every 30 seconds. The company started a campaign on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and raised 10 times more money than its target of $50 000. Memoto tries to address the modernized version of the philosophical conundrum: “If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound”? If I have an amazing experience and I didn’t capture it did it really happen? Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me. Ronald Reagan famously recollected rescuing civilians in WWII unaware that he was actually describing scenes from his old movies.
The ability to share these moments of importance has made us tirelessly hunt for them and proudly display them on our digital mantelpiece. But the simple fact is that life is predominantly a series of mundane moments punctuated by a few exciting occurrences. Sifting through the avalanche of photos (120 photos/hour) will be like running an ore refinery. And even simpler fact is that nobody cares.
Saga is a lifelogging app for Android and iOS which can serve as your own personal Big Brother. On its own the app only tracks your every move and records how much time you have spent on a given location. But you can connect it and record activity from other services such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Fitbit (tracks food intake and calories burned), Withings (tracks vital signs), RunKeeper (tracks workouts). The only thing missing is an app for OCD people who want to track how many times they have washed their hands. To be fair the app might help people improve their daily routine by highlighting the dullness of it.
Now we take a turn for the macabre. LivesOn’s service is neatly encapsulated in its slogan: "When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting." LivesOn analyses your Twitter feed (syntax, shared links, tweeting habits and preferences) and tries to tweet on your behalf after you’ve gone to a better place. Even its developers admit that LivesOn will hardly pass the Turing Test. However, the longer LivesOn analyses your Twitter behaviour the better it will become at mimicking the real person. Apparently, being dead is no excuse to stop tweeting.
All the above described devices and services use a process of digital “enfleurage” to capture the essence of a personality and try to conserve it on the Internet. However, the most commercially-viable products like Memoto and Saga seem more of a minor upgrade – nothing more than a digital scrapbook. LivesOn and its burbles from the beyond may not put any medium out of business (yet) but it is the product with most potential.
Who knows what the future of e-mortality will bring (apart from some dreary sci-fi novels). Perhaps some new religious outlooks, new privacy laws and definitely some interesting start-ups. But in the end this is just speculation. While I won’t quite degrade myself to the level of using “YOLO” I will say that we should try to experience the precious moments in life to the fullest instead of constantly trying to capture and pickle them.
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