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As a society, we've always been using the latest technology to cling onto loved ones that we've lost. Whether it's death-masks or post-death family portraits, what's clear that letting go is incredibly hard. So, how will this obsession point to how we'll deal with death in the future - when we can recreate dead people in VR?
One remarkable consequence of technology evolving at an exponential rate is that we’re able to dig into our innermost desires and confidently predict that they’ll be fulfilled within a few years without sounding like a lunatic.
A lot of future-gazing becomes a string of simple questions which mask the fact that we’re strolling into a vast moral maze. These questions are ones we have been internally haggling over for as long as we’ve been able to: how do we deal with the randomness of life, death, and everything in between – things we want, but can’t control?
So here’s a question that will test your moral fortitude: if you could bring a loved one back to life, would you do it?
A soul with a body, not a body with a soul.
We cling to our physical selves for dear life - literally. It doesn’t really matter who said it first - a forgotten Church of England Reverend, author C.S. Lewis or, erm, best-selling self-help author Wayne Dyer - as humans we’ve always struggled with the idea of being “a soul that happens to have a body, not a body with a soul.”
Whether it’s prioritising physical well-being over mental, endlessly scouring for new wonder-diets, or stating explicitly that one’s aim is to live forever, whenever we look to maintain life, we look to the physical world.
The weird ways we have kept alive memories of the dead points at us being ill-equipped to deal with the brutal reality of death.
We don't only kept hold of items that belonged to dead friends and relatives as mementoes - our society has also shown a frankly odd and macabre propensity for preserving things that look just like dead people.
Depending on your perspective, the weird ways we have kept alive memories of the dead points at us being ill-equipped - or hopelessly unable - to deal with the brutal reality of death.
Death Mask Replica
Only 40 per cent of children born in the 1850s reached their 60th birthday, making death, as well as life, a state to be preserved for posterity.
Death masks are odd: a teenage goth’s take on Madame Tussaud’s. And while to our modern minds capturing a likeness of a face just after the moment of expiration might beg the question, “hey - why not just take the impression of the mask when the subject is alive?” it does point at a rather more blasé – and possibly more healthy – approach to death, from an era when people experienced death much more often.
The Victorians, naturally, found an ideal balance between their penchant for pioneering innovative technology and their deep-rooted preoccupation with death.
The idea of a death mask was to revisit a person and reflect on more than loss. A perfect brass copy of Napoleon’s face, for instance, is part of a collection of items that explain the whole cycle of his life, not simply a last-ditch attempt at recording his likeness forever.
Some death masks were cast multiple times; one became a fashionable wall decoration among the early 20th Century Parisian art set.
The Victorians, naturally, found an ideal balance between their penchant for pioneering innovative technology and their deep-rooted preoccupation with death. Quickly taking advantage of new photographic technology, they invented the Memento Mori photo: a family snap with a difference.
Rounding up the family and leaning in around a corpse meant that the Memento Mori was half celebration of life, and half stern reminder of the unavoidable nature of death.
It was the perfect buzzkill-keepsake for our moustachioed and crinoline-swathed forbearers, who followed the gloomy example of Queen Victoria, in the midst of spending her final forty years wearing black and mourning the loss of her beloved husband, cousin, and alleged genital piercing enthusiast, Prince Albert.
It also turned out that the dead were ideal portrait subjects in an era of long exposures where the slightest movement could spoilt a snapshot. Consider the irony of the utter, inherent stillness of your death providing the most conveniently clear image of you, that you’d never see.
Snapping selfies with corpses aside, is our behaviour today really much different? Are you wearing a dead relative’s piece of jewellery right now? Do you have a dusty VHS – that you couldn’t even consider playing without a trip to a fleamarket – tucked away somewhere safe, because it’s the only imagery you have of Auntie Vera?
Are you keeping love letters, just in case the sender dies before you?
Illustration by Edoardo Amoruso
An augmented family
If you’d like a dead relative to accompany your every step in life, you’ll be able to have them do just that.
Like the Victorians, we’re living in a time of rapid technological development. And if the wish-fulfilment they sought was to be able to occasionally gaze at the face of someone who had died, then our generation's equivalent is going to be a little more… involved.
While it's difficult to overstate the significance of the coming Augmented Reality revolution, it's also easy to get distracted by banality. AR won’t just mean email notifications popping up into your field of vision (although it will mean that too – get used to never escaping your workaholic boss) – eventually, AR means experiencing the world in the exact way you’d prefer it to be.
And if you’d prefer to have a dead relative appear to accompany you every step of the way, you’ll be able to have them do just that.
This is the uncanny power of AR: scoff at this idea if you like – but people want it, so it’s coming. It will soon be time to make a tough but important decision: will you let the dead-and-gone remain dead and gone?
Big technological leaps often sound like bullshit, or crazy, or too complicated, or all three. But this stroll through the four stages of Future Grief takes a trivial series of steps. Here’s how this future could creep in under your nose.
Step 1: Now, Part 1: Scan yourself. Scan everyone.
We’re already keeping avatars of loved ones. In the UK, you can pull on your flashiest clothes, drive to a supermarket, step into a scanning booth – and wait for the delivery of a 15cm-tall 3D-printed model of yourself.
You might think of it as a fun gimmick or use it as an ironically self-referential paperweight. But when you kick the can, do you think your relatives might fetishise it as an enhanced snapshot of the real you, warts and all? The wonky posture, the dated clothes, the regrettable hairdo - this lump of 3d-printed plastic is a tangible echo of you, and it can fit in a handbag.
Step 2: Now, Part 2: Your home videos, in volumetric 3D.
You can already record a person as a volumetric 3D model. If you have enough GoPros (53, to be exact), you can do it yourself at home. Sync it with some audio (Why not tell the story of your life? Yours is as good as anyone’s, right?) and your great-great-great grandchildren will be able to load you up into their AR headsets. When they’ve stopped giggling at the rudimentary nature of the graphics, they’ll experience what it was like to have you right there in front of them.
Step 3: Five years’ time: You are the augmentation.
You might not be able to meet these great-great-great sniggering whippersnappers, but they can meet you. And that's the dream of Augmented Memento Mori: everlasting life. Within a few years, processing power and believable, immersive AR delivery via glasses will converge and it’ll be possible that not only will a 3D model of you appear in front of the user, but it will be context-aware.
This means that in the future, when your descendants gather at Christmas and fancy hearing your stories one more time, they’ll load "you" up — and you’ll appear to walk through a door, sit down next to the fireplace and share the anecdotes with the family you never met.
Step 4: 10-15 years’ time: Uncle Dave, life guide
When we are all wearing AR headsets as a matter of course, the 3D model of you will become an avatar; a real-life video game character. You don’t even need to record your movements or voice specifically. Adobe has already created the technology needed to make “you” say anything anyone else wants.
You’ll be an AI-powered avatar for the family member who misses you the most – not dissimilar to Navi in The Ocarina of Time, just less annoying. The technology will combine all the data we need: calendars, maps, wikis, etc, then filter it through AI, and create a "you" that is infinitely knowledgable, and yet still identifiably you.
Thus, your new life after death will be as a helpful guide: hinting, pointing, encouraging, reminiscing, defending, and urging someone who really needs you there.
You'll live forever (for someone else)
Similar to how your best chance of a having a perfect photo taken in 1849 would involve you being well and truly dead, the ultimate irony of the AR Memento Mori is that we won’t benefit from it at all. Life after death doesn't involve the deceased after all. It’s all for the living.
For someone who loves you and misses you, your avatar will be an essential part of the grieving process. And just like how corpses were dressed, arranged and posed for photographs, these avatars will be filtered through the expectations of others.
Short tempers will be whittled down, questionable jokes swapped for good ones, a tendency to drink too much at family parties subtly erased.
You'll become the person they need, not the person you are; ready to guide and support whenever they need you. It’s a wonderful idea. Of course some people won’t ever be able to let you go – and would you really want them too?
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