If your heart has stopped and the neurons in your brain don’t fire anymore, where are you?
The definitions around life, spirit, personality and consciousness are impossibly tricky to pin down; we’ve been debating them for as long as we’ve been able to comprehend. Science vs religion. Ethics vs practicality. Imagination vs reality. The tangible vs the intangible.
How can you define life without death? Does everything that makes someone who they are live purely in the mind, with the body just a vehicle for their consciousness? And, when the body fails, is that the end? Does everything that exists beyond the purely physical simply evaporate?
Whatever our moral codes are, pretty much all of us are trying to cheat death in one way or another. We look after our health with the aim of pushing the inevitable further into the distance. We avoid dangerous situations.
We don’t know what life is, but we definitely know what death is – it’s a point beyond which none of us have access. It’s why we cry when we lose loved ones, why we do our utmost to keep ourselves safe. We don’t know what’s coming next, we just know that it creates an impenetrable barrier.
People view this barrier in different ways. Some speculate over what lies beyond: having faith that it’s a better place, that justice will be served, for good or for bad – or that perhaps there’s nothing there at all. Others see it as something to obliterate, to knock down, thinking we should strive for immortality; if we can’t destroy death completely, perhaps we can at least peek beyond.
The idea of “looking beyond the veil” is nothing new – it’s what has fuelled the tarot and séance industries for centuries. Similarly, the human obsession with legacy is laced all through history – Ozymandias and the giant statue that was supposed to carry his image through time in perpetuity is one of the grandest examples. The statue’s fate is all too conveniently symbolic of the myriad ways we have tried and failed to find a way around mortality.
Science fiction has long tacked the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’, along with the pros and cons of keeping people alive beyond their natural lives. Looking beyond medicine and the fallibility of the body, the most common idea is that of uploading consciousness – taking the intangible parts of who we are and implanting them in something or someone else. We have The Matrix, where people are plugged into a system, their true bodies still as their minds operate avatars. There’s Robocop, where a policeman who should have died is “enhanced” with cybernetics. Darth Vader too, has rather Robocop beginnings. Then, there’s “Be Right Back”, the episode of Black Mirror where a grieving woman struggles with her decision to “reanimate” her deceased boyfriend as an artificial intelligence, created by scouring his social media presence and the remnants of him left behind.
Surprisingly perhaps, the latter is the most currently relatable, with a growing trend of people creating chatbots that imitate their loved ones words, and quirks of syntax, as a way to keep talking to them even after they’re gone. In this article for Wired, writer James Vlahos discusses both his qualms and motivations in creating such a chatbot as his father was dying of cancer.
As technology has evolved and society has progressed, our methods of holding onto people have grown progressively more sophisticated. With the written word we were able to record details of individuals – either what was written about them, or what they wrote themselves. Diaries and letters have long been a source for people seeking insight to persons lost. Image has also been a strong part of peeking through the barrier. We went from illustrations and portraits to photography and to video.
We also revere the bodies themselves; funerary customs are a big part of any culture. Ancient Egypt and mummies. Prague and catacombs. Palermo and their eerily lifelike preservations. Madame Tussaud and her death masks of French aristocracy.
Any time technology makes a breakthrough, we look and see how it can be applied to the barrier. As things progress, all these threads weave and intermingle. Chatbots which currently only exist as text and audio could progress to avatars, to virtual reality, to synthetic bodies.
At the heart of it all is the longing for comfort, the difficulty of loss, and the need for solace. We can’t bring back the dead, but we are getting awfully good at creating lifelike echoes.
Written by Elizabeth Flux
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