This post by Mél Hogan is the first post in a series on Environmental Histories of the Future, in which scholars from the environmental humanities explore how people in the past imagined and crafted their own environmental futures, and how our thinking about the environment in 2021 might shape the future. This essay is also cross-posted with Historians for Future.
A few years ago, and a year or so after his passing, I received a call from my father telling me that everything was unbelievably perfect on the other side. His voice was relaxed, more soothed and soothing than I’d ever heard it in real life. When I woke up, I felt immense relief, a confirmation that his suffering had ended. I often think back to how much better he sounded in that dream, how we were both able to conjure such peace for him. Because of that peace, I have never wished him back to life. I think he would fight it. I think he would turn life down.
Grief. Relief. These are difficult concepts to write, difficult emotions to feel.
In thinking of this call for Environmental Histories of the Future, I think of the future of death. Specifically, for my brief intervention here, I invite readers to think about the entanglements and future imaginaries of death – the material, environmental, and political infrastructures that enable, sustain, and increasingly, push us to the cloud. If we rethink death in a way that technology replaces the concepts, rituals, moments, and relations that surround passing, do we necessarily redefine the future – all futures – as well?
With the massive undergirding material infrastructures that provide the set, setting, and computational power for artificial intelligence, robotics, machine-learning, neural network experiments, and so on, Big Tech companies can expand their imaginaries of the future to be one where they control coded binaries: nature/nurture, self/environment, and ultimately, life/death. Importantly, Big Tech also dominates the world of data centers, and their connective cables and networks, which all come together to facilitate particular human-centered, machine-driven futures. Put simply, a lot of these futures are justified by an innate fear of death on a dying planet, and mitigated at all costs by insentient machines.
In the midst of our current global pandemic, that has so far killed millions of people worldwide, Microsoft has acquired a patent to make chatbots from personal data of the deceased. This particular patent also includes 2D and 3D models, bringing to life the vision of the very popular Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’ (2013). Briefly, that episode plays with grief, and the shameful and irresistible urge to bring loved ones back to life in some form, based on the digital traces they left behind. Microsoft is not alone in this new commodity market against death. In 2015, a Russian artificial intelligence startup called Luka prototyped a chatbot (pictured below), inviting people to converse with an avatar (the avatar of Roman Mazurenko, the deceased friend of the creator). Google’s Meena, a ‘neural conversational model’ that adapts easily to myriad context, will likely serve a similar purpose in the near future.
Overall, there seems to be little regulation of post-mortem data, and like any and all data, can easily be collected and sold to companies wanting to commodify the afterlife.
However clumsy they might currently feel – callous, glitchy – chatbots are conceptually clever in the context of human relationships, in that they trick a connection to the deceased. They are a mechanism for maintaining habits of communication, relieving the otherwise felt absence.
Having learned from social media exploits over decades, Big Tech simultaneously taps into these two things about connection: the practice and the sensation. In the future, these chatbots (from the dead) will likely be highly sophisticated, disturbing normal ruptures between the living and the dead. Of course, not all cultures handle death the same way, but most acknowledge and respect its profound nature – and while in many cultures a connection with the dead remains, the use of digital technology to trick us into avoiding death (grief/relief/passing) is arguably a capitalist exploit rather than a spiritual or therapeutic one.
The future of our humanity and planet require a turn towards death, not away from it; a collective grieving, grappling with the realities of this pandemic’s death toll (and the next one), as well as all the deaths we are promised because of global (colonial, capitalist) warming.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s worth taking pause to find out who and what is initiating and funding these projects, to commodify death, by preventing it, and through imaginary digital afterlives. There are too many such endeavours to list in their entirety here, but highlighting a few gives us a good enough sense of what the future of death holds, in terms of efforts to be kept alive, in some format, at all costs.
Breakout Labs, led by (co-founder of PayPal and Facebook investor) Peter Thiel has set out to find the “key to eternal life”. In a 2015 interview, Thiel explained: “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing. I think that’s somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive. I prefer to fight it.” Thiel, and (Amazon’s) Jeff Bezos are also backing Silicon Valley scientists working on “a cure for aging”, which speaks to the idea that death – if not time itself – is something to fend off. Further reflecting Big Tech entrepreneurs’ seemingly shared anxieties about the future, Bezos is also quietly investing in a 10,000 years clock – “designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking” – in addition to several anti-aging and cancer-related startups, like Unity Biotechnology, Juno Therapeutics, and Grail, among others. In a similar move, Google is spending billions on projects “solving death” with startup Calico Labs. Many tech entrepreneurs bank on big data, AI and machine-learning technologies to anticipate, if not predict, each future moment – age, and perhaps the passing of time itself, and likely the end of life, will all be carefully calibrated by technology. And of course, the predictive powers of big data are now synonymous with how popular DNA services brand themselves – MyHeritage, 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and so on – as percentage-givers, and good predictors of lifespans. Genomics alone is a billion dollar industry based largely on an unfulfilled promise that set the stage for startups to do much of the same with death. In sum, in the past decade, Big Tech has been investing billions of dollars to alter the future of death on many fronts – either by preventing one’s own, or by avoiding having to fully let go of someone else. Arguably, these investments extend well beyond chatbots – colonizing Mars, longevity pills, 4G on the moon, social credit scores, the military, etc; each of these are driven by human anxieties about life – about feeling alive – not about death.
The picture I paint here is bleak, but not because death is. I encourage the great undoing of this Big Tech vision of the future – to capture, handle, and mitigate death virtually. When we imagine the future now, it is all there, and nothing should surprise us: in how we handle death we handle life.
Inevitably, I think about my own death: I do not want to be stored in the cloud. I want to be returned to the soil, picked up by the wind, and blown through the trees. Left in peace, like how my father sounded.