Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Graveyards of the Future
Oct. 20, 2023. 4 min. read.
Digital Immortality: Your life, in high-definition detail, may outlive you. Discover the future of data, privacy, and the legacy we leave behind.
Death is still an unexplored country. If the Singularity arrives in all its glory it may even be one some of us may never explore. Faint dreams of immortality aside, death is almost certainly coming – if the rest of history is anything to go by.
But when we’re gone, will we be forgotten? Humanity is outputting ordered information at a greater rate than ever before. We marvel at the black-and-white stills of a century past, with their stiffened faces to let the long exposure work: a tiny glimpse into an otherwise imagined land. Our descendents will marvel, though, in high-definition fidelity at the great tapestry of our lives. Sometimes in all-too-intimate detail. They’ll have the past on their cinema screens.
You’re In the History Books!
It’s easy to overlook this change. Most of us have enough to keep us preoccupied in the current year without worrying about the traces we’ll leave decades after we’ve gone. Yet the incredible advance in data-capture from our reality, and our ability to store it in a more reproducible, durable, distributed state means future historians will have a lot more data to sift through.
Future generations will know a lot more about you, if they care to look, than you could know about anyone from even a few decades past. Your digital imprint – your videos, texts, interactions, data, places visited, browsing history. All of it, if it’s not deleted, will be available to a future generation to peruse, to tell stories about the life you led. Will you care about your browsing history when you’re dead? Has it been a life well lived? What will your Yelp reviews tell your great grandchildren about you?
What Will They Say About You?
The dilemma is raised fast. We worry about privacy now; should we worry about legacy? Do we want Google to survive forever and preserve the data it holds about to us for the public domain, so that we can be recognised by eternity. Or should the dead take some secrets to the grave?
There is a broad social question here, but it’s not one any of us can answer. Ultimately, Google, or any other major surveillance firm who is holding, using, and processing your data will get to decide how you are remembered. Privacy and legacy are twin pillars of an important social and ethical question: how do we control our information?
Even if you went to lengths to hide it, it’s too late. If the internet as we know it survives in some form, and we continue toward greater technological integration, then advances in data storage, processing power, cloud computing, and digital worlds will mean the creation of a far greater memory of you and a record of your actions than could have existed to any previous generation. And it will only ever increase in generations to come.
Resurrecting the Dead
History then, is changing, as future tech starts becoming real. Humanity may, in the not-too-distant future, have full access to the past. Imagine AI historians trawling databanks to recreate scenes from history, or individual stories, and playing them out in a generative movie played on the screen for the children.
Look! There is your great-grandad on the screen – that’s him playing Halo in his first flat, that’s him at Burger King on Northumberland Street before it closed down. The data is there: that Twitch video of you playing games in your room you uploaded once; the CCTV inside and outside the restaurant. If the data has been stored and ordered – as it increasingly will be – then a not particularly advanced AI could make that movie. Heck, it could almost manage it now. In the further future, it could even do more – it may be able to bring you, in some form, back from the dead.
Gone But Never Forgotten
We must start to grapple with the stories we plan to tell our children. Our digital lives are leaving a deeper footprint on the soil of history than before. We know our ancestors through scattered traces, but our descendents will watch us on IMAX screens. Data capture, storage, privacy, and legacy are all crucial questions we must face – but questions that few are asking. If the future proceeds as planned, then our descendents will know things we may wish they didn’t, but at least we won’t be forgotten.