What happens to your social media when you die?
Do you want Facebook or Google to control your legacy?
- Faheem Hussain, clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University, says we need to discuss our digital afterlife.
- One major problem is that we generally avoid talking about death in the first place.
- Where and how we (and our data) will be used when we die remains a mystery.
Where do we go when we die? This philosophical question predates writing. Our earliest stories deal with mortality and the quest for eternal life. "I will make a lasting name for myself," said the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh. "I will stamp my fame on men's minds forever." Upon losing the plant of immortality after an epic quest, the hero faced the reality of death and asked, "What shall I do now? All my hardships have been for nothing."
Not nothing, exactly. The Akkadian tablet containing this mythology has kept his story alive for over 3,800 years. Gilgamesh's fame remains stamped in our minds. Yet how many clay manuscripts have been lost? How many others have been denied immortality? More disturbingly, what if Gilgamesh didn't actually want his name circulated after his demise? That's a question we all face today with the internet and social media.
The question of digital afterlife is being asked by Faheem Hussain, a clinical assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) at Arizona State University. During a recent talk, "Our Digital Afterlife," Hussain entertained questions that are hard to answer.
"We have normalized talking about safety and security of our data and privacy, but we should also start including the conversation of how to manage data afterwards. It's a bit tricky because it involves death and no one wants to talk about it."
The refusal to face death is not new; that too predates mythological kings. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker writes that children's tendency for domineering role play accurately reflects man's tragic destiny.
"He must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else."
The tragedy is that flesh never survives as long as clay. We disguise this fact by trying various procedures meant to prolong the inevitable impact of death. It won't, but facing up to mortality simply won't do. Better that the illusions hold.
While the transition into digital is at first seductive, it remains pedestrian in nature. Future historians will contend with too much, not too little, information. The likelihood that your blog post will live on in eternity is even more unlikely than an archaeologist unearthing preserved scrolls.
We do share a penchant for fabrication and grandeur with ancient scribes, however. Who are you on that screen? Finally, a medium in which we can manipulate every last crevice, to portray ourselves as we like to believe we are, not who we actually are. No longer do we need poets to pen our myths; we can now imagine these others selves.
(In the past month, a number of friends have randomly told me of encounters with highly disagreeable people that espouse kindness and love on their social media handles. We seem neurologically and socially primed to pretend.)
Who you are in real life is another eternal mystery. In his new book, The Science of Storytelling, journalist Will Story writes that humans are essentially hallucinating all the time. The notion of "reality" is itself a construction. The illusions we create help us live another day.
"The world we experience as 'out there' is actually a reconstruction of reality that is built inside our heads. It's an act of creation by the storytelling brain."
A group of women dressed as Catrinas pose as part of the 'Day of the Dead' celebrations on November 2, 2019 in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Photo by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet / Getty Images
Social media, like books and clay tablets before them, is just another platform for expression. Sure, it happens to be the most accessible in history, but there is a precedent. The copyright on books eventually expire; clay tablets never had that sort of protection. What about those 20,000 tweets you sent, those photos in which you wrap your arms around your beloved, or all those "private" messages you sent on Facebook? Who takes ownership when your flesh returns to earth?
Hussain believes everyone should have a say, just as we do when we decide whether we're going to be buried, cremated, or turned into a tree. Facebook transforms your page into a memorial, for which you can appoint a legacy contact. Google has a similar policy. By the year 2100, there could be in excess of five billion Facebook accounts representing the deceased. For the most part, the internet is turning into an unmarked graveyard.
Will all those posts matter after you're gone, and if so, to whom? We know that data is king when it comes to the living, but what morally deficient corporation will figure out how to monetize the dead?
We are all Gilgamesh now. Perhaps someone will dig up your clay in a few millennia. Maybe you'll remain in the minds of men for generations to come. Right now you don't have much say in the matter. If you want to control your legacy, however, the discussion needs to begin now.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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Controversial physics theory says reality around us behaves like a computer neural network.
- Physicist proposes that the universe behaves like an artificial neural network.
- The scientist's new paper seeks to reconcile classical physics and quantum mechanics.
- The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".
Vanchurin interview:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="539759cbfd8fcd5b6ebf14a3b597b3f9"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bmyRy2-UhEE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Vanchurin on “Hidden Phenomena”:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="18886ffd5e5840bb19d4494212f88d82"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2NDVdNwsHCo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>Vitaly Vanchurin speaking at the 6th International FQXi Conference, "Mind Matters: Intelligence and Agency in the Physical World." The Foundational Questions...
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