The end of the 20th century saw a proliferation of digital devices to capture everyday sights and sounds. Technological convergence soon led to digital media platforms and now anyone can create and store permanent records of their lives. A kind of immortality is within reach of us all.
In his book Irish Nocturnes (1999) the poet and philosopher Chris Arthur observes the unease with which human beings contemplate how each and every one of us will be forgotten by the world in which we live: “Our physical extinction is close-shadowed by a series of scarcely audible echoes of oblivion as, one by one, the pinprick glints of memory which may hold some likeness of us for a while gutter and go out.”
Little survives of the individuals who were the composer Beethoven, the painter Rembrandt, the playwright Shakespeare, and the despot Ramses II. Of Beethoven, there are letters and manuscripts and biographies, but no photographs. Of Rembrandt, there are transcendent self-portraits and etchings, but no fingerprints. Of Shakespeare, there remain the greatest plays in the English language, yet no tangible trace of the man. And of Ramses II, whose monuments endure – “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” – along with the empty shell that housed his soul (in Cairo’s Museum of Antiquities), there is nothing to tell us the timbre of his voice.
The logical outcome of today’s convergent technologies, especially those that bring in the cognitive sciences, is that it will be possible to fabricate a digital replica of any person and to invest her or him with a complete biological and social life-history. Such replicas might take the form of holograms that can speak about their life, sing, dance, or play chess. No soul – perhaps – but every other human attribute.
The idea seems fanciful until one looks at recent developments in cyborgs (short for “cybernetic organism”), beings with biological or artificial enhancements. Current research into storage mechanisms for human memory is leading scientists towards designing external memory devices that will record every moment of a lifetime. Researchers into Alzheimer’s disease are working on similar technologies to aid sufferers.
Attractive though such a scenario may be, it may be a form of social and economic elitism. Those who develop and own such technologies are global corporations whose primary purpose is profit and not the social and psychological well-being of others. And such technologies can be used to control as well as to liberate. In this “brave new world” (the expression is Shakespeare’s, not Huxley’s, and in its original context quite positive), there will be a question mark over which individual or communal histories are worth keeping. And, inevitably, the possibility of a digital eternity will affect all human relationships and actions.
Unconstrained by the fetters of time, virtual avatars will one day represent all that it meant to be human. Our ways of speaking, our gestures, our memories, and our beliefs will be digitally encapsulated and replayable ad infinitum. In place of oblivion, digital reincarnation in a human Library of Babel: something Ramses II (Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias) could never have imagined.