The Notion of “Legacy” is Evolving. That is Really a Good Thing

In a new article in Aeon Magazine ( Patrick Stokes shines a light on the ways technology is shaping our understanding of death, and consciousness.  He writes, in part:

“………As I was writing this piece, the sad news came through that the political theorist and prominent blogger Norman Geras had died. I didn’t know Geras, but I’d been following him on Twitter for about a year, after he tweeted to take me to task (rightly) about something I’d written for The Conversation website. I’m not sure why, but when I heard he’d died, I went straight to look at his Twitter account. His last tweets? Requests for friends and family to check if his phone was working and to please message him. No grand last words. No hint of the last act in every human drama. Just the calm, banal chatter of everyday life. And then, silence.

Some people have been searching for ways to fill that silence, by using artificial intelligence to continue to provide content for a dead user’s social media presence. An app called LivesOn, for instance, offers a service that can continue to send tweets after the death of the Twitter account-holder. Developed by a creative agency and Queen Mary, University of London, the app is designed to analyse a user’s existing tweets, learning from their syntax and word usage to construct new tweets that sound like the user. Another company, Virtual Eternity, based in Alabama, has developed animated avatars of the dead, so that their distant descendants can communicate with them.

So far, neither of these efforts looks all that impressive, but it is interesting to see an emerging industry offering people the opportunity to extend their digital agency beyond their biological death. Some of these are as simple as making sure key documents and passwords are available for executors and the bereaved, while others send out pre-prepared messages at a time of the users’ choosing. Others are memorial sites. A few take aim at the afterlife itself. A company called LifeNaut, based in Vermont, offers to collect and store all of the data that makes you who you are. LifeNaut’s online FAQ states that the site’s ‘long-term goal is to test whether given a comprehensive database, saturated with the most relevant aspects of an individual’s personality, future intelligent software will be able to replicate an individual’s consciousness’. Take that with all the salt you can get your hands on.

No one has been able to unify it, elegantly, into a tidy little metaphysical entity such as the soul. Instead, we’ve ended up with an embarrassment of riches

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good, bad or improbable these services are. They remind us that, however embodied we might be in our identities online, the form of survival they offer is of little or no comfort to the self. It might be some reassurance to know that, when I die, my wife will get a message with all the passwords to my accounts, and my arch-enemies will get deliciously nasty emails. It might even be good to know that my friends and family will have my voice to remember me by, thanks to a company such as the New Hampshire-based Remembered Voices, or my interminable Facebook pictures — after all, as Elaine Kasket, psychologist at London Metropolitan University, showed in her essay ‘Being-towards-death in the Digital Age’ (2011), people frequently return to the Facebook profiles of the dead as part of their mourning process.

But, to paraphrase Woody Allen: I don’t want to live on in my Facebook page, I want to live on in my apartment. We have, as Mark Johnston has noted in Surviving Death (2010), two ways of fearing death: a fear that there will be no one to carry out my projects and live my life, and a fear that this subject, this field of experience that I am right now, this ‘arena of presence and action’ as Johnston puts it, won’t exist anymore.

This is of course precisely the self/person split we noted above. My person might live on in social media, but there is no way I can live on as a self online. There is, simply, nothing that it is like to be a Facebook profile, no Twittery experience for me to look forward to, and so no survival I could really care about from my first-person perspective.

I might, however, live on for others in some way, because not all aspects of my person identity depend on my body being alive to continue. That’s why, for instance, you would still be dishonouring me by mistreating my corpse, even though in another sense I no longer exist. But I cannot live on for myself. It’s a subtle distinction, but a crucial one for getting to grips with one of the oldest and most persistent philosophical questions: what are we?

I mentioned above that philosophers have failed to hit upon a single answer to that question. No one has been able to unify it, elegantly, into a tidy little metaphysical entity such as the soul. Instead, we’ve ended up with an embarrassment of riches: dozens of different, apparently incompatible ways of being. Amid this confusion, we can finally see a way forward: we are not objects or brains or persons or selves or human animals, but all of these, all linked to different perspectives, none reducible to any of the others. The task now is to understand how these interact. Our new ways of living and dying online suggest that the task might not be one we can afford to avoid.”

As an estate planning attorney, the Will Doctor seeks to understand his clients spoken and unspoken objectives– to enhance and clarify the emotional and conceptual framework of dying and providing a legacy that is more than material.  The legal requirements for passing our property to our heirs effectively, and the tax consequences, are now being complimented by a growing set of tools that will allow us to express ourselves in ways previously unimagined.  How I wish I could have listened to, and watched, my great-great grandfather and grandmother talk about living in Brooklyn during WWI.

The Will Doctor believes that the development of a plan to be available and communicate a sense of ourselves after we are gone, outside of Facebook, can provide equivalent benefits while we are alive, forcing an examination of our legacy that can shape it, as well.

Posted in Perspectives, WillPlan Blog.

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