Is The Web Our Path To Immortality?

In today’s news scrum, the staff debates whether Internet archives are the first win in the human battle to avoid death, and whether that means doom for human progress as we know it.

Today’s News Scrum Discussion: Is It Possible to Achieve Immortality Online? by Keith Collins on Slate.com

One of the things Martin Manley had to consider before committing suicide last week was how long a website could last. This, after all, was a big part of the retired newspaper reporter’s plan to take his own life: to leave behind a website comprising more than 40 pages in what he called “one of the most organized good-byes in recorded history.”

There are people in medical science today like Aubrey de Grey who believe the first person who will live to 150 has already been born. That is to say, medical technology is advancing faster than our life expectancy, which will mean at some point--theoretically speaking--it will be able to outrun death.

This spells nothing but disaster for the concept of “progress” as we know it. The one benefit of “natural” life expectancies is that they remove roadblocks (i.e., aging citizens) for younger generations to change and adapt the world to their needs and tastes. If I had my druthers, you wouldn’t be able to vote past the age of 80, just like you can’t vote under the age of 18. At certain points in the human life curve, your interests are not aligned with the bulk of humanity that is working, living, eating, and buying on their own.

The idea of physical immortality is just as threatening--but far less immediate--than the idea of informational immortality. Today, we forget relatively quickly what prior generations thought and believed, which is somewhat freeing, in that subsequent generations are relatively free to invent their own path.

Sure, we may lose some virtue when older generations die, but much of the worthwhile stuff is later resurrected. One example is the “green” movement, an outgrowth of hippy-leftist preservationism that started in the '60s and '70s, but went somewhat fallow in the '80s and '90s.

If I ran a web hosting company, I would tinker with the idea that every web page have a parking meter on it; if people want the page to stay up, they can donate money to keep up hosting. If not, the page goes into some vault or archive. We can’t keep adding data to our servers as if there’s no cost, and the old stuff should be the first stuff to come down. --Chris Dannen

To be remembered only as one of many who asked, in a spectacular way, if we could be remembered online forever seems to be the most ironic form of meta the Internet has seen.

Since the issue of keeping current and future data around forever has been more prevalent in recent years, it’s more likely to actually happen. Brought up by the article though, will it matter? “When is the last time you saw a web page from 1983? Much of the content of the early Internet has been purged or taken offline, and even the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine only goes back to 1996.”

There’s also the issue of data overload. By some accounts the NSA is capable of monitoring 75% of U.S. Internet traffic, but just because you have the data are you able parse it and find what you’re actually looking for? Just because data will most likely live on forever, doesn’t mean the information will be accessible. In the case of Martin Manley, he’ll likely be remembered by a few extra people, but probably mostly by close friends and relatives, which would have been the case without the tragic end. --Tyler Hayes

The human desire to be immortalized through time is fundamental, and it makes sense that digital archives would be an appealing option for establishing an eternal life. In response, social media sites, like Facebook, have already created ways of commemorating someone after they die and fixing their profile in place. And Martin Manley's website is another example of an effort to live on online.

But forever is a long time and like Walmarts built on burial grounds or tombstones that have fallen apart, it seems clear that the remnants of our online selves will eventually disappear in server migrations, data purges, or company evolution/demise. As Tyler points out, data that are recorded but inaccessible are effectively lost.

Collins writes, "We are, as a species, legacy-builders. But in our quest to leave our mark in the Information Age, we’ve begun to look beyond the finite, beyond the physical, and into the digital space." But really I think people have always vied for digital permanence, even before the concept of "digital" existed in its modern form, because the ultimate immortality has always been to be remembered in the collective human brain trust. I'm gonna quote The Iliad now, because Achilles was a flawed individual/pastiche who wanted to be remembered forever and actually has been. In Book IX he says:

O'er me double destinies impend:
That should I at the siege of Troy remain,
Immortal glory will my portion be,
But never shall I see my home again.
But, on the other hand, should I return,
Glory I lose, but length of days is mine.

If the Internet had existed, he definitely would have wanted his website archived. But whether or not it would have been significant and seemed worth saving in the long run would have been subject to the same random chance that made Homer's works so iconic. Also, the Embassy to Achilles would have probably happened on Google Hangouts. --Lily Hay Newman

We may want a digital legacy, but would we even use it? The future of the Internet is not a broad meadow--it’s a landscape so large that the area beyond its curvature is inestimable, and it will be a million treadmills of content that users hop between. Even the most conservative Twitter and Facebook users know the futility of “keeping up” with tweets and the News Feed. It’s the “lifestream” that David Gelernter predicted on Wired 16 years ago and claims is now arriving to replace the public’s notion of a flat Internet with static, eternally retrievable content.

So it’s puzzling to assume that our lives will be forever present on an ever-refreshing content landscape. Are you still worried that people will find your Xanga/LiveJournal snapshot of high school? Seriously--only the most infinitesimal fraction of celebrated people’s graves are visited, and after several generations, even familial descendents will likely have moved far from burial sites, and the graves are forgotten.

The graves remain, as may our websites, if preparations are made. But why assume that our digital world, with its ever-increasing glut of content, will even make our “digital legacies” findable as Google’s indexing algorithms game relevance in more satisfying ways? It may require an entirely different search engine system to forcefully break away from relevance-and-immediacy-fixated indexing into a search for an ancestor’s disparate pieces of Internet footprint that haven’t been indexed in decades.

As Lily notes, immortality is also a product of chance. If Homer’s contemporaries had left behind millions of Pinterest boards, status updates, and Instagram photos, would we care enough to sift through them? Or would we bless the artifact that rose to the top, extract meaning from its window to the past, and move on with our lives? - David Lumb

[Image: Flickr user NAPARAZZI]

Article Tags: news scrum