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

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  • mike wiles

    Ya, if Einstein and Newton were still alive we would be waaaay worse off.  True innovators evolve with technology.  The rest of the idiots aren't helping society either way, and have little impact on true innovation.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Kind of a morbid subject, lol!

    However, pretty timely, especially with the projection of "Digital Death Manager" being one of the new career fields. I just had a meeting with someone that does video for this purpose.

    One thing that stands out to me is the idea that everything you do online just may be available many generations down the line. That means your great grandkids could tap right into your online world. The ramifications are profound.

    At the same time, the shifting silicon sands do seem to wipe the slate clean more than you might think. Years ago I started a virtual weblog of my online projects on one major platform only to find it exported onto another when that business line got shut down. I had quite a lot of videos too which were part of this, but not worth the time to export all over when my video service provider changed their model. I have made a number of websites which can still be found on an internet archive, but only as shells without the content and full effect. Not to mention countless social profiles I have left out there as ghost ships. There are also a couple that I tried to delete but couldn't, so I ended up stripping them down and masking them.

    Quite recently I left a platform that I had previously been a major advocate for because they were rebuilding it from scratch in order to make it mobile compatible. It was not cost-effective for them to keep your years of work, although they felt promising to import over content and members would be sufficient. Needless to say, even if you try to manage your online legacy, you can still find yourself tossed around like a rag doll. At the moment, I'm taking a virtual vacation- I've shut down the majority of my web assets; literally thousands of hours of production vanished. It was not easy to let go of those legacy elements, but I can say it feels like a very healthy process. I decided to archive and sort of hide my blog for the time being though, and have boxes of material that may hold value to someone down the line.

    Ultimately, I think this raises some broader questions though. This guy that killed himself and set up a website- that says something about social media I think. He was tired of all the chaos and war, but could that be because he was just a bit too tuned in to the news media hype? Or what about just dealing with change- because we deal with this directly with social media- an ever increasing rate and complexity of change. Might we (and platforms even) consider what we can do to cope better- to build in more long-term stability against the entropy, or to promote the embrace of change such as typified in Generation Flux? In a world that is supposedly pushing the envelope for social and connecting more people than ever, might we take a closer look at the prevailing sense of apathy and animosity this supports? It's not just that you can reach across the globe, or that you actually have a significant chance of connecting with a hypothetical one-in-a-million soul-whatever, but also the enhanced focus on local. With the prominence of social media, you should have every opportunity to be involved in what is going on around you especially with people and in person. If done right, I would think should mitigate the fear of being alone or possibly not being remembered- or to satisfy that with a site or worse drawing attention to yourself through suicide.

    On a positive note, if you have not looked into "The Last Lecture" it is perfectly relevant. There's a book and you can catch the speech on YouTube.

    Kind of interested to see "Jobs" as he was acutely aware of his legacy too. Getting immortalized in a movie is one thing, but I bet he was more concerned about what he did in life to have a lasting impact. In my view, being a force that can make a dent in the universe is more like "a complete part of a nutritious breakfast"- something best enjoyed on a day to day basis.

    Best, Anthony