Digital Death

In her curatorial exploration, Stacey Pitsillides highlights the spectrum of experimentation in online memorialisation and its complex dynamic between the deceased and their role in the lives of the living. Through five paradigmatic initiatives, she showcased the evolving digital mourning landscape and explores forms of digital immortality.

Memorialisation VS. Reanimation

Text: Stacey Pitsillides

In the 21st century digital technology has been appropriated, designed and re-designed to integrate death and grieving into everyday life. These practices have been further normalised since the Covid-19 pandemic. Online memorialisation is perhaps one of the most recognized of these. These memorials are now an established part of building community between bereaved persons and for continued interactions with the dead.

Alongside this, there is a growth of innovators whose quest is to reanimate digital versions of the self – for immortality or posterity. This article aims to hold space between traditional uses of technology for the preservation of memory and memorialisation, to more experimental approaches where we interact with the dead in games, through bots or VR, into dreams of science fiction authors and technologists who wish to create new digital humans or posthumans.

Memorialisation practices have always been interwoven with new technology and often play with boundaries of the agency of the dead and their role in the lives of the living

Memorialisation gives permission for public expressions of grief that, historically, were socially hidden along with enfranchising otherwise illegitimate loss. It also supports the creation of social norms and netiquette. Memorialisation practices have always been interwoven with new technology and often play with boundaries of the agency of the dead and their role in the lives of the living, e.g. spirit photography popularised in the 1800s often captured images of ghosts interacting with other human subjects.

When the World Wide Web was created in the 1990s online memorials soon followed, shifting from simple image and text-based guest books to our current media. For example, one of the earliest virtual memorial gardens launched in 1995, was the World Wide Cemetery. Social media are often the primary site of today’s memorials with platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (X) creating new avenues for digital storytelling and talking to the dead.

Unfinished Farewell – Politics of Memorialisation

During the global pandemic, China became the site of the first cluster of COVID-19 cases (Dec 2019) and their subsequent global (often digital) memorialisation. A prominent example of social media memorialisation is Dr Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who became known as the COVID-19 whistle-blower. His Sina Weibo1 account swiftly became a virtual space for shared commemoration, conversation and critique, likened by the media to a Wailing Wall. It strikes a balance between grief, political commentary, and everyday encounters e.g. the doctor’s love of fried chicken.

The politics of memorialisation is well documented, but the COVID-19 pandemic gave designers and technologists the space and desire to create unique places to commemorate the dead. This includes Unfinished Farewell which references the political nature of memorialising COVID-19 deaths, as people in China were removed from the formal death toll to keep numbers low, so the site acts both as a memorial and evidence of this era.

Unfinished Farewell is a purpose-built, individual/collective memorial project to memorialise deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic by Jiabao Li and Laobai Wu (2020). It uses interaction design, sound, movement and fragmentation to embody the concept of engaging with and honouring the dead. By pressing the farewell button, you enter a digital version of a 3D room, where the music changes and you are surrounded by cascading memorial statements that give the sensation of being amongst the dead.

Unfinished Farewell
Unfinished Farewell Image: Jiabao Li

This memorial is not only sentimental but aims to document this experience of death in a pandemic collectively, particularly for those who were not included in the formal death count and may be forgotten. There is also a political aspect to the memorial whereby it aims to capture the “information [people] posted before they passed away, which [the artists considered as] evidence they left to this era.” The link between political agency, communication and memorialisation is well established but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how techno-political systems problematise this further.

From Creating Memorials to Using pre-Existing Environments for Memorialisation

A range of gaming platforms have been known to use the particular structure, environment and context of the game to develop personal memorials. Visual markers are left within games or social virtual worlds to retain the presence of dead players, particularly in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).

Rituals are performed to confirm after death, with visual signifiers likened to in-game roadside memorials, funerals and monuments. Players’ experiences of death are prominent within the landscape and history of these games. World of Warcraft (WoW) is a good example of this as it includes a range of memorial structures and practices for deceased players. In other prominent communities like Final Fantasy XIV, players gathered in-game to pay their final respects during COVID-19 and memorials and tombstones began appearing in Animal Crossing during the pandemic when many people were not able to attend funerals or gravesides in person. 

Games which are not community-led also provide a unique vantage for interacting with death. Apart of Me (2018), is a game which was designed in partnership with hospices and bereavement experts and aims to help young people deal with loss. Whereas Life Is Strange (2015) is a mainstream drama game that explores death as a core element. The main characters are two teenage girls who experience bereavement, suicide, assisted dying and natural disasters within a school environment.

However, games can explore mortality without a strong personal narrative. Passage (2007) is an experimental, pixel-based side scroller in which you walk across the screen, meet your love, age and eventually die. The music and simple graphics illustrate the passage of time and focus contemplation internally on players’ own lives. That Dragon, Cancer fits into this category as it inspires careful reflection on one’s own life, but it could be considered as a personal memorial in the form of a game. It explores childhood death, religious belief and the progression of cancer, which merges into environments, ending in a final ascension to heaven. 

That Dragon, Cancer – A Personal Memorial within a Game

That Dragon, Cancer is a computer game made as a tribute to the true-life story of Joel Green, who died of cancer at the age of five. The game navigates a range of environments showing the various stages of cancer’s infiltration into the Green’s lives. The game is a form of care as an expression of love and loss. It gives their son’s story the agency to extend his presence beyond his short life.

  • That Dragon, Cancer
    That Dragon, Cancer Visuals: Numinous Games

The game ends with a scene called the Pancake Party that is a 3D manifestation of all the things that Joel loved, set up as an interactive collage with oversized pancakes and blowable bubbles with an assentation to heaven. The pancakes are expanded as a network through launching the game with a worldwide pancake party for Joel on Twitter. This act of eating pancakes and writing messages for the family extends the final scene of the game into the material world, sharing the labour of making pancakes and the results as a multisensory digital memorial – a collection of care and an act of collective care that the family entrusts to this digital community.

  • That Dragon, Cancer
    That Dragon, Cancer Visuals: Numinous Games

Meeting You – Pushing Boundaries of Digital Immortality and Reanimation

This sits in stark contrast with visions of technological immortality and reanimation. An example which begins to cross this boundary is a recent documentary called Meeting You, which aired in 2020 just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It showcases the use of AI to enable a Korean mother, through a VR headset, to poignantly interact with her dead child, which sits on the border between reanimation and memorialisation. Their interaction is scripted and ends with the child being put to sleep, while her mother strokes her hair with haptic VR gloves.

It raises questions about the potential future of digital humans in a mainstream audience, exploring notions of non-human agency with Kim Jong-Woo the director of Meeting You stating that VR Nayeon “is not a physical person or object but has elements of reality” (4:00) while simultaneously describing Meeting You as “a documentary about a digital human” (1:55).

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Bringing the dead back to life: South Korean VR documentary 'Meeting You' Quelle: YouTube/KST by The Korea Times

The team who created Meeting You studied photographs of Nayeon for three months and developed a storyline that considered key points of interaction between the mother and child, along with small personal details and gestures that would awaken memories. During production they worked with the mother through old videos of Nayeon, crafting the memories together so the experience of reliving the archive also brought meaning into the final experience, for example, recreations of eating “seaweed soup” (2:38) and adding a birthday candle to her cake or stroking her daughter’s hair all make reference to corporeal body, which frames the interaction.

Digital reanimation has become the focus of a range of projects and experiences. MIT Media Lab has been exploring features where we may create digital heirs (2017). This sits alongside the larger players in the technology industry entering this sector, for example, Amazon’s foray into digital death by offering a new feature where Alexa can speak in the voice of the dead. Or Microsoft’s recent patent application to turn someone into a digital chatbot using digital content from a person and machine learning to train a chatbot on replicating how that person would sound. 

Donate Yourself – Relating Biological with Digital Data

Our relationship to the production of both biological and digital data also gains importance as the use of AI models across a range of sectors from healthcare to genealogy increases. Developments in human tissue research are directly linked to transhumanist thinking about immortality via biofiles, cloning and mind downloading.

The boom in genealogy companies such as MyHeritage have also supported this. Their use of DNA tests to reveal your unique ethnic background has been merged with AI tools like Deep Nostalgia™ which animates the faces of subjects in old photographs and DeepStoryTM which offers to “make your family photos speak” targeting consumers who wish to collect their genealogy and heritage but, in the process, paying to hand over sensitive bio and digital data.

Do we wish to have a choice over who has access to our biological and digital traces beyond death?

As part of this linking of digital and biological data, the Donate Yourself project explores how the public feels about donating biological and digital data to scientific research and the ethics behind it. It aligns with the new Data Act, which was adopted by the European Commission in 2022 by defending the rights of citizens to understand and be more engaged with what happens to their body data and who has the right to use it.

Donate Yourself is an Augmented Reality experience created in collaboration with interactive design collective body>data>space and scientists from the Human Cell Atlas project (HCA). It blends sound and 3D visuals with non-linear narrative to spark debates about our organs, tissue and body data. It aims to demystify some of the ethical and personal concerns around the donation of organ, tissue and body data for scientific and medical research.

  • Donate Yourself
    Donate Yourself Visuals: Stacey Pitsillides with body>data>space

The research finds different modes of provoking thought around the central question: do we wish to have a choice over who has access to our biological and digital traces beyond death? A range of methods were used to capture diverse public attitudes and ethical concerns about donation using participatory approaches which included: the co-creation of design probes with HCA scientists, online workshops, qualitative interviews, a documentation zine and public maker jam. These methodological lenses, and the data they produce, were used to construct a non-linear narrative and digital bricolage which frame the five AR experiences titled: care, trust, immortal, consent, and future.

Bina48 – Extraction of Human Memories

Considering the development of digital resurrection and its historic links to science fiction, one might consider pioneering Artificial Intelligence (AI) scientist Marvin Minsky, who stated in the 1950s that it ‘will soon be possible to extract human memories from the brain and import them, intact and unchanged, to computer disks’. This compelling idea has shaped public thinking, research and fiction surrounding AI for the past 70 years. It is no coincidence that by the 1960s Minsky was asked by Stanley Kubrick to advise on his visionary film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and in particular on the development of their central AI character HAL.

“it will soon be possible to extract human memories from the brain and import them, intact and unchanged, to computer disks”

Marvin Minsky

This has also inspired projects such as LifeNaut whose founder Martine Rothblatt argues that both ageing and dying are illnesses that can be “cured”. Digital immortality is what we should be aiming for; the disengagement from the human body and reliance on technology solely. The first step is the creation of a MindFile (or mind cloning), followed by a BioFile (DNA sample) that could grow you a new body via ectogenesis –downloading your MindFile into it. Based on this ideology Bina48 was created in 2010.

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Bina48 Robot Talks to Siri Quelle: YouTube/Ars Technica

BINA48 is a head-and-shoulders bust robot that came to life in 2010 with a transhumanist worldview (being developed by the Terrasem Foundation whose aim is to achieve human consciousness through technology). Bina 48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture 48) is a cyber-consciousness that was modelled after Bina Rothblatt, one of the co-founders of the Terasem Movement Foundation, through more than one hundred hours in compiling her memories, feelings, and beliefs and is said to be able to have conversations with humans.

The Terrasem Foundation also manages a website called LifeNaut  which promises to make you a MindFile where they download your memories and clone a new body for you to upload them into, Bina also serves the Rothblatt’s Terrasem Foundation, where she participates in AI and consciousness experiments as part of the LifeNaut project, along with interviews from the press. Bina48 is an early illustration of part one of the Terasem Hypothesis, which states: A conscious analogue of a person may be created by combining sufficiently detailed data about the person (a mindfile) using future consciousness software (mindware).

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