Last month, a study by Carl J Öhman and David Watson of the Oxford Internet Institute found that dead people on Facebook could outnumber living users within 50 years.
In his poem An Arundel Tomb, Philip Larkin wrote that “what will survive of us is love” – a thought, that he said was “almost true”. But what will certainly survive of this and future generations is the content we create over years and decades of online activity. With the inevitable effect of time, Facebook and the other social media sites will turn into what some people call “digital graveyards”.
I’d argue that’s entirely the wrong analogy to draw. In respect to the dead, graves and graveyards do two things that the internet does not do. Firstly, they unambiguously mark the end of a life. Every gravemaker is a full-stop, plain for all to see. Secondly, they clearly separate the dead from the living. The latter may visit, but only the former remain.
The internet, though, is a place where our digital selves continue unmarked by our mortality. From Facebook friends to Twitter followers to the contacts on our mobile phones, the dead reside in ever greater numbers alongside the living – and superficially indistinguishable.
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The distinctions and separations we so carefully maintain in the real world are being eroded in cyberspace. In the process we are violating one of the deepest and oldest taboos known to mankind.
Back in the 1990s, not long after the fall of Communism, I was introduced to some Romanians who were visiting the UK for the first time. I asked them where in Romania they came from. Transylvania, they replied. They were surprised that so many people they’d met in England claimed to know the place. When I explained why that might be, they expressed some exasperation. And fair enough. How would you like it if your homeland was only known around the world for its darkest folklore – and, even worse, folklore chewed up and regurgitated by a foreign author?
Though Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is very loosely inspired by Romanian history – in particular the 15th century ruler Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. ‘Vlad the Impaler’) – there’s nothing especially Romanian or Transylvanian about vampires. The word ‘vampire’ is not of Romanian origin; it came to us via French and German from the Slavic world (and before that, even further east). In fact, myths about vampires and vampire-like creatures are remarkably widespread – most cultures have them – and many stretch back into pre-history.
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These weren’t just stories to tell around the campfire. The evidence is that our ancestors were genuinely terrified that the dead would walk and prey upon the living – as attested to by the discovery of graves containing staked and decapitated skeletons. But why were our ancestors so terrified of the undead? Weren’t the times they lived in violent enough without having to invent mythical foes? From a modern day perspective, it all seems so irrational.
And yet that’s to forget that they had to deal with a dangerous world they couldn’t analyse scientifically – and that what they did learn (the hard way, through experience), they could only pass on by word of mouth.
Consider for instance, their experience of disease. The absence of modern medical knowledge didn’t just leave them struggling to treat illness, but also to explain it: A bigger, deadlier threat than man or beast, but also silent, invisible, unfathomable. Without an understanding of microbes, what explanations would you reach for?
Now consider death itself, not the spiritual mysteries of life and afterlife, but the immediate fact of the human body and what happens to it after its final breath. There is, of course, the ghastly pallor of death – and the coldness and rigor mortis. Tissues begin to shrivel, teeth become bared and appear more prominent; and it may seem as if hair and nails continue to grow. Most horribly, gases build up within the body – causing movement, making sounds, and perhaps forcing blood from the mouth. Death may bring stillness first, but with the process of decay comes transformation and the suggestion of restlessness. To imagine the dead as undead is surely not such a leap.
And nor, I’d argue, is making a link between the undead and the inexplicable life-sapping effects of disease upon the living. The dead do not get up and prey upon us, but they are a potential source of contamination.
Put all of that together and one can begin to understand how vampire myths got their start in so many different places around the world. And, how, in reinforcing certain taboos – for instance those concerning cannibalism, contact with the dead and the proper disposal of bodies – they also served a useful purpose.
I wonder, though, if our fear of the dead (and, in particular, our fear of the dead come back to a semblance of life) – goes further than matters of cleanliness and hygiene.
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In Darwinian terms, death serves a vital purpose in making room for the next generation, another throw of the genetic dice, another chance to evolve and move on. Much the same can be said about the evolution of human culture.
You may have heard it argued that because older people are more likely than the young to have voted to Leave the EU, and also more likely to have died since the 2016 referendum, we should therefore hold the vote again. It’s a specious argument, and a nasty one – but buried within its ugliness there is a grain of truth. While we shouldn’t begrudge the votes of those in life’s departure lounge, imagine our society if the Edwardians were still with us – and the Victorians, Georgians, Stuarts, Tudors and so on. The architecture would be better, but Jacob Rees Mogg would be considered a dangerous liberal.
One of my university professors once began a lecture with these words: “It is estimated that since our species evolved, 77 billion human beings have been born… fortunately, most of the buggers are dead.” Harsh, but fair.
Of course, we honour those who have gone before us. We inherit a tradition and hopefully add to it and pass it on. In our personal lives, we grieve for those we lose and hold them, happily or unhappily, in our memories. Many of us believe in an afterlife and in some faiths, such as Catholicism, the faithful departed are not just remembered but also prayed for: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. Let perpetual light shine upon them.”
However, the idea of the dead breaking back into our lives is a deeply disturbing one. In both the Old and New Testaments, we are warned against the use of mediums to contact the spirits of the dead. The book of Ecclesiastes says this of the departed: “their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.”
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In the Western tradition, and elsewhere, a firm line is drawn between this world and what comes after – and if the dead breach it or become somehow trapped between the two, it is in ghostly or ghoulish form: both horrifying and insubstantial, as if to underscore their lack of belonging.
That the resurgence in spiritualism and seances in the 19th and early 20th century coincided with the decline of traditional Christian belief is surely not unrelated. As faith faltered, the demand grew for physical ‘evidence’ of the survival of the soul beyond death. As GK Chesterton remarked in 1924: “The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority.”
For a while, Spiritualism acquired a semi-respectability, attracting famous adherents such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Russel Wallace and William T Stead. However, the moment passed. Mediumship continues, but has been relegated to the fringes. The ‘age of reason’ has reasserted the old separation between this life and the next – if only by disbelieving in the latter.
But could technology reawaken the dead? I believe it could – not literally, of course, but by reanimating our digital remains. What we currently leave behind us online may be extensive, but as things stand the dead cannot be said to be active on social media. Unless someone does it for them, their profiles will not be updated, their emails will go answered, and their mentions unacknowledged. Through our gadgets, we can pre-program certain actions before we die, but thereafter we can take no more decisions.
Artificial intelligence could change that. Last year I wrote about the concept of “augmented eternity” – the application of AI to our online activities. I raised the grim prospect of Donald Trump continuing to tweet from beyond the grave forever.
Within a few decades, it’s entirely plausible that the current generation of digital assistants will evolve into sophisticated AI agents, capable of acting on our behalf in all sorts of online situations – from completing our tax returns to arranging our meetings and appointments. They’ll have state-of-the-art language processing skills and be capable of composing emails and answering calls. We’ll find them immensely useful; indeed, we’ll be lost without them. They, however, will be able to continue without us – surviving online long after we’ve departed this world.
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Having managed our social media activity while we’re alive, there’s no reason why they couldn’t continue to do so when we’re dead. They may not be capable of writing the most original of tweets, but then neither are most Twitter users. In short, should we wish it, AI will be more than able to keep us active online – death no object.
But why? What would be the point?
Well, there is an obvious motivation: to be remembered. If you believe that you only live on in the memory of others, then AI-powered social media is your best shot at immortality.
The internet is already a competition for the world’s attention. Before long, the living will compete against an army of digitally undead.