by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 26
January 2021
Reaction
07:00

Digital ghosts: the eerie next step in your customised world

by Mary Harrington
Is nothing sacred? Credit: Getty

Imagine your wife died suddenly, and you struggled to cope with the loss. Well, soon you’ll be able to converse with her synthetic ghost, via a chatbot! Microsoft has filed a patent to access “social data” such as images, social media posts, written letters and so on “to create or modify a special index in the theme of the specific person’s personality”. This could then be used “to train a chat bot to converse in the personality of the specific person”, while “a 2D or 3D model of a specific person may be generated” to go with it.

I volunteered for some years at a bereavement counselling service. The people who presented for help with bereavement weren’t those who were sad when loved ones died. Every normal human being grieves. The individuals who needed help were those who’d become stuck along the path to accepting loss, usually because the relationship with the lost loved one was complicated.

We’ve all long since become accustomed to the way algorithms customise our digital experience for us, based on user data we provide as the cost of free digital services. Google uses our previous search history to offer us whatever it thinks will be most relevant (or commercially advantageous to Google); Facebook and Twitter algorithms try and curate our newsfeed for maximum “engagement”.

Microsoft’s patent on “digital ghost” technology suggests the next step along from customised online media content is to offer a customised alternative reality. If the aim of bereavement counselling is to come to terms with an irreducible loss by working through difficult memories with sympathetic help from a counsellor, here the aim is rejecting any need to accept irreducible emotional realities full stop. There should be no limit to our ability to tailor digital realities to individual taste.

We should not welcome this development. The more we come to expect an online world tailored to individual desire, the less willing we’ll be to compromise on a shared world offline. Consider the recent invasion of Washington’s Capitol by individuals convinced they were saving America from a coup, even as their opponents read the same events (with the same absolute conviction) as evidence of a coup. Or consider the growing political pressure for fluid and customisable individual “gender identity” to take priority in law over the less malleable and more stubbornly binary traits of human biology.

The digital realm has phenomenal power to reflect, then mimic and commodify our inner worlds on an increasingly individualised basis. This is driving an increasingly widespread expectation that the same level of “mass customisation” is also possible offline, whether in consumer products or political realities. This expectation is in increasingly radical tension with the collective nature of any workable political settlement, and, more fundamentally, with our nature as social beings.

If we’re to retain any capacity for interpersonal connection, we should think harder about which domains of human experience need to be shielded from digital commodification. My starter for 10 would be anything concerning sex, death or conflict: in other words, everything that matters.

Join the discussion


  • Brilliant article. “The more we come to expect an online world tailored to individual desire, the less willing we’ll be to compromise on a shared world offline.” If only the whole world could see this and not only the profiteers hurtling us towards dehumanized, dystopian division and disaster.

  • It all sounds rather like the technological equivalent of a Victorian seance. But what I want to know is, where do I go to buy the advertising space? Just imagine the scene: “Yes, dear, we’re all so happy here on the Other Side — because we all use Brand X washing powder!”

  • I think it’s the difference between an actual recording of what the dear departed actually said, and an AI simulation of a thing they might have said.

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