Posthumous Performance and Digital Resurrection: From Science Fiction to Startups
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Technology enabling resurrection and reanimation of the dead has long been a theme in popular culture, and in science fiction (SF) in particular. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1823), generally considered the beginning of SF as a genre (Freedman, 2000), tells the tale of a scientist who harnesses technology and electricity to reanimate an entity stitched together from the remains of the recent dead. However, it is telling that Victor Frankenstein is now generally considered a metaphor for the arrogance of scientists who fail to consider the harmful potential of their work. While rarely as dramatic as stories of resurrection, Tony Walter (Walter, 2015) has convincingly argued that for thousands of years every communication technology, from etching in stone and cave paintings onward, has been used to communicate with the dead in some fashion. It comes as no surprise, then, that technology start-ups and entrepreneurs are attempting to harness digital technologies, social media, and networked communication not just to speak to the dead but also to use their digital residues to seemingly offer both resurrection and immortality. This chapter examines the promotional discourse deployed by three of these futuristic start-up companies – LivesOn (LivesOn, 2013), Eterni.me (“Eterni.me - Virtual Immortality,” 2016) and Humai (Humai, 2016) – and compares these with several notable SF texts which explore the underlying presumptions and broader cultural and social ramifications of these companies succeeding in achieving digital resurrection. The episode ‘Be Right Back’ of the dystopian television series Black Mirror (Harris, 2013) imagines a world where someone could be reconstituted from the detailed record of their lives left behind across various social media accounts, but with clear echoes of Frankenstein. The series returns to these themes in a more endearing fashion in the upbeat ‘San Junipero’ (Harris, 2016) which features a digital afterlife fashioned after the nineteen eighties. Australian hard SF author and computer scientist Greg Egan also explores this terrain in great detail; his short story ‘Learning to be Me’ (Egan, 1995) and novel Permutation City (Egan, 1994) reveal many of the philosophical presumptions and potential outcomes of a digitised afterlife (Leaver, 2004). In comparing these technology companies and SF texts, this chapter operates on two levels: the first, being to ask what presumptions are being made about contemporary personhood, culture and death; and secondly, mapping what future issues might the success of these start-ups actually provoke.
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