Film & Television

Contemplating the Afterlife in a Digital World

As expected, Jon Hamm is picture perfect as Walter. After all, even at his most charming, Don Draper always seemed a bit robotic. Here, Hamm is utterly believable as software, yet he has at least as much compassion as any of the humans in Marjorie’s life. You get the sense that he’s eager to learn what he can in order to console her, not simply because someone programmed him that way. Tess and Jon are played with immense skill by Oscar winners Geena Davis and Tim Robbbins. And, Stephanie Andujar (Orange is the New Black) more than holds her own as Marjorie’s (human) companion Julie.

The idea that advanced technology could be used to help manage basic human emotions is understandably controversial. The primes (Walter is only the first of multiple primes in the film) effectively alleviate pain. But, in doing so, are they also somehow diminishing the love the loss of which was the cause of the pain in the first place? If you could only remember the happy times, would you want to?

Similar questions are posed in the much lauded episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, which won two Emmy awards last week. San Junipero, from the third season of the popular series, takes its name from a colorful 1980s California town. Two women, timid Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and extrovert Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meet and fall in love. Their relationship spans decades, but they don’t age (Black Mirror has been described as digital age’s Twilight Zone).

If you are interested in watching San Junipero (I highly recommend it), skip the next paragraph.

Eventually, we realize that San Junipero is a virtual reality, or an elaborate form of “nostalgia therapy.” In the real world, both women are elderly. Yorkie is a quadriplegic; Kelly is dying. They decide to “pass over;” their bodies die but their consciousness is captured and uploaded to a vast computer so they can “live” in San Junipero together forever. The unlikely happy ever after is punctuated by The Gogos’ Belinda Carlisle singing, “Ooh, heaven is a place on Earth.”

Alas (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) neither primes nor San Junipero exists quite yet. But, the technology is not that far-fetched. Until then, we do have options about our digital afterlife. Facebook offers choices to its deceased members (of course, those members have to make their choice before they’re actually deceased). You can have your profile deleted completely. You can have it “memorialized;” it remains as a “Remembering” page but is inactive. Or, you can appoint someone to be your after-death custodian or “legacy contact.”

Meanwhile, another site has been developed specifically to serve those who have already died. DeadSocial (that’s the real name I’m afraid) allows members to create a “digital legacy.” They can pre-post and schedule good-bye messages, birthday greetings, love notes, reminders. Then, their executor activates the account upon the member’s death. As Dr. Mark Taubert, a British expert in end-of-life planning, recently explained, this twenty-first century concept has a practical side. “What if one family member, after your death, insists that your Facebook profile is deleted, and another wants it to be memorialized into perpetuity?” he asked. “If you haven’t expressed a prior opinion, you won’t get a say.”

Having a say about what happens to our online selves after we die may not seem important to us. But, it may become a very significant thing for our children and grandchildren, who live so much of their lives online. In their futures, digital legacies may be as common as last wills and testaments. At the rate we’re going, comfort avatars and nostalgia therapy won’t be science fiction.

As Marjorie says, “The future will be here soon enough. Might as well get friendly with it.”


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