I came across a very intriguing post on NPR’s 13.7 blog this week, suggesting that the internet has made us all immortal – sort of. In the post, physicist Marcelo Gleiser describes how he searched the internet for his stepmother after she passed away. He found a lot, including photos of her, activities she liked, and groups she belonged to. Her life had been preserved in a kind of collectively-constructed digital shrine.
Gleiser’s hasty to point out that this is not the kind of immortality that Ray Kurzweil is after, where you actually get to live forever (more on that later). This distinction got me to wondering: Just how many kinds of immortality are there? I came up with these 5 ways to achieve immortality, and listed the implications of each. I’ve arranged them roughly in order of sophistication, and paid particular attention to the internet immortality Gleiser talks about, which seems to me very different from the rest.
1. Be known.
You live forever in the memories (some would say hearts) of those who knew you. This is the simplest kind of immortality to achieve, and to me the most important. If I must leave this world, let there be people who remember my life with happiness. This kind of immortality lasts about one generation, and has been around forever.
2. Be remembered by people who didn’t know you.
If your exploits are extraordinary enough, people who know you might feel compelled to retell the story. You could become a legend, and your life would be relayed through many generations of descendants.
3. Accomplish something great.
If you can pull off something huge, I mean on the level of a Caesar or a Shakespeare, you can earn yourself widespread fame. People will tell your story across many cultures, potentially for thousands of years. It helps if the printing press (or the internet) exists during your lifetime, but it’s not strictly necessary.
4. Exist in the digital age.
This is the kind of immortality Gleiser is talking about. What I find so fascinating about this kind, is that it combines the relatively effortless aspect of #1 with the long duration of #2 & #3. All you need to do is be born in the modern era, and live somewhere relatively modernized. Then, depending on how much you interact with the internet, various parts of your life will continue on long after you’re gone.
As an extreme example, suppose you post to Facebook and Twitter about your life every single day from the age of 10 until you’re 100. There would be a vast digital library of your life, the scale of which would dwarf what we know about anyone right now, even Caesar and Shakespeare.
(Of course, whether anyone actually reads it is a different matter. If, for example, your Facebook account is locked when you die, your life might be preserved in minute detail but remain unseen forever, like an intricate painting inside a buried ruin.)
Note that you need not be an active user of the internet to be preserved in this way. Even if you’ve never heard of Facebook, it’s likely that someone you know uses it, and has tagged you in a photo. You may not write a blog, but a friend who does might mention you. Heck, if you’ve ever been named in your local paper, your bowling league roster, or a classified ad, you’re on the internet.
You may find this creepy. If so, you can probably wipe out all digital traces of yourself if you’re really committed to it (there are guides online). But I think that’s overkill. I do try to prevent identity theft, so I keep a tight lid on my birthdate, phone number, etc. But the kinds of things I share on Facebook – political opinions, photos of friends, hilarious animals – are reflections of my life, and I’m perfectly happy to be associated with them for as long as anyone is interested.
One final observation. The sort of immortality you get on the internet is, like the others on this list, not truly eternal. Memories fade, stories get lost, legends get forgotten. In the case of internet immortality: photos get compressed, websites go dark, and servers crash. The relentless tide of entropy will eventually erode your life’s monument, though it could easily last a thousand years or more.
5. Live Forever.
For some people, this is the only true immortality, the kind that actually involves prolonging your consciousness, rather than just leaving behind a mark on the world. As of now, the idea’s purely hypothetical, and would likely involve some combination of genetic engineering, designer diets, and/or brain-computer interfaces. I’m about out of time for this week, so I’ll have to cover radical life extension in a future post. In the meantime, check out this mind-boggling interview with Ray Kurzweil if you’re interested.
Now it’s your turn! How much of your life will live on, somewhere on the internet? Do you like the idea that someone, generations from now, might know something about you? Add your thoughts to the comment box, then ask your friends using the networking buttons below.