Technology has now made us immortal. Stored in the cloud, on smartphones, on YouTube channels and on social media accounts, there is an easily accessible record of everything we have ever done and everyone we have ever known—so long as those things were documented. Even fleeting moments, sounds and laughter can be digitally captured, made permanent and revisited whenever we wish.
Nostalgia has revived older technologies, as we can see in the rising demand for vinyl records. Taylor Swift’s 2022 Midnights was the first album since 1987 to sell more vinyl copies than CDs in the United Kingdom. Disposable and film cameras have been making a modest comeback, too, suggesting that some people still see physical photographs and records as more authentic than the digital kind. The global disposable camera sales market is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 5.5% from 2022 to 2030 and has been enjoying a quiet uptick since 2021, thanks to the rise of Y2K aesthetics—which copies the fashion and cultural trends of the 2000s. Although people are buying old-fashioned cameras again, they are capturing digital images of the physical photographs with their phones or scanning and uploading them onto their phones and computers. When you take a film to a camera shop to be developed, most places also email you the film as scanned documents. Despite our nostalgia, then, we cannot get away from the desirability of digital media, with its supposed permanence.
Disposable camera dump is a common Instagram caption, and send me the photos of your disposables is a common request in social media messages. There is a whole genre of Instagram account—the film instagram—that is solely dedicated to immortalising physical photographs taken with a camera that uses old-fashioned rolls of film. It is retro aesthetics that is driving the market for disposal cameras, not the medium of the photography itself—since the photographs’ final destination is the cloud. Our urge to immortalise these images digitally cannot be quashed—and perhaps rightly so. Why not make our photo albums communal and share our stories with the world at large and with generations to come?
Digital technology is even allowing us to immortalise photographic images created by people who didn’t have that technology at their disposal. The Museum of Lost Memories purchases undeveloped film and photo albums from thrift stores and reposts the images on Instagram. Often, the images are thereby reunited with their owners—this is ostensibly the account’s main purpose. But, as founder David Gutenmacher told me in an interview (personal communication), he also wants to ensure that these images are not lost to history. “In a sense,” he argued, “preserving these memories immortalises people in a way that has only been available to the rich and successful” in the past. Does our social media do the same for us?
Save Family Photos has a similar purpose. The organisers are “on a mission to save & share family stories, one photo at a time.” Their Instagram followers often submit old family snaps from film cameras and photo albums to be posted and captioned. These might otherwise have been thrown out by younger generations, but now they are documented somewhere and their subjects will live on in our consciousness for as long as the internet exists. As Lucy Maude Montgomery writes in her 1911 novel The Story Girl, “Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” Perhaps we should see this urge to preserve everything digitally as more poetic than dystopian.
But how, if everything is preserved, can we ever learn to let things and people go?
It is hard to accept impermanence in a world in which we can still access people’s words and images through technology by, for example, viewing their social media profiles even when the real-life human beings are lost to us. Over 800 million photos are uploaded to Instagram each day: documenting people’s lives and creating an immortal and omnipresent version of each poster. Through social media, people we haven’t seen in years and people we have only met once can become ever-present in our lives. We know what they are up to on a day-to-day basis in almost the same intimate way as we would if we had emotional access to them, as well as visual.
How can we grieve a relationship breakup if the person who once loved us hasn’t really disappeared from our life, but exists in our camera roll, videos and saved text messages? After all, technology is built to store memories and regurgitate them on demand. Apple creates slide shows of memorable moments from years ago, and Snapchat’s snap memories shows us what we were doing on this day “1 year, 2 years, 5 years … ago” more quickly and intrusively than any physical diary.
A non-curated version of us over which we have little control also exists on the internet: our digital footprint often contains things even we have forgotten, but which can be unearthed at any moment by employers, family or friends. Actions, moments and spoken and written words that have been recorded—either by us or by others—have a troubling immortality online. It’s become more difficult to escape our pasts than ever before.
In the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” a woman struggling to cope with her partner’s death is provided with a life-like version of him reconstructed from photos and videos and installed with his personality, as reflected in his social media posts and messages. But, ultimately, the AI technology cannot replace him—it can only stop her from finding closure.
There are real-life versions of this eerie technology. Apps like Safebeyond allow you to record messages for your loved ones, to be sent at timed intervals after your death, to coincide with important life events. The app My Afterwords allows the user to store messages to be sent after her death.
ChatGPT can generate uncannily human-like responses in response to questions or demands. It can draft letters, write articles, craft essays and much more. If we combined this capability with data stored by apps like Safebeyond then, given how much of one’s being is already stored in data, it seems conceivable that one day we might be able to chat with our loved ones after their deaths, as in the Black Mirror scenario. The AI, after all, could easily craft responses based on its knowledge of the life of the dead person and their relationship with the person grieving.
Abba’s recent stadium tour (“Voyage”) is performed by holograms, as the group itself is no longer together. Holograms have also been used to allow Michael Jackson, Buddy Holly and Whitney Houston to give concerts and tours post-mortem. At Coachella 2012, Snoop Dogg famously performed alongside a hologram of Tupac Shakur. As Mark Binelli has commented, “Old musicians never die, they just become holograms.” Such creations are incredibly realistic: the only giveaway is the blankness of the eyes when they are shown in close-up on the large stage screens. Our ageing population means that we are working longer and retiring later—perhaps many of us will still be being exploited for profit after our deaths.
But could science and technology ever defeat physical death? Some people believe they could.
Singularitarians believe that in the future we will be able to upload a person’s self—which they see as identical with the pattern of information in the brain that represents the person’s thoughts and memories—from the mind into a computer. After all, we already rely on data storage to supplement our physical brains: our knowledge comes from Google; our memories are stored in the cloud; we rely on alarms to wake up and GPS to find our way. As Elon Musk has put it, “We’re already a cyborg. You have a digital version of yourself, a partial version of yourself online in the form of your emails, your social media, and all the things that you do.”
Transhumanists believe that we will one day be able to defeat ageing and death through a combination of the optimum lifestyle, bodily enhancements and replacements, and genetic engineering. Biotechnology already allows us to hear after our ears fail (with hearing aids) or walk after our legs fail (with bionic limbs or hip and knee replacements). “Approximately 28,000 patients begin new lives each year thanks to organ transplants,” writes one American hospital, in an interesting turn of phrase. Could this become a continual process until we are living after our whole body “should” have failed?
Some past civilisations were obsessed with death: as their art works, elaborate burial rites and religious teachings indicate. Instead, we are obsessed with life, and the documenting of it. But perhaps one day we will not only no longer have to die. Perhaps we won’t be able to.