eterni.me – I read dead people
„We all pass away sooner or later“, states the opener of the webpage of eterni.me. Only to continue with a much surprising statement: “But what if you could be remembered forever?” – With the data of your old online-communication, eterni.me’s algorithms promise to create a version of you, that lets the non-deceased communicate with this fresh-but-old-rip-off-entity. Is eterni.me selling zombies?
Talking to the dead is not a phenomenon of the internet. Be it shamanistic journeys or the conjuring of ghosts – each time has its practices of trying to communicate with the deceased. Eterni.me tries to tackle the fact of life’s certain end with the industrious collection and recombination of traces left behind:
“Eterni.me collects almost everything that you create during your lifetime, and processes this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms.
Then it generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to your family and friends, even after you pass away.”
This proposal of ghost-communication tries to monetize a narcissistic fear: ‘it will be a dread when I’m gone. Dreadful for those, whom I leave behind, those, who will then forget me’. Looked at from the point of view of those left behind, eterni.me has a unique selling proposition to fill a (perhaps sudden) gap of yawning absence, leaving but the need to have it removed.
This exact phenomenon was addressed in the 2013 British TV-series Black Mirror. The second season’s first episode revolves around the sudden death of Ash and the process of coming to terms with it of his wife Martha. At Ash’s funeral, the film takes on the view of a rationalist non-believer (just as it can be seen in the protagonist of Woody Allen’s latest Magic in the Moonlight), when Martha’s friend Sarah begins to make an offer:
The film shows what Sarah negates with saying “it’s not some crazy spiritual thing”: it appears to be hocus pocus to speak with the dead. When indeed it is nifty technology, which has to work like a charm to make ‘magic’ happen. This was already the case in 1789, where people were tried to be convinced of the presence of a ghost (Gaderer, pp.25) with the use of electricity, smoke and a magic lantern. The workings of the process had to be hidden, in order not to disturb the immersion of the respective ghost-conjuring attendees. In eterni.me’s case, it is new media technology aka algorithms which try to replicate a person with this technique of excessive mimetic approximation in order to create presence. In trying to reverse certain aspects of death, that is to reverse parts of the absence of a person, it strives for the creation of the immediate, and, in so striving, remains irremovably tied to the mediate which it can never leave behind. The result is bound to be paradox: the fabrication of presence of that which is utterly absent does not only fabricate presence, but at the same time co-evoke the absolute absence of that which is made present (and of course is this Derrida, speaking).
A certain kind of the Uncanny Valley
In an essay about the ‘Corpse inside of the wax figure’ (free translation by me, this article was published in German), media-historian Bernhard Siegert argues that, in a wax figure, it is the uncertain status between alive and dead of the significant which is causing its uncanniness. In its ever changing status, death itself is co-referred to by the oscillating significant. And just like the excessive mimesis of the wax figure causes the real to show through (cf. Siegert, pp. 118), eterni.me’s mimetic subjects are doomed to cause an automatic deconstruction of its significant by never being able to shake off the death of its signifier that is constantly showing through.
It is thus to differentiate between immortality as advertised by eterni.me and an automatized, reactive and recombinative index of a former online presence (which is ultimately created). On the same page, it really could create the realistic experience of communicating with the dead. The algorithmic entity would have to pass the turing-test and meet the willingness of the respective user (where Christiane Voss’ theory of the lending body (again, sadly only in German) could be subject to discussion), but Eterni.me, as well as the work-alike lives.on (“If your heart stops beating – you’ll keep tweeting”) could then have created a money-generating zombie who comes from the dead and feeds on the living. Or as Sarah from the Black Mirror clip puts it: “I know he’s dead, but it wouldn’t work if he wasn’t.”
(3) Derrida, Jacques: Of Grammatologie. John Hopkins University Press 1997.
(4) Gaderer, Rupert: Heimliche Technologien des Unheimlichen [translates into: secret technologies of the uncanny, transl. by me]. In: XING 12/09, pp. 25-31.
(5) Siegert, Bernhard: Die Leiche in der Wachsfigur. Exzesse der Mimesis in Kunst, Wissenschaft und Medien.
In: Peter Geimer (Hg.): Untot. Verhältnisse von Leben und Leblosigkeit. Berlin: Kadmos 2007, pp. 116-139.