Resurrecting the dead in the digital era

June 20, 2022

The ties between art and the deceased are intricate and ambivalent. In the classical era, paintings and statues memorialized aristocrats, statesmen, and saints. Both heroes and villains were immortalized. With the advent of photography, man’s capacity to immortalize himself has increased enormously and technological innovation has democratized the means to do so. We can now have thousands of pictures of our beloved relatives that have passed away. It is perhaps not surprising that post-mortem photography was an early use case. But although paintings and photos can fail to do justice to the person in question, they more or less leave the integrity of the dead intact.

Forms of modern digital art such as computer-generated images and deepfakes have a more peculiar relationship with the deceased. Instead of only enabling us to remember them, digital techniques are now capable of resurrecting the passed-away. GCI has been employed in movies to revive dead actors and museums have created immersive experiences out of great scientists that have passed. Kendrick Lamar recently memorialized Kobe Bryant in a video clip using deepfake technology. While actors play someone else, Kendrick became someone else. Of course, the difference between acting and becoming is gradual and a gray area. But it at least demands that we seriously reflect on the integrity of the deceased. Do we need to regulate the use of these “resurrection techniques” in art, and more importantly, in our personal lives? This is becoming more pressing today, as we are all faced with questions of how to handle our data after death. Consider the ways we could use the data of a dead relative or partner to resurrect, clone, or synthetically re-create them (using a combination of AI, deepfakes, robotics, etc.). It is high time to rewatch the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back!

Burning Questions: 
  • What are the core principles for an ethics of digital immortality?
  • Do we need to protect the integrity of those who are not able to protect themselves anymore?
  • Do we want to give our relatives access to our WhatsApp chat history?

About the author(s)

Economist and philosopher Sebastiaan Crul writes articles on a wide range of topics, including rule of law in digital societies, the virtualization of the lifeworld and internet culture. He is currently working on his doctoral degree on the influence of digitalization on mental health and virtue ethics, having previously published dissertations on the philosophy of play and systemic risks in the finance industry.

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