The web is becoming home to an entirely new population of netizens — the dead. It started quietly enough a few years ago as people began putting up memorial sites for deceased friends, but now there are signs that we are on the verge of something larger, and of course much, much stranger. There aren’t cemeteries in Second Life yet (or at least I haven’t noticed them), but over the next decade we will see the creation of vast cyber-necropoli.
At first, these new cities of the dead will be simple memorial sites. Yahoo Groups has plenty of memorial sites set up by nostalgic friends of the deceased. And of course netizens obsessed with digital immortality can already arrange for their sites to be maintained after their death in the same way one can arrange for perpetual care of one’s grave in a conventional cemetery. But the web makes so much more possible. Before long, I’ll bet that the web becomes home to “ghosts” — programs designed to embody the essence of the loved one in emails or as an interactive program. This can be done simply enough today with services like Future.me which allow one to post emails for posting at a specified future date. But it is only a small step to create simple conversational sophisticated successors to AIs like the decades-old Eliza that embody the personalities of one’s beloved deceased. Of course, there is money in this sort of thing, and thus there will be demand for programs that quietly learn their human’s online quirks and mannerisms, and then upon passing, take over the deceased’s cyber-presence, a conversational resource for grieving friends, or an obnoxious spirit annoying relatives during the holidays.
On reflection, this new Valley of the Dead is far better than marble mausoleums and rolling lawn cemeteries. For starters, there is lots more room in cyberspace, so the risk of getting one’s mouldering bones dug up and tossed into an ossuary like a Roman in the catacombs is negligible. Some people will build vast electronic pyramids, while others will opt for modest memorials. Friends won’t have to catch an airplane to visit one’s grave, and archaeologists will able to dissect your life without getting dirt under their fingernails or disturbing your cyber-remains. Of course all this also will be fertile ground for mediums and soothsayers and the just plain crazy. If it hasn’t happened already, someone will announce that they met Elvis in a chat room as a passing ghost in Everquest.