The final frontier?

Life after death? Is it possible? Online... anything is possible.

Graves by Valerie Everett, released under Creative Commons.

Chris Merriman

Chris Merriman

Friday 17 March

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The big sleep, The Journey with no return, joining the great majority. Not just terms for a trip on Southern Rail, but for death. You know. The one that isn’t taxes.

In these enlightened times, fewer of us believe in any kind of afterlife, but in reality, we’re closer to it than ever. While all over the world factions fight over who is the one true god that we will meet when we die, while the ‘enlightened’ talk in terms of the afterlife as a means to cope with the immensely headfucky fact that we’re not going to be around anymore and our egos just can’t deal.

It’s a subject that has fascinated me since I saw the film “Before Sunrise” in which two starcrossed lovers meet by chance knowing that they only have one night together because they life on opposite sides of the world. The Sword of Damoclese hangs over the entire film knowing that the end is coming and it’s all a bloody marvellous extended metaphor for our limited time in this mortal coil. If you’ve never seen it, go away and watch it. I’ll wait.

You back? Is your life just a little better? Good. Thought so. Go and watch the follow ups as well, but this time wait till I’ve said my bit. OK? Rude.

So anyway, here we are, the generation of science who think we have it all figured out and that death is the end and yet, when you drill down, we’re all just as scared of death as ever and we’re actually using science to cheat it. Where faith leaves off, trust a machine to make you immortal.

For a start, there’s your Facebook profile. You can bequeath that sucker to someone to look after you die as a memorandum page. That’s a bit creepy. And of course that’s just one site. Your digital fingerprint is all over the internet, showing people what you had for breakfast and what you think about Brexit until the Cloud is replaced by something less compatible.

And while we’re talking about the Cloud, it would be a bit pointless not to mention possibly the best of this year’s new crop of Charlie Brooker (all hail Brooker, HAIL) penned dystopias “Black Mirror”. Again, without wishing to spoil it for anyone yet to watch it, but it explores the idea of creating heaven through technology, because we know that’s the only way we’ll find it. As far as we know.

Mad scientist Elon Musk said recently that he believes that we will have to become cyborgs to survive, because otherwise the artificial intelligence that we build will make us obsolete. There are already cyborgs of course. Technically, you are a cyborg if you have a pacemaker. As they become more sophisticated, there’s a real risk of them being hacked. Former Vice President Dick Cheney had the remote functions of his device disabled as it could be used to assassinate him. But more and more we’re finding ways to live longer by combining our bodies with tech.

In 2004, avant-garde artist Neil Harbisson became the first person to have his status as a cyborg officially recognised by a government, when he found himself unable to renew his passport because the antenna sticking out of his head, grafted to his brain, couldn’t be removed for his new passport photo. His condition isn’t life-threatening, the antenna is used to help him with severe colourblindness, but it does double as an mp3 player and hands free kit, for realsies.

An idea that has increasingly become exploited is living on through holograms. Whether its a Notorious B.I.G. performance from beyond the grave, or Musion’s misguided 2013 attempt to create a “final performance” for the dear departed Les Dawson, the technology is such that you can make a half decent stab at bringing someone back to life for the night. But it’s all more Futurama head-in-a-jar than Princess Leia projected by R2-D2. It feels macabre, wrong, uncomfortable, disrespectful and more than all of these put together, profiteering. Remember, at the end of the day, noone had to pay Les for the stand up routine.

Meanwhile, the hour was peppered with celebrities queuing up to weep for him as “gone too soon” whilst simultaneously in a technocratic attempt to bring him back. Just… yuck.

Then, last summer, it happened. Scientists at the University of Southampton “proved” there was life after death. Brain activity continues, an out-of-body experience happens in 40 percent of cases, and apparently some genes actually switch on, rather than off. Are these the “Google Maps to the Pearly Gates” genes? Are they heck. But apparently they’re something.

However, this doesn’t make me feel any better. Science here has just confirmed that, theoretically, when I die, when everyone else I know dies, we’ll know about it. We’ll be scared. It’s certainly enough to put you off suicide.

And then there’s those that believe that technology can cheat death. There’s two schools of thought. Artificial intelligence that brings us back as we might have been, using complex algorithms to create a “best guess” of what the person would have said or done in any situation.

And then there’s the “back-up brain”. It’s the next logical step after cryogenic freezing. All your thoughts, stored in the cloud, ready to go back into a new host body at a later date. But when does it stop being you?

Somewhere down the line, the legal status of the dead, the regenerated, the reimagined, the ‘saved-for-later’, the mostly human are all going to have to be evaluated. But in the meantime, for everyone that doesn’t believe in a heaven, there’s a growing tide of using science to create life after death, or extend life here on Earth.

Right now, it’s not practical, affordable, or desirable in most cases, but with the announcement yesterday that the long-sought after computer made of living DNA has been created, these ideas could soon be a case of popping to your doctor for a quick injection of not being dead anymore. And that will stop anyone resting in peace.

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