I don’t even know you but I’ll tell you right now that you’re going to die. I might die first, depending on how the rest of this week goes, but everyone is going to have to take that dirt nap sooner or later. People have been worrying about this for as far back as time is recorded and I have it on good authority to assume that concern for one’s inevitable extinction dates back even further than that.
Envoy, the brainchild of San Francisco-based visual designer, Max Batt takes our regard for the afterlife and gives it a run for its money by proposing that social networking may have the ability to make us immortal. In the promo video for Envoy, which you should watch below if you haven’t had your mind blown today, Batt walks us through a sci-fi tinged world of half terrifying, half plausible solutions to the monkey on our backs called mortality.
After I picked my jaw up off the floor, shared the video with some friends and used its content as a platform to discuss my own views on death, I contacted Batt (who chose the pseudonym “Max Dougherty” to keep a low profile) for an interview. We ended up talking on the phone for nearly two hours about Envoy, its cultural implications and what the future has in store for all of us.
The first thing you should know: it’s not real, but that’s beside the point.
When I first saw the Envoy promo video on YouTube, there were only a few hundred views and now it’s got thousands. Sociologically speaking, one of the greatest aspects of Envoy is the conversation it’s started in the video’s comments section. Clearly there are people who are pretty pissed off by it, but there are also people who believe that it has the potential to be a good thing.
And I am guessing you know by now that Envoy isn’t a real service?
There were some pretty clear signs, yeah, but I didn’t know for sure. How did you get started with this project?
I started Envoy as a thesis project for a visual design degree and since then, it’s become a bigger project for me. I’ve done so much research on the subject, specifically with Facebook. The reactions during the first few days were fascinating because they were all over the place. It will be interesting to see what people think about it when they find out that it’s not real.
For sure, and I find what’s interesting is that throughout the video you reveal things in a very systematic way that should sort of let people understand that it’s fake. But to be honest, when I first saw it I believed that there was a way that you could do something like this. How did the project come together?
I am like a lot of people where I have had friends on Facebook that have died…and basically I noticed that this profile of my friend was starting to behave in ways where I could start to make projections into my mind on what the trajectory is of [these] things in Facebook right now and what is the trajectory of these profiles and what’s possible.
That’s kind of where I started and then I started doing a ton of research. I started off really investigating this policy Facebook had called Memorialization. Memorialization has put up a wall between the living and the dead. That’s what’s so interesting about Facebook because as humans we compartmentalize people no matter what the ritual is. Whether it’s cremation or burial, we have a separate space for the dead and Facebook is someplace where the dead and the living are actually sharing the same place and they act the same way in a lot of ways.
I decided to actually kill myself on Facebook, which involved doing this whole fake obituary and convincing Facebook I died. From there I was logging in as a dead person and going, like, “What do I look like as a dead person?”
This was a design project and it does have a goal: to force people, through subversion, to confront this hypothetical situation. I realized it could be a company providing a service and that it can have its own Twitter and YouTube channel. What’s funny to me is that there are people who get really caught up in the midst of wanting to play along, but it did what I wanted it to. It might have been a little gimmicky to do it that way, but when I look at the comments it kind of makes me happy to see people debating and actually talking and thinking about this.
Your project sheds light on the fact that people, in a way, have already started taking the first steps to resign themselves to what technology expects from them and what they expect from technology. I am looking at a comment right now on the YouTube page and it’s kind of dark in it’s own way: “makes me wish my dad had created more of a digital signature while he was still alive because I would love to talk to him again, mechanical reaction or not”. This sort of thing makes me think of Ray Kurzweil, who is saving a lot of his dead dad’s stuff so he can upload his consciousness when the Singularity comes.
Right. He’s fascinating. And he’s informed a lot of what’s going on with Envoy. Before I did this I talked to my friend who is a programmer and I also talked with programmers who work at Facebook, because I just wanted to make sure that this wasn’t crazy. I am not sure how it [all] works and he was like, “this is pretty much possible today.” And the only thing that isn’t there yet, which I found pretty hilarious, is that computers aren’t able to predict slang. But I mean, I totally believe that will be solved soon.
With Envoy, regardless of the fact that it’s not real I can’t believe that it won’t be real someday. It’s something that reveals another aspect of human nature, which is a desire to understand what happens after we die. On Facebook, after someone dies, users can still access a dead friend’s wall and write things or say that they miss them. It has a strange effect on the mourning process.
I definitely think that treating dead people like they are living is a totally new type of communication and I think that it’s going to be the start of something. I don’t know what it is yet.
For me the part that made my ears perk up was that a friend of mine’s father passed away recently and I started thinking to myself that in terms of the grieving process this is sort of insane.
It’s basically the singularity through this dynamic mourning that’s going on right now, because people interact with dead people over Facebook totally differently than they would alone in a graveyard or something, which is fine. I know people have redundant conversations with headstones, but it’s honestly different with Facebook. I feel that it’s really derivative of the fact that there’s something dynamic about what they are doing.
Facebook isn’t a graveyard, it’s a private company and there is some seriously perverse stuff. If you look at condolence messages left on peoples’ walls, [some] are used to populate advertisements and that in and of itself is pretty disgusting. Facebook has no way of knowing of who has died and it relies on friends and family members to inform them so it’s still problematic. People aren’t declared memorialized for nearly a year after they die, so they are still getting run through these social algorithms that are meant for the living and in other words are meant for profit.
What do you think of Facebook in terms of social responsibility? This all feels kind of evil to me.
I will say that Facebook is basically socially responsible, but one thing I do think is interesting about Facebook is, unlike Apple, who has huge design thinking departments and huge social science departments, Facebook is entirely run by computer engineers. All the really big decisions are still engineer-centric. I don’t want to pick on engineers, but at a certain point something gets so big that you need people who understand social science making decisions.
It sort of encourages all of these practical questions. You say it in the beginning of the video really, there are two things that are certain, that you are born and that you die. Maybe it’s as simple as that. This service, if it actually existed, could somehow disrupt that process. Looking at the comments on the YouTube video, I have to ask, what does it say to you that so many people are not convinced that this is fake? What kind of sign does that give you?
It was interesting to see that people weren’t like, “oh, this is the worst thing that could happen.” There are people who want Envoy to be real. We’ve reached a point where we rely so much on technology to just mediate everything and to fix everything. Even through the most extreme parts of being human, like dying. I think people expect technology to take care of or postpone everything. It’s really crazy to read those comments. I think the fact that people think that it’s real indicates the path we’re on right now.
What path is that?
So you have an iPhone and it’s like a digital appendage that’s so reactive and responsive. It’s always there to do what you want it to and the internet is like a virtual memory so you don’t have to remember anything anymore. I think there is a trajectory of us expecting more and more and more from technology. To the point where I don’t think Envoy is that far fetched. I feel like psychologically its not too far off because we already expect technology to due whatever we want it to regardless of whatever cultural boundaries we have. I think that something like Envoy could and probably will happen, and once it’s around, you can get rid of it, but once the notion is there or once these things happen, they don’t really go away.
People go through phases. I remember when people didn’t want to have their real names on the Internet. The Internet was this dark void where you could exist as some voyeur but you weren’t necessarily supposed to be yourself or represent yourself. People were warned against sharing their credit card numbers, phone numbers and real names. And now you’re not really a legitimate human without some kind of online presence.
Yeah. You’re like Timothy McVeigh, living in the mountains if you don’t have a Facebook.
People will probably never fully grasp an understanding of death. Envoy is so fascinating because it offers this middle ground, and subsequent certainty in death.
Someone pointed out to me that a mummy is basically like an afterlife avatar because it has personal information and it lasts forever and people interact with it. I think that our Facebook profiles are the new afterlife avatars. When someone dies on Facebook, all of a sudden it’s like a funeral but it’s amplified. When you’re at a funeral you kind of have to modify your behavior. People are saying insane things on these dead people’s Facebook walls. Because there is a wall between what you’re thinking and what goes on Facebook and that’s the submit button. The barrier between impulse and public expression is being brought down so much so that we just post anything we think of. Like, “oh, remember that time we went out to the bars and you got so drunk and threw up on yourself and you set a cat on fire. Anyway R.I.P.”