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Neal Stephenson Explains His Vision of the Digital Afterlife
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If humans could create their own digital afterlife, what would it look like? Would we build a radically new plane of existence unencumbered by the limitations of the physical world, or are those human imperfections integral to our existence?
This is the core question explored in Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell, a sprawling sci-fi epic that hits shelves on June 4.
Fall is several books in one. The hybrid sci-fi/fantasy novel begins in the present day with Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, an eccentric multibillionaire who made his fortune in the video game industry. When a freak accident during a routine medical procedure leaves him brain-dead, his family is left to contend with his request to have his brain preserved until the technology exists to bring him back to life.
Welcome to Bitworld
The near-future world of Fall is full of familiar buzzwords and concepts. Augmented reality headsets, next-gen wireless networks, self-driving vehicles, facial recognition, quantum computing, blockchain and distributed cryptography all feature prominently.
Stephenson also spends a lot of time examining how the internet and social media, which Dodge and other characters often refer to in Fall as the Miasma, is irrevocably changing society and altering the fabric of reality.
Over the ensuing decades in which the story unfolds, Dodge’s family members—in an uneasy partnership with a mysterious, reclusive tech billionaire named Elmo Shepherd—and the tech industry at large develop the technology to map Dodge’s brain and turn it back online in the cloud. Once Dodge’s digital consciousness is up-and-running, thousands of other souls join the evolving AI landscape that becomes Bitworld.
Then, the book slowly becomes something different. As more human brains are scanned into this artificially created afterlife powered by quantum servers around the globe, we spend less of the book in “Meatspace” and more time in Bitworld. The second half of Fall is part digital creation myth and part biblical epic. Stephenson explores themes of human nature, gods and followers, and tech-fueled immortality through a sprawling quest that unfolds across a medieval-feeling fantasy world that happens to be digitally generated.
Stephenson is no stranger to combining hard sci-fi with biblical and historical undertones. Beginning with his debut novel Snow Crash in the early 90s, the author has written numerous speculative fiction and cyberpunk novels, including Seveneves, Anathem, Reamde, Cryptonomicon, and many others. Stephenson also spent years as an advisor for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ private space company Blue Origin, and serves as Chief Futurist for spatial computing and mixed reality startup Magic Leap, among other work.
We spoke to Stephenson recently about Fall, the concept of a digital afterlife, and how technologies like AR/VR and quantum computing could transform society. The interview also touches on how Snow Crash holds up more than a quarter-century later, the status of his Amazon Prime Video’s series adaptation, and why he believes social media is a doomsday machine.
Inside Neal Stephenson’s Mind
PCMag: So many tech and digital culture concepts are packed into the first few parts of Fall, but I want to start with the “Miasma.” At the beginning of the book, life is essentially as it is today. There are smartphones, social media, and the internet, with ubiquitous sites like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia namedropped throughout. How would you describe the current state of the internet? Just in a general sense of its role in our daily lives, and where that concept of the Miasma came from for you.
Neal Stephenson: I ended up having a pretty dark view of it, as you can kind of tell from the book. I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off. We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.
The result is the situation we see today where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint.
Neal Stephenson (Credit: Brady Hall/AP)
PCMag: As the book progresses, we get this scarily realistic depiction of the spread of misinformation on the internet, the ripple effects of trolls, and the power of information warfare. In this case, it all centers around simulating a nuclear explosion in the remote town of Moab, Utah, that decades later, truthers still believe happened. What’s the larger message you were trying to get across through the Moab hoax?
NS: Well I try not to be too message-y, because I think that people tend to turn on their deflector shields when they see that coming. But actually when I originally wrote an earlier version of the Moab section, it was prior to the events of the 2016 election and at the time I sort of was patting myself on the back for really being on top of things and predicting the future. And then I discovered that the future was way ahead of me.
I’ve heard remarks in a similar vein from other science-fiction novelists: do we even have a role anymore? So I had to rework that, I spent a fair amount of time reworking the Moab thing to make it less of a prediction and more of a kind of metaphorical statement about where we are.
PCMag: I feel like it’s a common sentiment nowadays to joke about burning the internet down. You got to imagine the particulars of how that might actually be done, which is basically to lean into the skid. Flood the net with bots and toxic posts that drown out real harassment and doxxing to the point where nothing is discernibly real or true anymore. Doesn’t that seem like the way the internet is going anyway?
NS: It’s happening anyway, yeah. The advantage of fiction is that you can make these things happen in a way that’s a lot simpler and cleaner than whatever happened in real life. This is actually a really old idea that I first heard about from Matt Blaze in the mid 1990s when he was talking about the concept called the Encyclopedia Disinformatica, which would just be a sort of fake Wikipedia containing plausible-sounding but deliberately false information as a way of sending the message to people that they shouldn’t just believe everything that they see on the internet.
So people like Matt were talking about that more than 20 years ago, and it never quite happened. But to follow the internet stuff that’s in this book, it performs a couple of functions. One is just pure wish fulfillment: “Wouldn’t it be cool if… ” but it’s also actually kind of needed in order to set up the technological basis for Bitworld.
PCMag: Before all the Bitworld stuff gets into full swing, part three of the book felt like its own little dystopian microcosm taking those ideas we just talked about to the extreme, with a lot of fascinating tech elements thrown in.
One is this idea of the “post-reality” world, where everyone walks around with AR headsets running their own curated “edit stream” of algorithmically driven content and information keeping everyone in their own personal bubble of reality. The rich can afford their own personal “editors,” and everyone else is subscribing to mass streams. You wrote about the world becoming “Facebooked down to the molecular level.” Can you unpack that concept?
NS: I think the only way to get good content out of the internet is by having humans in the loop. The reason that social media systems are architected the way they are, as I mentioned before, is because humans are expensive and you can’t scale that kind of system to serve billions and billions of people. What that kind of implies is that if you did want a curated, edited stream, that you would have to pay for it.
So that means that access to that kind of higher-quality view of the world becomes a class-based situation where people who’ve got the money to pay for or partially pay for human editors and curators are getting higher-quality info, which I think is just a slight kind of magnification or intensification of the way things are now anyway.
My big picture view of this is that broad access to the facts is empowering to everyone who can get it. The broadening of that power base to include more people comes at the expense of the oligarchs of the world, who are always going to be able to reap power, wealth, and benefits from keeping everybody else in the dark.
PCMag: Let’s get into the digital afterlife. First, talk about how you went about creating the technology for it to exist. One side of that is the neurobiology: using ion beam technology to scan a human brain’s connectome (a map of all the neural connections in a brain) and re-animate human “souls” virtually.
NS: That’s all real stuff that people are working on. People have differing opinions about what consciousness is and how it works. Some are more deterministic—they think the brain can be digitally modeled and simulated if you just have enough information about how it’s hooked up. Others feel it takes a lot more information than simply knowing how neurons are wired.
I was trying to do a kind of experiment. What if someone who believed in the connectome had a device capable of scanning them, and then someone tried an experiment in booting one up. There’s so much debate and uncertainty as to whether that would actually work at all, and it seemed to be an opportunity to have some fun as a novelist.
If everything worked perfectly you would just have a very clean reboot and suddenly Dodge would wake up and his voice would come out of a speaker. But there’s enough ambiguity and debate about how all of this actually works that it gave me a way as a novelist to introduce all kinds of trouble, misunderstanding, and complication.
PCMag: Then there’s the quantum computing aspect. Bringing these quantum server farms online that can simulate the whole connectome of firing neurons, and scaling that up to thousands and millions of soul processes. In the context of all the other tech you’ve brought into this book, it doesn’t sound all that farfetched. What are some of the other applications you envision being possible when we finally unlock true quantum computing?
NS: A big controversy that I didn’t really want to touch on in this book, because it would have been just a red herring, is whether brains are quantum. Is the brain strictly a classical system, or do you need to use quantum mechanics in order to explain what the brain does? One thing we do know about quantum computers is that once we can get them to work, which is no small task, they will be unbelievably fast and increase available computing power by orders of magnitude compared to traditional computers.
It was clear that in order to tell any kind of remotely plausible story about simulating a whole world, bringing back all of these scanned connectomes, and getting them all working, is that it would take a completely ridiculous amount of computing power above and beyond anything that we’ve got now. So the notion of widely available quantum computing server farms was sort of my explanation for how that could ever happen.
PCMag: The first glimpse we get of Bitworld is this newly sentient virtual mind conceiving its surroundings, its being, and its ability to think and create and learn and adjust in the midst of endless chaos. It was fascinating stream-of-consciousness writing to encapsulate cognition. That must’ve been a really tricky part to write.
NS: When I was younger, I had nightmares that were kind of like those parts of the book. It was this endless world of static, just white noise. That’s where the basic idea came from. The conceit of the book, which is not based on any real neurology by the way, is that the freshest memories, the last few things you saw before you died that made an impression on you are the ones that come the most readily back when you get rebooted.
So one of the last things that Dodge sees before his demise in Meatspace is a red maple leaf, so that’s the first thing that he sees that’s not just sort of white noise, is a little red mote. And he passes onto that, expands on that and develops into a leaf and then into trees and then the whole world kind of is seeded out of that one little perception.
PCMag: Then you get into the actual creation of Bitworld; building this virtual space with permanent characteristics that these rebooted minds can make sense of. I won’t get into too many of the plot details of the ages and arcs of Bitworld, but the whole point is that it starts to exhibit all the problems and evils and imperfections of the real world. Why create an afterlife so tied to the conventions and realities of life, versus some completely new fully actualized plane of existence?
NS: That is the question that characters in this book are directly asking, right? So Elmo Shepherd is taking the point of view of “Why just reproduce what we’ve already got? We should do a clean start and make something new and different.”
A way to answer your question is to look at our own creation myths. Very commonly, what we see in the Bible and in Greek myths and other mythologies is this idea that things got created somehow but something went wrong. There were imperfections in the world but then propagated out or it just became part of the fabric of that world. So in Greek myths you’ve got Pandora’s Box, for example, which happens pretty early in the timeline of that mythology and its storytellers try to explain the problem of evil and why things aren’t perfect.
In the Bible you’ve got Adam and Eve and the serpent and all that stuff. So it’s a common feature to most mythologies that things may have started out in this sort of perfected form but then at some point bugs get introduced and the bugs never get debugged, and that explains a lot of human nature and why things are the way they are.
PCMag: As Bitworld becomes humanity’s priority, Meatspace changes radically. You had that line about death being disrupted, and the living haunting the world of the dead like ghosts, watching what’s happening in Bitworld. People don’t go to the office: it’s all telepresence robots, video conferencing, and AR. People buy online and have it delivered by drone. Protecting their brains to live forever is more important than living life. When we have those brief glimpses back into what’s happening on Earth decades and decades later, what’s kind of left for the dwindling population there?
NS: As time goes on, it could lead to is a future world where there’s maybe just a handful of surviving humans and all they do is look after the robots that look after the other robots that look after other robots that look after the machinery. It’s not quite a Dyson Sphere—I didn’t want to take it that far into the future—but what’s generally happening during the last half of the book is that the events of Meatspace are becoming less and less front-and-center as the number of characters there dwindles as they find their way to Bitworld.
So Bitworld kind of becomes the main story, and it’s a different kind of story. I think an aspect of this novel that is surprising and challenging to some readers is “Hey, wait a second it started out as one kind of book and by the end it’s a different kind of book.”
PCMag: You stuck a fantasy novel inside a sci-fi novel.
NS: It’s kind of a weird move. But my hope is that a lot of readers will sort of get the joke in the sense that fantasy and science fiction, those genres have always been kind of weirdly coupled together. On the surface they seem like very different things; one’s about magic, one’s about technology. And yet it is the case that they appeal to the same people.
Well we’re in kind of a golden age of epic storytelling with Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and the big storytelling universes that people can go into in great depth. Hopefully this will help scratch that itch for some readers.
PCMag: I’m also a big fan of other works of yours like Snow Crash, for instance. So much of how you depicted virtual reality more than a quarter-century ago holds up in how the tech functions today. Last year I wrote a story on Amazon’s AR/VR app creation platform called Sumerian, which the execs said they actually named after Snow Crash. I was just curious if you were aware of that, and what you thought about it?
They actually gave me a pint beer glass with Sumerian writing etched on it to commemorate that. So yeah, I was aware. As for how it’s held up, I think some aspects of it going back, I was reasonably close to the mark and in other ways it all came out very, very differently from where I was going at the time.
I believe it’s the case that the word internet doesn’t even appear in Snow Crash. I’d heard the term when I wrote it, but it was not really a thing then. So the system that’s described in Snow Crash is a lot more centralized and proprietary, at least in theory, than the internet we ended up with. So although the internet has kind of tended to evolve away from the kind of highly distributed idealized vision that it started out with and towards a state now where it’s dominated by a few big players.
PCMag: Lastly, we haven’t heard much about Amazon Prime Video’s Snow Crash series adaptation in a while. Can you confirm whether that’s still in development, and if there are any updates on when we might see it?
NS: It’s going through another round of a reworking at the moment, so I guess the most I can say that’s kind of informative is there’s not anything happening real soon now. There’s no impending news coming up in the near future on that, but it’s still in development.
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell will be available in stores on June 4, but you can pre-order a physical copy or get access to the audiobook and ebook versions on Amazon.
Death in the 21st century: Our digital afterlife
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Social media pages and accounts often turn into memorials when someone dies, giving people a chance to still feel connected to those they’ve lost. But after we’re gone, who owns the information on our pages? Who can access them?
Faheem Hussain, a clinical assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) at Arizona State University (ASU), will explore this topic in his discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
“It’s certain we’re going to be dead, so where’s the design for that?” said Hussain. “There’s a huge design disconnection.”
The dilemma of what happens to your digital self after you’re gone is something Hussain has seen first-hand. He’s witnessed family and friends struggling to gain access to a loved one’s social media page after that person passed away, and he’s gotten Facebook friend suggestions for a person who had died.
“We have normalized talking about safety and security of our data and privacy, but we should also start including the conversation of how to manage data afterwards,” said Hussain. “It’s a bit tricky because it involves death and no one wants to talk about it.”
Hussain has spent several years researching technology in society, including the digital afterlife, social media and digital rights. He’s been documenting the changes companies have made in terms of managing the data of people who have died, along with digital afterlife provisions.
In his research Hussain and his colleagues looked at digital afterlife policies, cases and user feedback, specifically in developing countries. They found that people in these countries are more vulnerable to the challenges associated with the digital afterlife, including privacy issues, digital ownership and legal framework. Hussain and his colleagues concluded that more needs to be done to lessen the gap in digital afterlife policies between developed and developing countries, to ensure solutions are inclusive and truly global.
Problems surrounding the digital afterlife are not slowing down anytime soon. A recent study found that Facebook could have nearly 5 billion dead users by 2100. Hussain will discuss the policies that need to be in place regarding digital products and platforms and what needs to be considered in their design.
“It’s important for us to talk about the digital afterlife,” said Hussain. “You need to manage what will happen when you are not here anymore.”
In recent years, many digital platforms, including Facebook and Google have been making changes when it comes to the death of users. Facebook will turn your page into a memorial, and you can appoint a legacy contact to look after your account. With Google, you can set up a trusted contact who will get access to parts of your account if it’s been inactive for a period of time. But much of this in the hands of the user, who has to set up these settings in preparation for death. Hussain said we need to talk about our concerns and communicate with the companies providing these digital services.
“I think it’s important that we have a say in it,” said Hussain.
More information: Hussain will give his presentation of “Our Digital Afterlife” during the session “Death in the 21st Century: What is Left Behind” on February 16.
Provided by Arizona State University
Manage your digital afterlife
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Have you ever thought about the fact that your ‘digital estate’ may incorporate just as many items as your material belongings? Everything from music, photos, accounts, social media profiles and attempted memoirs rest on the cloud. That’s a lot of personal stuff to manage upon one’s death, much like a house full of cherished possessions.
Consider your wishes
First thing’s first, what do you want to happen with your accounts when you die? Much the same as your Will, deciding on this beforehand saves your family and friends from any doubt about your wishes. For example, do you want your social media accounts deleted or continued, perhaps for business or memorial purposes?
Have a think about all your accounts, what they contain, and the best course of action for either continuing them or shutting them down. This way, you can leave instructions as to how you’d like them managed. As an added bonus of being prepared, this is a great way to clean up your ‘digital estate’ now, as it’s easy to forget just how many unused or ineffective accounts we have!
Give someone your passwords
If there’s someone you absolutely trust, giving your login details to them is by far the easiest method of ensuring your wishes are carried out, whether that’s to keep or delete accounts. This is particularly true for social media sites, as even family members aren’t given access to passwords.
This makes it easy for someone to delete your accounts, update them and keep an eye on them in case of spam or hackers. Don’t want to give anyone your passwords right now? Research password management services that let you appoint a nominee who’ll gain access to your passwords upon request, in the case of death or incapacity.
Research the options for different social media platforms
Depending on the social media platforms you use, different rules apply to account deactivation and their ongoing use. First of all, make sure family or friends know which accounts you have and what you’d like done with them. One of the most popular options is to have an account memorialised, so the content remains visible to those it was shared with in the first place.
When you nominate a legacy contact on Facebook, through the Settings and Security tabs, that person can respond to friend requests and add posts to your profile. You can change the nominated legacy contact at any time. It’s possible to memorialise Instagram accounts, however, they can’t be changed. Twitter allows for deactivation, but no one will be able to gain access to the account unless you’ve given them your login details.
Make a detailed list of your digital accounts and devices
Along with social media, and presuming financial and insurance accounts will be in the hands of a power of attorney, you could have accounts including:
- Email addresses
- Shopping accounts
- Websites and blogs
- Copyrighted materials
- Video sharing accounts
- Online storage accounts
- Subscription accounts
- Domain names
Keep a record of them and forward this to the appropriate people, including logins and passwords so they can be easily deactivated or managed. This includes digital assets that may require passwords to access, such as external hard drives, tablets, smartphones and digital music players. With the information about everything ‘digital’ all recorded in one place, it’ll be easy for friends and family to manage.
Back everything up
Whether you view it as a shame or a fantastic convenience, many of us don’t have photo albums anymore, let alone handwritten letters. Consider compiling cherished memories and backing them up on a hard drive, specifically for this purpose. This way, you don’t run the risk of anything becoming lost in the cloud, in the case of complications with retrieving passwords or information.
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What happens to your Facebook and Twitter accounts after you die?
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When someone you love dies, sure, their spirit endures—but so does their social media. And when their photos, memories or posts surface unexpectedly, it can be a jarring purgatory for those still healing from the loss.
Managing the digital afterlife is “something that people should think about but don’t,” says Jed Brubaker, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who specializes on the topic. “There’s a whole societal infrastructure—(coroners, cemeteries, funeral directors)—for how we think about death,” he says. “For the most part, that has not extended very well to digital content broadly and social media specifically.”
That can lead to some painful situations.
You may have braced for that birthday reminder, for instance, but then Facebook unexpectedly surfaces an “on this day” memory that just hits you in the gut. LinkedIn nudges you to congratulate a colleague on a work anniversary just a few days after a fatal heart attack took them. Not just awkward, but ouch. That hurts.
Gone, but not forgotten or erased
It’s not that we necessarily want all social records and reminders to go away. Just recently, Twitter pulled an about-face following a backlash when it announced plans to purge some inactive accounts. Folks didn’t want to lose tweets from loved ones who had passed away.
“We’ve heard you on the impact that this would have on the accounts of the deceased,” the company tweeted. “This was a miss on our part. We will not be removing any inactive accounts until we create a new way for people to memorialize accounts.”
And LinkedIn is also working on a plan to memorialize accounts, expected to be ready in the new year.
“This is understandably one of the most sensitive topics for our members, and we want to make sure the account of any member who has passed away is treated with respect,” says LinkedIn spokesperson Suzi Owens.
You can ask LinkedIn to remove the profile of a dead colleague, classmate or family member by explaining your relationship to the person, and among other requested information, supplying the date of death, obituary, and the company the person most recently worked at.
The social network graveyard
For sure, our virtual, digital lives will inevitably outlast our physical ones.
In fact, Facebook could have more dead members than living ones within 50 years, according to academics at Oxford University.
But the broad implications of the digital hereafter remain grave.
“The demise of your biological body does not completely strip you of ethical rights such as privacy and dignity,” the study’s lead author Carl Öhman said last spring. “Overall, Facebook has done a pretty good job in navigating these issues and has balanced the interests of the bereaved with those of the deceased.” But he added that it is up to the bereaved families to curate the digital legacies of loved ones that “both accommodates their grief, and supports the community around the deceased in the best way.”
What to do when you’re still alive
You don’t have to leave all the specifics for friends and family to handle after you’re gone.
With Facebook, you can request to have your account permanently deleted after you die. Or you can designate a “legacy contact” who can look after your memorialized account once you pass. Such a person can then manage tribute posts on the memorial profile, by choosing who can see those posts or contribute their own sentiments. The legacy contact can also respond to new friend requests, delete posts and remove tags.
As with everything else you leave behind, keep in mind that the legacy contact might access content that wasn’t originally visible to him or her.
According to Facebook, however, what this person won’t see are messages, ads you clicked on when you were alive, pokes, security and settings info, and photos you automatically synced but didn’t post.
To get started via web browser, head to Settings on Facebook, click “Memorialization Settings,” click “Edit,” and then examine your options. Should you choose a legacy contact, Facebook will auto-generate an editable message to send to the person you’ve picked. On mobile via the app, whether Android or iPhone, it takes only one more step to get to that option, tapping “Account Ownership and Control.”
Brubaker, who consulted with Facebook on the design of the legacy contact solution, advises people to explicitly give family members or people they trust “symbolic permission” to do what they think is best after they’re gone.
“We hear from lots of bereaved a really deep anxiety around not wanting to disrespect or dishonor the memory of their loved one but being left with a kind of ambiguity and uncertainty about what they should do,” he says.
If wishes aren’t outlined or expressed before death, you as a family member can still request that the member’s Facebook account be removed. You will have to provide proof of the death (an obit or memorial card), and proof that you have the authority to make such a request such as power of attorney documentation, a birth certificate, will or estate letter.
All the many people with Google accounts can similarly set up an Inactive Account Manager to care for the person’s Google remains after death.
But there are limits, as Google explains on the web. “We recognize that many people pass away without leaving clear instructions about how to manage their online accounts. We can work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person where appropriate….We cannot provide passwords or other login details. Any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after a careful review.”
The request for a dead person’s Google data may also require a court order.
It isn’t entirely clear how or even if the social media data from a behemoth such as Facebook that people leave behind remains commercially viable—dead people no longer look at ads, after all.
But there are still strong cases to be made for preserving our digital legacies. They may prove useful artifacts of a bygone era. Future generations may learn from the pictures and posts we leave behind. And to family members and close friends, honoring the people they’ve lost and keeping their memories alive is priceless.
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