Is it “Art imitates life,” or “Life imitates art”? I can never remember. Either way, the sudden revelation where an “art” experience uncannily mirrors “life” is always exciting. I recently had one of those revelations while listening to two podcasts, one fiction, one non-fiction, both dealing with overcoming death through crafting a digital legacy that lives beyond the grave.
In last month's column on the book, The Consolations of Mortality, one of the consolations I didn’t mention concerned the idea of preserving one's life by recording written, audio, and video reflections of even the most trivial moments. The compiled record would then be available to anyone who wished to connect with the recorded life once the physical body expired. Of course, this does assume that the person’s survivors would take the initiative to re-experience that deceased person through those digital archives. “Who wants to relive Pop’s breakfast from March 12, 2002? Anybody?”
But let’s say the dead have a platform that allows them to insert themselves into the lives of the living. This is the conceit of the fictional podcast from the Panoply network called “Life After” (www.panoply.fm/shows). A social media platform where people post audio messages generates a hidden spinoff. Combining hours of audio posts of the departed with a kind of artificial intelligence, a kind of “living” presence is created that connects and interacts with loved ones through their cell phones.
“Life After” turns dark, involves an FBI investigation and a possible cult-like enterprise. It’s good fiction. Not far off from this fiction, though, is a real service that I heard about on another podcast, “Note to Self” (www.wnyc.org/shows/notetoself), in an episode called “Messages From the Beyond.”
Instead of creating a virtual persona from social media posts, this service asks you to develop targeted messages in email, audio and video, aimed at a spouse, child, friend, etc. They are configured to be sent at specific dates and times. For example, when your child graduates from school or college, or on an anniversary or birthday of a spouse. Imagine getting advice on adulthood from Dad, or a sexy video starring your wife from beyond the grave.
The podcast interviewed a client with cancer, and her family. Her teenage son thinks receiving messages from his deceased Mom will be creepy. It’s not yet interactive like the fictional service in “Life After,” but I predict that near-future fiction will soon become fact. How creepy will that be?