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Death in Digital

I’m Kelly Vero, creative badass, future-gazer, game developer and general metaverse nerd. I’ve been making games for a long, long time but I’ve always had an eye on the future, where I now work, to drive technology up and out beyond your wildest dreams. Since it's very humble beginnings, the world of online technology has been set up to be this stuffed hard drive of all our thoughts, feelings and hopes. But what happens when we’re not around to feed the beast? Then what?

the uncertainty of death in a digital world

...And Out of This World

Back in 2013, a really good friend of mine passed away. Actually he was a student of mine, a mentee. He was learning game design under my tutelage and one day he grew up and moved away, like most people do.

During our time together we’d studied in a metaverse (SmallWorlds), watched every conceivable Japanese modern classic from Princess Mononoke to Moonchild (Gackt and Hyde anyone?) and he would blog and post his life online. I know he did. I taught him how to do it. I read his deepest thoughts and his funniest moments in that time we were apart. But one day, he died. The deep thoughts and the funny moments were gone. Weren’t they?

Every year since he passed away, his friends, and all the people who loved him, commemorate his life. However, they don't commemorate him in a traditional sense, where you would go to his grave, leave flowers, and have a beer in his honour. Because we live in the future. And the way to preserve in ad-memoriam these days, is to preserve your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. We leave our memories of him and our words of comfort for each other in that place. It still brings a great deal of peace to everybody who knew him, and even those who didn't know him. Everybody feels as though they're part of a wider story.

Pretend We're Dead

That got me thinking about us and our story, the living, and how we will protect ourselves and our heritage when we're no longer alive.

If you know me, you know I love to talk about digital death, it’s the goth in me. I think the reason why I want to talk about digital death is because it focuses on two key issues affecting our digital life and lifestyle.

The physical or phygital, and the pure data. There’s a symbiotic relationship that is hard to uncouple.

What are our most important possessions? Is it that China tea pot that has been handed down through the family across generations? Or is it data? We know that data can take a variety of forms; from photographs, diary entries and blog posts to the things we don’t want people to find.

Currently, what happens after we have departed this mortal coil is, if I were to use my first example as the basis for the argument: an opportunity to keep ourselves alive by virtue of everyone around us who loved us. However, since this generation, and that's Generation X (not the band), will be the first generation who will go into digital retirement. What does that actually mean for every generation to follow?

The Digital Ageing Process

In my Digital Witness presentation at the inaugural Beyond Games event last year, I talked about the things that will affect us meaningless meatsacks - from dementia to pensions. We’ll be the first generation to embrace old age using technology. So, let’s face the problems head on.

My knees hurt a bit and my eyes need the bottom of milk bottles to even see my own hand these days. I’m not as fast as I used to be and I’m not as hot, but my brain is. Well it is at the moment. While my whole body fails me, my brain is on point 24 hours a day (it feels like).

Before I Forget was one of the first games to explore the often uncomfortable themes associated with getting old but who cares about that? I’m an Iris Apfel, I’m growing old disgracefully.

How are you going to help me with that, game developers?

Eve Online, Borderlands and even Sea Hero Quest either gather data as we play, or allow us, the citizen scientist, to explore everything from planet discovery to protein folding and even COVID. What a helpful lot gamers are!

Health tech is mega sophisticated with fancy device diagnostics and even cybernetics in operations are driving up the focus on them kids who used to spend every coin in the arcade and their demands to be operated on via joysticks. I’m ok with it. The simple motherboard is now a portal to good health. What’s not to love?

Femtech or feminine technology can do everything from measure infertility and provide support, to nutrition, period products subscriptions and even robo-midwives (well, chatbots).

And finally sex tech has given us more reasons to avoid being lonely in our dotage. In a world where population is on the decline in civilisations where technology is king, it’s hard to imagine a life completely alone (unless you’re Tom Hanks in that bloody awful film with the troll face football): and why should you?

Death of a Swan

It will be managed by data and what happens in the metaverse. That’s the first pearl clutching statement I’ll make.

Why data? Bizarrely, I started thinking about this subject when I was willing Cloud Strife to not die in Advent Children. His brother from another mother, Kadaj, was defeated in battle and heard who he thought were the words of Jenova. We all dream of a noble death don’t we, and only a few of us are lucky enough to die in total peace. Let’s be honest, death is the end of our physical essence and as Kadaj’s spirit energy (and all that amazing materia) returns to the Lifestream; we realise that life and death is all around us in the physical realm but in the spiritual, or should that read digital, we are all one. Sakaguchi wanted to explore “life” in a "mathematical and logical way to overcome the mental shock." That’s data. And to some extent doesn’t that also explain the metaverse?

Deus Ex-Machina

If data is sustaining, then I both love and hate data in equal parts.

The whimsy of retaining your identity well into the future is the stuff of Wilde, Joyce, even Clancy for god’s sake. But if you want to hate on data you can. It’s a fatberg of zeroes and ones. It’s clogging up clouds, vaults, wallets, google drives and whatever else you stored that meme of an exploding dog on.

Do you need it? Will it take you into the afterlife? Are you k-drama idol of his day, Tutankhamun? Do you have a sarcophagus full of treasures that will delight and inspire egyptologists of this generation?

No, you are not.

You’ve kept a photo album of that time you went to Magaluf in 1989 where you and your brother took turns dipping your dad’s hands in a dish of warm water after a night out in Willie's Bar.

I’m just saying. This really wasn’t worth scanning, putting in your hard drive and transacting between backups. It’s pointless and wasteful. But it means something to you, because you are here, now, you are alive. You won’t always be, so it would be good to think about the memories you can make space for on yours or in someone else’s memory.

The ghost inside of the machine is you. You’re irrational, emotional, you operate with skin and bone and muscle and heart.

Data doesn’t.

It wants to be overwritten, it was made to be versioned. And that love and hate thing I talked about earlier? It’s SpaceJam. Until last year that was the greatest website ever, but it was overwritten, revised and released into the internet to be born again.

That’s you.

Curating the Crazy

I have been an avid user of the internet since it was born. I've tried as much as possible, given the meagre salary that I had in my more formative career years, tried to keep ahead and be an early adopter of new technologies (provided it's not Apple), and new tools that I can support and that support me.

But in the future, I won't be around to see all the fruits of what Generation X, the Millens, Gen Z and Alpha will produce. With that in mind, I'm pretty careful about what I create, and how I curate the things I do online, to make space and be frugal.

My time was when Crash Override and Acid Burn were married (go and look it up), and wouldn’t we all want to be remembered with a banging Fluke/Prodigy soundtrack?

The digital spaces that we create now have to be curated by us constantly. In order to ensure that there is enough room for digital usefulness in the future, we have to use the tools at our disposal to edit us a little more meaningfully, enough for us to be remembered and commemorated in the ways we want for ourselves and our friends.

It's been ten years since he passed away. So much has happened. We’ve come such a long way. The only channel I have to remember him is in a search engine.

Something uncurated, something that exposes all of us to who we really are or were. And yet, amongst that cached result he’s still there, living, in digital form, waiting to be discovered like an artefact at the bottom of the sea or in a sarcophagus buried deep within a pyramid.

The story doesn’t end because we are no longer living, the story starts with what we left behind.


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