Eterni.me: Death and Technology

January 31, 2014 | By Felicity Cull

The photo above shows my maternal great grandfather and great grandmother, Samuel Salter and Mary Ann Louise Salter. It’s not a photo from my collection. I found it one day while browsing Flickr for photos of my hometown. I’d never seen their faces before, I only knew their names, and I have to say I was quite struck. There they were. Sitting on the verandah of the house my mother lived in as a child. I was then even more amazed to find this photo of my grandfather, not as I remembered him as he was when I was little, white haired and frail but as a tall and, may I say, quite dapper young man. These photos were taken by William Edward Fretwell, a British engineer who emigrated to Western Australia in 1911, and the photos had been posted by some librarians. It was strange. Without Flickr, I would never have seen these photos and it was like I was being visited by my dead relatives.

When I read this piece about Eterni.me, I immediately recalled this experience. Eterni.me is a start up that intends to collate your digital personality into a profile that will interact with your friends and family after you die. Apparently, ‘It’s like a Skype chat from the past’ and people can get advice and recall memories with a digital version of their loved ones. According to Fast Company, the CEO said that “We’re very aware we’re not creating a digital clone or anything creepy, but an interface for accessing memories.” Imagine if that feeling I got, like being visited by a ghost, was the norm. Imagine if when you missed your grandfather you could go to your nearest digital device. Would this help or would it make it worse? In the future, will technology mean that death has no dominion?

Some of us will have experienced something like this on Facebook. Since a vast amount of us have profiles and so do our friends, it’s likely that on your friends list you have someone who has passed away. Their profile page may have become a memorial as per Facebook policy. People can still post on a deceased person’s timeline and send them private messages. Our increasingly more digital lives have already interacted with death for many of us. In this brilliant blog post that meditates on grief on Facebook, Cheri Lucas Rowlands says of her own experience with mourning online;

“Alone, I sobbed. Yet I sobbed with Facebook open… I sobbed at home, by myself, but also with everyone else. I had never given in to the community of Facebook until that moment. For the first time, its communal space had comforted me.”

Digital representations of a lost one can certainly be of comfort. I just wonder, if someone sends a message to their friend who has passed away, do they want a reply?

I also wonder how, if Eterni.me took off, this would impact how we interact with our ancestors. I feel connected to my great grandmother, who looks like my mother and who gave my little sister her name (despite what Stephen Fry has to say about it) but I know nothing about her. Imagine if she could tell me what she enjoyed doing on a Sunday afternoon. Imagine if I knew that she was funny or boring or kind. I can’t imagine it. And I have to admit, I have a vague desire to sign up to Eterni.me.