Immortality, Part I
"Better than nothing"
In 1977, John Lennon sat down at his piano to play and sing “Now and Then,” a new song he had written. Almost two decades later, Yoko gave the tape to Paul, George, and Ringo, but they couldn’t do much with it — the vocals were too enmeshed with the piano.
Paul never gave up hope, however, that it could be resurrected. And he lived long enough to be right. Enter AI, our warm and cuddly tech-y bear.
Enter also, the computer-generated imagery that gives us a time-bending video of young, flamboyant, smooth-faced versions of them all, including Lennon, mugging, pointing, and laughing alongside their bearded, grey-haired, somber 2023 selves.
It premiered November 3rd and already has 34 million views:
It’s a beautiful tune, and the song’s melancholy chorus, sung by all four of them together again, movingly, impossibly—
“Now and then I miss you,
oh oh now and then,
I want you to be there for me,
always to return to me.”
—provides the perfect backdrop of longing for immortality.
Because life’s preparation for death has always been a fave subject of mine (invite me to your next party!), watching the video of this new Beatles song disturbed me. Here’s why.
There’s a running joke in my family, started many years ago by my sister’s friend who had a cat named Mayno. The friend was so in love with Mayno that she would often say, “Mayno will ne’er die.”
My kids laughed at that story and then adapted it to describe their mother, aka “Maitre D” (don’t ask). They say “Maitre D will ne’er die,” and follow that pronouncement with fervent convictions that I’m going to make it to 150.
Ha ha ha, I laugh, unamused. To be honest, I used to be more amused than I am these days. Immortality, or even an abnormally prolonged lifespan, just doesn’t have the patina it once did.
Like me, you probably believed that you would live forever… until you hit maybe seven or eight years old. That’s the time when many kids have their first existential crisis; they realize that not only will Mayno die, but they will, too.
I remember losing sleep over that revelation. I just couldn’t wrap my head around not being here. It was the same kind of disbelief I had at the notion of negative numbers — which I think were introduced around the same time. How could there be something less than nothing? How could I be nothing? It was a rough scene.
That same angst has played out among human beings of every race, on every continent, for millennia. Fear of death’s nothingness has birthed and buttressed entire religions, has launched heroic quests for the Fountain of Youth, and has driven people to seek other routes to immortality through conquest, acquisition of power, and the one the Beatles pursued and attained: fame.
I can’t tell you exactly what motivated John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but I’d hazard a guess that most rulers, writers, generals, athletes, artists, and performers whose names we all know today were once children seeking to soothe the existential fear of nothingness that arose in their youth.
The new Beatles song is being hailed as a masterpiece. What Clash describes as “beatific, sentimental, and ‘gloriously contagious,’” is all of that indeed, but still… there’s something about it that feels off to me.
Can’t there ever be an end? Aren’t endings part of life? Don’t they make everything we experience sweeter, knowing that this flower in bloom, this birthday celebration, this pink-gold sunset, this rock band, cannot last?
Apparently, for some, the answer is no.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Hollywood caters to our unwillingness to face endings. How many more iterations of Marvel (33 so far), Batman (17), or Fast and Furious (11) will there be? James Bond (27) goes on forever, because “Bond will ne’er die,” even after, well, dying in the last film. (No spoiler alert necessary; trust me, some version of him will return.)
Yet the “Now and Then” video in particular struck a discordant note inside me, reminding me of that last scene in the movie “Carrie” where her bloody hand shoots up out of the grave. It scared the crap out of me, because she was supposed to be dead.
Rolling Stone called the song, “the brilliant final statement the Fab Four — and their fans — deserve.”
Really? We deserve a final statement? Why? And how do we know this song is actually final? If what I’m reading about AI is true, and if the fans “deserve” more brilliance, surely this is just the beginning of endless grave-defying collaborations — not just by the Beatles, but by any group that came to prominence in the audio-video age?
If you haven’t been reading the tsunami of articles published in the past two years about AI and immortality, you’re probably a happier person. Here is a tiny sample of headlines:
Could AI Keep People Alive After Death? — Wall Street Journal
And on and on and on.
Here’s the upshot: thanks to advances in cybernetics, computer networks, and AI, and gobs of money concentrated in the hands of a few
Peter Pans tech titans, the fear of death is driving an entire industry of digital immortality, which refers to the concept of uploading, storing, or transferring a person's personality into something digital: a computer, virtual human, digital avatar, or robot.
There’s also the biological immortality route, the one that Ted Williams took, which involves cryogenics. Apparently Paris Hilton and Peter Thiel are signed up for that when their day comes.
That’s ooky in a different way. In Scottsdale, AZ, Williams’s head is frozen in one steel tank, his body in another at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. And as if that’s not creepy enough, a former executive at Alcor writes that Williams' head was abused at the facility; a technician allegedly took baseball-like swings at Williams' frozen head with a monkey wrench.
Somehow, though, I’m not as bothered by the biological path. It’s still weird to me, and it certainly raises ethical and legal questions, but whatever. If you want to spend thousands of dollars to freeze your body, or just your head (it’s cheaper!) after you’re dead — knock yourself out. So to speak.
It’s the digital immortality stuff that really gets me. For example:
“A grieving mother meets her daughter in a virtual world. A Holocaust activist speaks at her own funeral using AI-powered video technology. Nirvana released a ‘new’ AI-generated song, ‘Drowned in the Sun,’ decades after the death of Kurt Cobain. Holograms of late music icons perform for live audiences.” — Psychology Today
Follow any one of those links and tell me what you feel. Is this an exciting sci-fi fantasy come true, a real-life version of Star Trek’s Holodeck? Is it the obvious next step beyond still photographs and video, just another way of “immortalizing” someone?
William Shatner seems to think so, speaking of Star Trek. You can “chat” with an AI version of him. And Ed Asner, famous for his role as Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” recorded video and audio through StoryFile before he died, so that mourners at his memorial service could “talk” with Asner’s avatar.
Plenty of people are thrilled at the prospect of leaving a “digital legacy.” But if the last few years have taught me anything, it’s to question everything — particularly if lots of people are on board. One my astute commenters (thanks, Rocket!), reminded me recently of the Walter Lippman quote: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Of course, there’s a profit motive. In 2012, when dead rapper Tupac “joined” Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on stage at Coachella for a new holographic performance, sales of his music went through the roof.
But no one ever cops to a profit motive. Here’s StoryFile’s corporate nonsense from their website:
“From the outset StoryFile determined it would be a company that people could trust. Our company values reflect our product. We are innovative, trustworthy, and authentic. In a world of bots, droids, deep-fakes and avatars, we took the decision that we wanted to make our AI more human, preserving original narratives and voices.”
What a noble mission. And I guess no one told ChatGPT that saying you’re trustworthy —twice — basically signals the opposite.
Look. Greed doesn’t concern me nearly as much as what I’ll call the potential for a downgrade in human consciousness.
We’ve seen the slide from in-person interactions to Zoom. “Better than nothing,” we say. I’ve said it myself.
We’ve watched teens disappear into their phones, an entire generation of them now suffering from crippling social anxiety, and shrugged. “I guess it’s an inevitable by-product of progress,” we say.
And we stood by as the isolated died alone, holding onto rubber gloves filled with warm water.
The very fact that “griefbots,” robots programmed to “comfort” the bereaved, are an actual thing and not a satirical element of a dystopian novel, tells me that we are quickly relinquishing our standards for human connection. We are becoming increasingly willing to accept a facsimile for the real thing. Sure, that “digitally immortal” bot is not my dad/friend/child, but it’s better than nothing.
Cristina Voinea, writing in Practical Ethics, believes that griefbots can be a “a tool for re-learning what we love.” She describes how wonderful it would be to speak with a digital version of her deceased father, to be reminded of “how much comfort his calm and control offered me.” She posits that the interaction might spur her to build those qualities into her relationships with others.
I wonder if the average person can view a griefbot with the same emotional intelligence maturity level, especially when marketers are selling it with copy like this from Mindbank.AI: “train your digital twin to know your life story so you can live forever through data.”
That doesn’t sound like a “tool.” Neither does “Humanity’s next evolutionary step is to combine ourselves with Ai and move humanity forward so we are no longer bound by anything.”
That sounds like transhumanism, straight up.
Tech entrepreneurs are pushing the notion that it’s possible to digitally capture someone’s personality. We all know it’s not. You can stuff a computer with every bit of available data about a human being, from their verbal tics to their favorite books, to their childhood memories of fishing with Uncle Billy, absolutely every single damn thing… and you still won’t be able to recreate a real, live, human being.
But we want it to be true. We miss our loved ones. So we ignore what we know, and play along because it’s “better than nothing.”
And yet, it’s not. It’s worse. It’s a negative number.
Cultures prior to ours cultivated actual relationships with their ancestors. Some still do. In Peru, the shaman that led our sweat lodge ceremony blessed and spoke the names of his beloved ancestors, calling them into existence. He asked us to do the same, and as we did, I sensed the loving presence of many spirits gathering alongside us in that tent.
The work my husband does as a hypnotist assists people in accessing a power buried deep within us: the power to connect with souls who have gone before us. It’s a power far, far greater than AI, and it’s a power we all have. Every single one of us.
I’d argue that this push from the tech overlords is calculated to strip us of that ability. They are like colonialist conquerers, offering us shiny trinkets in exchange for our far more valuable ancestral lands.
If we choose this more seductive option, if we just settle for “better than nothing,” we effectively abandon the cultivation of a gift we’re endowed with — the gift of intuition, inner seeing, and divine connection.
My dearest hope is that we, as individuals and as a collective, will resist these ultimately useless baubles. Who knows? Human being are notoriously fickle. Perhaps the allure of faux-meta-fakes will wear off, and we’ll seek out something that truly nourishes our species.
Find Something Real
A woodpecker clings to the
tap tap tap tap tap
again and again
coming up empty.
I want to tell her
That’s vinyl siding, dear. Go
find something real.
but I don’t.
Tap tap tap tap tap
Because we all have to
figure it out
And if we don’t? If we persist in continuing down this path of immortality-seeking, then what? One answer lies in a phenomenal book I just read…