Interviewing the Electronically Archived “You”

This is pure science fiction, perhaps, at least it cannot be done right now in any easy sense.

One thing I wanted to tell students in my Cyberspace Ethnography course, when a related discussion came up, concerned how with the advent of the Internet we are all writing so much more: emails, chat discussions, using various private messengers, creating websites, contributing to blogs, wikis, you name it.

At the end of a life, a vast amount of writing will have been done on and through the Internet, and much of it will have been archived, somewhere, somehow. At the end of a life, any one of my students, even without becoming professional writers, will have probably written the equivalent in length of multiple books. There may be many more of us on this planet than have ever lived before, but there is also so much more about any of us that can be discovered online.

Which is why I would hate to be an ethnohistorian on this planet 200 years from now, assuming human society continues to exist and evolve, assuming that universities will still exist, that research will still be done.

I am thinking of individuals who might innovate new projects at the intersection of what we today call anthropology, psychology, artificial intelligence, and computer programming.

I am thinking that the electronic stacks of information archived about you could be made to talk. After all, what better way to sort and sift through vast piles of data about you, than to talk to you, even if your body is dead?

Perhaps programs could be created that look for patterns, for your distinctive and idiosyncratic inflections, for preferences in the way you choose to express ideas, how you tie ideas in with your personal biography, your lifestyle choices, and so forth, so that a kind of electronic facsimile of your persona can be engineered.

Then it would be possible to “interview” this electronic “you”, to chat you with you in the same way we talk to each other in chat rooms today, the same way some of us chat with bots.

Imagine that, “we” may be chatting with individuals who won’t be born for a few more generations, long after we have ceased to walk on this planet. I just hope that my future electronic me doesn’t embarrass me the way the real me does today.

Facilitating the process of memorializing/archiving the life history, images, family and friend connections, and even the writings of deceased persons, a number of new online services offer memorial websites, some associated with funeral home chains. In an article titled,
“Virtual Mourning: Online condolences grow as outlet for grief, source of support”, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports the following:

When Susanne Jones’s husband Brian passed away recently, the Collingwood, Ont., funeral home with which she was dealing created an online memorial and condolences page.

For Jones it was a huge comfort.

“I checked the funeral home site every day and I always found a new voice in the online wilderness, offering comfort and happy memories. Scrolling through the site is like taking a walk through life’s history and I will forever cherish it.”

In addition to the funeral home’s memorial, several of her husband’s friends created a Facebook memorial for him; something more people are doing as society turns to the internet to mourn loved ones.

Memorials have also emerged on Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, where the profiles of deceased users are serving as the center of mourners’ attention. Indeed, this is very familiar to me, given the seeming permanence of my friend, the late Dr. Roi Kwabena’s websites and blogs, left the way he left them the last time he posted, or attracting many messages of praise, direct messages to the deceased Roi, on his MySpace page, and countless posts on other blogs speaking of Roi’s passing and his influence.

The article adds:

Some companies are seizing online memorials as a potential moneymaker. One company in the U.K., Alphatalk Limited, has a website entitled It recommends buying a virtual grave, which can be kept open for as long as 25 years after a person’s death. It offers an online memorial account allowing customers to store messages that will be sent to certain people after their death as well as a client’s life story, will and financial information, photographs and videos. Northern Memorials offers a similar service with an online obituary, photographs, memory section and donations.