Dead family members could be virtually resurrected… Image: The Telegraph


First, a note re my previous post, Is the internet killing high culture? I should have mentioned that, strictly speaking, the internet is not a medium, it is a meta-medium. That is, it conveys a variety of media.

As Marshall McLuhan pointed out decades ago, media like books, TV, and radio all have different “personalities.” Radio is “hot”; TV is “cool.” But the internet does not exhibit any of those qualities in itself; it simply takes us to the types and venues of media we direct. And therein lie the peril.

What I really want to talk about this time out is the growing weirdness around death in both the actual and the digital world: First, there’s the adult takeover of Hallowe’en.

There is a history here. In some traditional western European cultures, November began the year, and the first few days were celebrated on behalf of the dead. Ghoulish preoccupations tended to dominate so, as we know, Christian missionaries responded by declaring November 1 (beginning the previous evening, as per custom) All Saints’ Day, and November 2, All Souls’ Day.

When I was young, sixty years ago, Hallowe’en (All Hallows’ Eve) had shrunk mostly to fun for kids, except that an obliging parent or two might carve a pumpkin and put a candle in it in the window.

But in a secular age, Hallowe’en has been revived as an adult celebration, taking away the fun and reviving the ghoulishness. So, ironically, in urban Canada today, children are rarely allowed out to trick or treat without their parents. That is for the best when one sees the seasonal decor neighbours offer.

And the humble pumpkin that, decades ago, rose from the grave in a pie crust has given way to plastic pumpkins from China’s sweatshops, totally disconnected with any meaningful culture.

In this atmosphere, digital media can exacerbate the revival of a weird attitude toward death, just as they can exacerbate any other trend. Earlier this year, I noted the way in which the Facebook pages can sometimes be manipulated to create the impression that a deceased person is still alive. That includes receiving computer-composed “messages” from loved ones after their deaths.

These social media avatars may become more sophisticated, as we learn from a recent news item in Britain’s Telegraph:

Family members could be kept alive forever virtually so that living relatives could interact with their avatars, an academic has suggested.

Digital animation prof Simon McKeown claims,

The avatars would be created using a process called ‘photogrammetry’ which can accurately reconstruct a virtual 3D shape of a human being from existing photographs and video. Computer voice synthesis, will take account local and regional accents to deliver a more accurate representation of what they sounded like. The digital lifeform would also be linked up to social networks and large databases so they would be kept ‘up to date’ with their relative’s activities and could communicate with them about their day.

McKeown calls his idea “Preserved Memories.” If one believes that the mind survives the body, as most people in largely post-Christian Britain still do, his idea does not clearly make sense. But if a decline in belief in life after death follows other declines in traditional beliefs, a market for such proposals will surely grow up.

Meanwhile, here is a thought for families coping with the increasing weirdness of Hallowe’en next year: Encourage children to learn about and dress up as saints or heroes, and plan a party around celebrating the good things those people did, as some enterprising American Christians are doing:

This new trend among Christians may well be a reaction against the progressive degeneration of children’s costumes, which have become more explicit and graphic over the years.

“Practically gone are innocent depictions of supernatural beings that inspire laughter and smiles. Instead, the images of Halloween are fraught with a disquieting ugliness, genuine horror, and pornography,” writes Pennsylvania school principal Sean Fitzpatrick.

“The costume trend for little girls at Halloween is almost wholly centered on slinkiness and sexuality,” Fitzpatrick laments. “Practically gone is the innocence of princesses and pumpkins. Now there are Goths, Monster High, and a prostitute version of every character imaginable from witches to nuns.” More

Well, at least Hallowe’en isn’t likely to become a statutory holiday any time soon, and we have a whole year to think about ways to head off the worst trends.

Note: There are legitimate reasons to believe that the person continues to exist beyond the physical body, but certainly not as an algorithm generated by a bereavement management company’s computer. As an aside, great physicists have tended to see consciousness as immaterial. It isn’t even an “unscientific” idea in principle; simply one that is hard to explore this side of death.

Here’s a vid that might give children some ideas. Commemorating heroes and saints is a good way to learn history as well.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...