On December 27, 2016, actress Carrie Fisher died. She was, of course, best known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films.
On December 28th, I sat in a movie theater watching the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One. At the end, we get an appearance from a digital ghost.
It’s Princess Leia, renewed younger than Carrie Fisher ever was when she played the role. She is a CGI (computer-generated imagery) character, enacting a moment before the original Star Wars film, which came out in 1977.
This was a poignant moment to consider the “human face” of our increasingly digital world. Carrie Fisher had just died, yet she was re-born as the very essence that made her famous. Her immortality was eerily tangible.
Oddly, I didn’t mourn Carrie Fisher’s passing. I celebrated Princess Leia’s virtual return.
The Fiction of Immortality
Immortality achieved through technology or mystical arts is a common theme in science fiction and literature. The consequences are, at best, mixed.
According to folklore, Ponce de León searched in vain for the fountain of youth. The Nazis were rumored to have searched for immortal powers (thankfully thwarted by Indiana Jones).
Dracula sought immortality, as did Voldemort as he created Horcruxes in Harry Potter. The elves of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth were immortal, shrouded in mysticism.
In a classic episode of the original Star Trek series entitled What Little Girls are Made Of, a scientist must come to terms with the fact that the robot body he transposed his soul into to achieve “practical” immortality, is corrupted:
In the end, Spock asks about the whereabouts of Doctor Corby. Kirk simply says, “He was never here.”
Digital Life Twists
The term digital life is meant to signify the way we interact, shop, do business – literally live our lives – via internet technologies. Digital transformation is the ways we are changing our behaviors and expectations in the face of technological evolution.
We create a lasting record of our lives as we add content to social media profiles, blogs, and image/video databases. A new type of self is emerging that’s reflected in the digital world.
Some, including Simon Sinek, argue that generations growing up through digital transformation are developing deep-seeded, pathological problems:
To be “unliked” is traumatic. Relationships are ended without couples seeing each other, as new dates are arranged the same way. Alone with nothing but a phone in hand, a lonely teen forces another Snapchat story and double checks her streaks to verify her virtual popularity.
Digital life feels instantaneous. On-demand entertainment. Text messaging where waiting a minute for a response is an insult. Online shopping that’s just a click and the package is at the door a few days later.
Simon notes how this breeds impatience. Give us an app for instant success. We see the summit of the mountain from the bottom of the trail, but fail to see the arduous journey that separates us from our goal.
Digital life lets us create many connections, but in doing so it can robs us of the deep, meaningful ones we need the most.
Harrison Ford will never kiss Carrie Fisher as a CGI – she is a digital mirage.
Imagine looking into the mirror and seeing a CGI version of yourself staring back at you.
Do you have to imagine it?
The Fine Digital Line
Simon Sinek makes some dire predictions. Inexplicable depression, career failure, and suicide from people whose Instagram page seemed to reflect a picture of utter contentment.
But it’s not all bad. While still showing a detectable hollowness, the CGIs of Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia were interesting. It’s cool they could bring these characters back in ways so closely connected to the original actors.
Digital life is very much a work in progress. It should be an enhancement, rather than replacement, for our real, physical life. There are so many ways digital tools can do this, creating connections, facilitating convenience, and providing insight that deepens our understanding of what it is to be a human being.
But we walk a fine line. Digital life creates a reflection of real life. We each create our own CGI and if we’re not careful, we can find it living a life we suddenly don’t recognize.
In science fiction, the quest for immortality is a theme with a warning. Mortality defines us, and to take it away is to take away a central part of what makes us human.
This warning is pertinent for our virtual lives. Facebook and Instagram are fine ways to share things about your life, but only when you have a real life worth sharing. The point of life is the arduous journey, not getting to the summit.
Your life is now. What you share online is data and pixels. The difference is as great as life and death.
Imagine the future of websites like Ancestry.com. Today, they take you back through the limited images and paper trails of your family ancestry.
But your great, great, great, grandkids will see something different. A digital record of your life filled with images, first-person narratives, and videos.
Your physical body will be long-gone. But your digital life will live on, virtually immortal.