Digital immortality: reflections about ephemerality and solidarity

A while back, a dear friend brought my children two giant gingerbread dinosaur-shaped biscuits. Before my ten-year-old took a bite, he asked, “Mum, can you please take a picture so I can remember it forever?” Only after confirming that I had captured the entire biscuit in the photo did he indulge in a big bite. In the face of transience, where he anticipates things such as this one-time yummy and aesthetically pleasing biscuit will soon be forever gone, my son finds comfort in keeping a digital record of them. A specific moment or object may vanish, but he is comforted in taking a picture that enables him to “remember it forever”. I find that moments like these are the most indicative of him being a digital native. He has internalised not only the practice of documenting the mundane but also the assumption that such digital records will endure in perpetuity. This assumption of digital endurance, that is, that digital ‘things’ last forever, underlies contemporary hopes and visions of digital immortality. Such hopes and visions of digital immortality enabled by the long-lasting endurance of digital traces have many sources, including – importantly – the experience of encounters with the lingering digital traces of deceased loved ones. Such traces, provide individuals with specific imageries of digital immortality (imagined both as a technical affordance as well as an embedded, every day, mundane practices of online communication). While it may be the case that one’s digital traces could linger long after one’s passing, it is also the case that digital media are deeply ephemeral, posing a significant challenge to the possibility of immortality altogether.

Developing a psycho-social and historical theory of symbolic immortality, Lifton and Olson (1975) describe in Living and Dying how individuals gradually develop an understanding of death from childhood and throughout their lives. This awareness of death, they argue, is constructed within a life-death dialectic. Through a gradual process, individuals develop an intertwined understanding of death and continuity side by side; the awareness of death is constructed inextricably alongside ideas of ongoing life (Lifton & Olson, 1975, p. 35). However, the widely spread concepts of digital immortality often fail to acknowledge the unique challenges to continuity imposed by digital technology, its infrastructures, use practices, and markets. Many scholars are already flagging several of these challenges, including some of the previous contributors to this blog. With the aim of pushing forward this conversation, I would like to briefly reflect on a few additional thoughts on the challenges and costs of digital immortality and their threat to continuity.

Access and control

Like the picture of the gingerbread dinosaur, I also have other random pictures in my photos account. Among the smiling faces of my family, I find these random, unclear images, which, more often than not, I haven’t a clue what they are meant to document. The dinosaur-shaped biscuit is long gone. So are the Arizona-shaped piece of pancake, the Lego duck, and the black-hole model made of melted chocolate ice cream. Their digital remains are randomly scattered in my digital photos account, depending on the continued readability of the file format in which they are stored and the prosperous endurance of the private company that holds and stores my collection of thousands upon thousands of photos. Both issues – ensuring file readability and regulating private companies controlling one’s digital remains – highlight some of the challenges inherent to our hopes of digital immortality.

Moreover, if my son ever asks to see any of these pictures (which, fortunately, so far, he hasn’t), I wouldn’t know even how to begin searching for them. Thus, while they may still exist on my account, they are practically gone. It would require additional work from me to curate these specific traces in some way to make them effectively retrievable, now and in the future.  

The indefinite endurance of these digital records is not guaranteed. It depends on retaining accessibility, which has many forms and aspects: technological, practical, regulatory, commercial, and ethical. I won’t go into each of these here, but I would like to suggest that common to all these challenges is also a need for a collective effort and, one might argue, a need for solidarity.

Digital immortality and solidarity

Media – old and new – are ephemeral. Even the gravestone, which is exceptionally durable, requires maintenance in order to sustain the memory of the dead. Digital media, too, require maintenance: adapting file formats, ensuring future readability, and maintenance of necessary infrastructures (electricity, internet connection). These aspects of maintenance are very much material, as are the companies that own, design, and control the platforms on which such digital traces are created, circulated, and stored. All of these emphasise how one’s digital endurance depends on the work of others. We depend on others to maintain our traces, and we fundamentally depend on others in order to be remembered meaningfully.

Further thinking about the materiality of digital remains reveals additional questions about the work of others and the issue of solidarity. Digital immortality, we are well aware, has a material cost. Thousands of gallons of fresh water are required for the regular operation of server farms; manufacturing devices necessary for creating, using, and storing our digital traces involve continuous extraction of minerals, supply chains and exploitation of human and natural resources. All of these raise additional questions about immortality and solidarity, not only between the Global North and the Global South and the discrepancy in geopolitical power in these processes of production and exploitation, but also between our present and our future society, on which we depend to sustain our memory, and which demands our solidarity in terms of sustainability. That is, the prospect of symbolic immortality, as proposed by Lifton and Olson, is deeply intertwined with imagined futures of a given society (I explore this idea in my PhD thesis). In addition to other challenges imposed by the potential of posthumous digital endurance of individuals, exploring digital immortality also calls for consideration of the potential environmental and social costs for the actual sustaining of one’s memory into the future.


Further Reading

Bauman, Z. (1992). Survival as a social construct. Theory, Culture & Society, 9, 1-36.

Crawford, K., & Joler, V. (2018). Anatomy of an AI system: the Amazon Echo as an anatromical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.

Lifton, R. J., & Olson, E. (1975). Living and Dying (2nd ed.). Bantam Books.

Scheffler, S. (2014). Death and the afterlife. Oxford University Press.