Yesterday I heard a very interesting radio 4 programme about Avatars. Apparently the word Avatar was not conceived by a Hollywood film producer but comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘descent’. It relates to when a deity manifests itself in an earthly embodiment. In Christianity ‘incarnation’ describes the coming of the divine in bodily form to the world in which we inhabit. Does this make Jesus an Avatar? Some Hindu’s believe he was, along with Krishna and Rama, and the programme explored the parallels and distinctions between the two.
Also as new technologies offer the prospect of digital Avatars able to simulate our personalities in the online world after death, they discussed what such developments tell us about contemporary attitudes to life after death and immortality.
Millions of us interact with Avatars through computer games and online virtual worlds like ‘Second Life’ and it has become the buzz-word’ for a secular age. In a very subtle shift from the religious connotations of an Avatar being God taking human form to re-establish ways in which we can connect with him, to the contemporary meaning where we can be represented in a virtual environment through a simulacrum which can be considered the real us in a virtual existence in which we can live vicariously.
The logical progression of this will be creating our own Avatars and, the programme maintained, the technology will soon exist (estimated at within twenty years) to enable us to preserve our personalities and life stories, digitally. It is not too far fetched, they said, for us soon to curate our own legacies which our children and grandchildren can access after our death so they will be able to react with us long after our own physical demise.
There are already 25, 000 people signed up to a library of clones site that promises to preserve their thoughts some time in the future. At the moment this is just a matter of collecting information to store for when the time comes and robotic answers can be found to preserving their ‘real selves’. So many questions arise from this prospect. Is it actually desirable? Who would ensure that these Avatars are authentic or just idolised personas? Who decides what part of our personalities are preserved? And would this ‘break-through’ actually just perpetuate the grieving process preventing us from letting go of the dead?
Is it morally right to continue our existence beyond what it is supposed to be? Death is important for life, because the fact of the finite time we have, forces us to make important decisions about what sorts of people we are here and now. Death is not just extinction but an important boundary about what sort of person we want to be and forces us to behave and interact in a world that ensures we are those people. If there was always a possibility that anything we physical did could be overwritten by this programme with the profile of an unfeasibly perfect person, who is to say some of us will not just cut ourselves off from the world and concentrate on fabricating a totally fictional character?
Moreover will we become scared of death, will we hide from it and immune ourselves to it? Do Avatars, in fact, tranquilise us from the fact of death? For me the question must be, what is in it for me? And the answer can only be nothing, because even though our Avatars will contain our thoughts, personality and experiences, once we are dead will we not experience the relationship our loved ones are having with our Avatars, so what is the point? I would much prefer to live my fallible life and let my friends and family remember me for the flawed human being I really am, and surely it would be better for them to come to terms with my death as quickly as possible and not prolong the parting with agonising conversations with what sounds like me but is in fact a simulacrum of me. I will be far gone.