The data trail as Grecian shade
Checking my Android tablet before bed the other night, I was struck by an unfamiliar icon in the notification bar: a small clock. I was sure that I hadn’t set any reminder. With a flick of my finger I brought up the notification, which read “Leave now. The last bus leaves at 11:45.”
For a moment, I felt as though I might’ve been thrust in some sort of thriller: a strange, cryptic warning placed in my hands from an unknown source. What could it mean? Leave for where? And why so urgently? Of course, the source of the notification wasn’t a mystery; I pressed it, bringing up a Google Now card that featured a map of my surrounding area that traced a route between where I stood and the nearest bus stop.
Google wanted to ensure I could reach the last bus home before I was stranded in my current location–but I was home. Here I stood right next to my bed. It took me a moment to realize Google Now had a previous address listed as my home address so, despite Google’s location tracking, my tablet surmised I had spent the past few months in some foreign place.
Considering this moment again today, I am reminded of the shades found in Greek mythology, “the insubstantial remains of the dead, a phantom without a body or the power of thought”–in this case, the trail of data I leave behind me. While I am very much alive, I find it interesting to consider the data trail as a shade: it continues to exist, perhaps forgotten, in cyberspace and meatspace alike and, as with the memories of those who outlive me, the data will remain long after my body does.
On a recent episode of New Tech City, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier explains how such data trails can be used to advertise products to ourselves: “Your face is out there. Facebook has a picture of you they could morph it with another face to be a third face, and you’re more susceptible to that advertising [because it looks like you]. It’s manipulative, but is that OK? There’s no law against it.”
It sounds dystopian, but it’s not difficult to imagine considering Facebook already does something similar by adding “likes” to accounts without the account holder’s consent. This means it’s not uncommon for the deceased to “like” a page–McDonald’s, Netflix, Samsung, etc–so that sponsored posts from those brands appear on their friends’ newsfeeds. Capitalist society that we are, our faith in money might trump ours of religious deities (“I remember a professor of the history of religion once saying that global confidence in the dollar is the greatest example of collective faith in an abstract symbol in human history,” writes Adam Davidson in the Times). Our digital afterlives seem to suggest the same, with the shades of the dead selling out and gobbling up the most popular brands to peddle off to friends and family from beyond.
I remember encountering a shade of my own delivered by an advertisement. In 2009, Coca-Cola launched the Facial Profiler, a Facebook app that would analyze a photo of your face and match it with a doppelganger’s profile. This was to promote Coke Zero: “If Coke Zero has Coke’s taste, is it possible someone out there has your face?” While photos were not saved to the database for users who uninstalled the app, Schneier’s words must echo in the minds of those considering the campaign today: that our own likenesses may be analyzed and used to goad us into spending money.
One might also think of celebrity performances via hologram long after their passing: Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Awards, Tupac at Coachella, Elvis on American Idol. And in light of a legal battle over a Marilyn Monroe hologram, one might wonder if digital bodies will someday fall under public domain, shades given shape for anyone to do as they want with. Traditionally, a doppelganger might be a harbinger of bad luck or even death–and in these modern times, we are reminded when confronted with these shades of ourselves to consider what we’re giving up to corporations and server farms.
Perhaps the most disturbing story of a digital shade is that of Ellen Page, who lent her likeness to the Quantic Dream game Beyond: Two Souls. The game features a scene in which Page’s character, Jodie, takes a shower–and while the nude model can’t be seen when playing the game normally, alternate camera angles were used by hackers to capture images of the nude model. It’s important to note that according to Sony, Jodie’s body isn’t modeled on Page’s (the only true likeness is the head) but the situation may still serve as a cautionary tale for such shades being manipulated in unforeseen ways.
As far as artificial likenesses go, none top BINA48, a robot doppelganger modeled after Bina Rothblatt and programmed “more than one hundred hours in compiling her memories, feelings, and beliefs and is said to be able to have conversations with humans.” Bina is intended to replace her human source material after Rothblatt is gone, and while she is said to only operate at the level of a three year-old, one wonders about the possibilities decades from now–after many of us have amassed a whole lifetime’s worth of data, writing, and more to serve as source material for a new body.
I wonder: will all my writing–personal updates, essays, email, etc–end up taking a life, or even lives, of their own? As Google crawls the web to analyze writing (PDF) and speech, will my shade be just one voice of many swirling around the consciousness of Google Now, telling someone generations from now that it’s time to get a move on, the last bus of the night leaves in twenty minutes?