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There is No Art Without Death

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I hear it’s called “death acceptance”: I’m not afraid of dying and being forgotten someday. So when I read about a company called Eterni.me in February of this year, I was as creeped out as anyone. You can read all about it here, but basically it’s a company that hopes to someday create an artificial intelligence based on you that people can interact with after you die. Ew.

But I’ve heard of something similar that didn’t bother me in the least: researchers at the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at USC are using a state of the art light stage (the same one used for movies like Avatar and, more recently, Maleficent) to record Holocaust survivors and create interactive holograms for future generations learn from.

When the same light stage at ICT is used to create digital doubles for actors like Angelina Jolie, some people muse that “someday we won’t even need actors.” I have heard people talk of a future where celebrity artificial intelligences paired with these high resolution digital avatars could mean that we see future movies starring Johnny Depp and Marilyn Monroe. But does anyone even want that? Isn’t that an insult not just to the audience, but to actors and other artists as well?

I asked Darren Hendler, the digital effects supervisor at Digital Domain–the special effects company that brought us The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Maleficent, and the Tupac hologram–about this hypothetical future where we no longer need actors. “Never going to happen,” he said. And not because we couldn’t someday create quality digital doubles for actors that can approximate someone’s personality, but because there’s more to creating a realistic performance than a digital look-a-like lip-syncing lines. An actor brings a depth to the performance which is hard to digitally manufacture without having a real actor drive the process. In a simple scene with multiple actors there are extremely complex interactions between the actors, who feed of one another’s performances. “If we were able to recreate all this digitally, at that point there’s basically no need for society!” he said.

I’m not usually an anti-technology person, so I was having difficulty sorting through my feelings about death and this tech-enabled deathless future people seem to be moving toward, so I turned to a death expert (a deathxpert) Megan Rosenbloom. She’s the associate director of collection resources at the Norris Medical Library and the director and cofounder of Death Salon. She specializes in rare books and the history of medicine, and she is currently writing her first book about all these wondrous deathy things.

Megan Rosenbloom by Elli & Polly Photography

For Megan, the advancements toward a deathless world, the transhumanism movement, boils down to the same ethical arguments that other areas of science and technology deal with and will continue to deal with: essentially, the same thing Jeff Goldblum’s character said in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

“I see it all the time in the history of medicine and in death. You can’t just advance science recklessly without giving it its due ethical process. Transhumanism is one of those. It stems from this generation of people who think they’re a special snowflake who deserves to live forever, and I don’t think that’s true.

“You have your time. Life is precious partially because it’s finite. Knowing that it’s finite is what makes people try to live to their fullest. The population is growing anyway; if you end up with these cloud-based people you can’t have a society that way. It will be completely overrun. The new people will never get to make their mark.

“I think so many of these death denial things like the lifelike embalmings, cryogenics, AI, cloud-based personalities, it’s all about, ‘I’m so special, the world can’t exist without me.’ It’s this unbelievably egotistical mindset, and honestly it’s not true. The universe can exist without anyone. The sooner you come to terms with your own mortality, you really do have a better life. If you can conceive of your death and realize that it is an inevitable thing, a natural thing, and you should be okay with being around for a finite period of time. It’s a hard thing to do, and that’s why people don’t want to do it.

“Ernest Becker wrote a book in the 1970s called the Denial of Death. He said that in order to deal with our denial of death we do two things: we create other people, and we know that a piece of us lives on, or we create art, and art can exist past our lives. This is how we achieve immortality, whether it’s another person or an artistic pursuit. There is no art without death.”

Listen to the Megan.

Megan Rosenbloom by Elli & Polly Photography

*Updated June 17, 2014 to include quote from Darren Hendler.

Katie McKissick About the Author: Katie McKissick is a former high school biology teacher turned science writer and cartoonist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her first book is called What’s in Your Genes? and will be in bookstores December 2013. Her work can be found at www.beatricebiologist.com. Follow on Twitter @beatricebiology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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