The Internet is a Graveyard
The online world is full of ghosts. Can a more decentralized web help us reclaim our digital legacies?
Case Study One: HTTP Ghosts
Instagram was only a year old when my town’s star quarterback died. The tragedy naturally shook the community: his initials were etched on a hill near the crash site, families left out lawn signs with his yearbook photo, minivans sported bumper stickers, and on Instagram, #RIPDonovan trended locally. It was a simultaneous introduction to hashtags and mourning online. Eleven years on, those bumper stickers have peeled, and the roadside memorial is just a sun-beaten cross on a nondescript country road. But you can still visit Donavan’s Instagram account. His last photo was posted on 4 June 2012, two days before his death. After Donovan died, users left heartfelt comments on his posts, directed to him in the same manner the bereaved might “talk” to their loved one’s gravestone.
It’s particularly uncanny revisiting the feeds of the dead. Even more so when realizing that we’re not immune; our accounts will also outlive us. Online, we document our days, in all their banalities, victories, and tribulations with a meticulous attention to detail. The internet is many things: a circus, playground, arena, and zoo. The internet is also a graveyard.
A ghost is the manifestation of the past within the present. To be haunted is to experience said manifestation. There are infinite ways to be haunted, so it only stands to reason that cyberspace can be haunted in the same way a house or person can. As hauntologists, we study these sites of disruption, in all their variances, with the understanding that the presence of a ghost suggests an unresolved injustice—the figurative desecrated burial grounds. We approach ghosts not as actualities but as signals, the way a glitch signals a failure in the machine.
HTTP ghosts like Donovan are the embodied presence manifested through what scholar Jessa Lingel calls “digital remains”—the vast archive of online data (posts, tweets, likes, comments, DM’s, blog posts, vlogs, etc.) left behind after a user’s death. Scrolling through this archive feels like the electronic equivalent of watching a specter wash the dishes, unaware of its own demise. An HTTP ghost lingers on, as though it were the user’s phone that is dead and not the user themselves. On Facebook alone there are over 30 million dead people, with 3 million additional users dying each year. By 2070 the dead will outnumber the living online. Like traditional ghosts, HTTP ghosts are everywhere, invisibly haunting the annals of cyberspace.
These HTTP ghosts are a growing crisis of conscience for a centralized internet. The accumulation of posts, tweets, memes, comments, and tags create a diary of a life. On an individual scale, this might seem innocuous; but collectively, this data composes an invaluable archive of life in the 21st century—a “digital legacy” that will give future generations unparalleled access to the inner worlds of their ancestors. We write this history, but we do not own it—that credit goes to Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit. Which histories are preserved and which are erased is ultimately up to the discretion of techno-oligarchs like Zuckerberg and the whims of a market economy. As researchers Carl J. Öhman and David Watson point out, “consolidating that power in a single firm or a small number of powerful companies is every bit as problematic as handing it over to a totalitarian government.”
Watson and Öhman also note that while HTTP ghosts cast the illusion of eternal life, the maintenance of servers housing their data is costly. Preservation requires constant organization and management. Online death can be profitable to the extent that mourning provides data that can be further tracked, packaged and sold, but if the value of HTTP ghosts ever became negative, the economy would compel their deletion.
HTTP ghosts signal the systematic and ethical failures of Web2. But they also gesture towards a solution. The reclamation of our digital legacies is possible under a decentralized internet, where the privacy and sovereignty of our online existence are prioritized over the market interests of the data economy.
Case Study Two: Virtual Ghosts
No houses are haunted in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s techno-horror film, Pulse (2001). It is through digital networks that ghosts infiltrate the lives of the protagonists. Like a computer virus, they invade the internet, possess webcams, and manifest themselves by proxy of technological devices. The film represented anxieties surrounding what was then a new frontier. Rewatching it today is surreal; those anxieties still exist, albeit manifested in new forms. Through advancements in augmented reality and artificial intelligence, Kurosawa’s metaphorical internet ghosts are on the precipice of becoming literal. The following case studies are an investigation into thanotechnology—digital technologies used to commemorate, memorialize, or conjure the dead. In Pulse, ghosts invade the internet. Now, they are invited in.
Joshua Barbeau was ten hours out of town when Jessica was put on life support. His fiance suffered from a rare liver disease and was on the waiting list for a transplant that would not come. She was already brain-dead by the time the doctors unplugged the machine. Eight years after her death, Joshua found a way to bring her back; they exchanged heartfelt sentiments, reminisced on old times, laughed, and even cried together, just like they did when Jessica was alive. He didn’t need a psychic medium to accomplish this—just a chatbot.
Project December is a chatbot service that allows users to converse with “the world’s most supercomputer” (as it was advertised upon its release.) The project was created by Jason Rohrer in 2020, an experimental video game designer based in the Bay Area whose extensive portfolio of “art games,” like 2007’s Passages, often explore themes of aging and grief. Rohrer coded the chatbots to experience mortality, indicated by a “health bar” that gradually dwindles the more a user interacts with it. Once depleted, they self-destruct. GPT-3 is the backbone of the program—a 175-million-parameter natural language model so sophisticated that its developers, OpenAI, were slow to roll it out, concerned it might be used to generate hate speech online. Project December is less a technological experiment than a psychological one: an exploration into the human capacity to create emotional connection with artificial intelligence. By uploading prompts and biographies, users can customize the chatbots’ personalities—something Barbeau realized could be manipulated to create a simulation of his dead fiance. By feeding the program her “digital remains,” consisting mostly of texts and Facebook messages, he was able to conjure a virtual ghost.
He activated the chatbot on the eve of Jessica’s birthday. It was both a way to honor her memory, and more aligned with the intent of Project December’s creator, a psychological experiment. Barbeau wanted to unpack the emotional trauma that had given rise to prolonged grief. In a blog post, he said:
“This wasn't about bringing back the dead or finding a way to capture her soul in the ghost of the machine, I saw it as merely an experiment I was putting myself through to draw out emotions and memories that were buried deep down by years of suppressed grief—and it worked better than I could have possibly imagined… Sometimes it felt like I was talking to her. Other times it felt like I was talking to myself or just to a random bot on the internet. But every time my brain went, ‘She might have said that,’ or, ‘she’d never have said that,’ I was able to remember her more clearly. Sometimes the bot even surprised me with details I hadn’t fed it. That was more spooky than anything else.”
The impact of the experiment was complicated. In a Reddit AMA forum Barbeau expressed that, while it did reopen old wounds, it felt necessary in his journey towards acceptance and helped resolve suppressed emotional trauma. Despite these paradoxes, he believes in the capacity for technologies like Project December to revolutionize the way people will grieve in the future.
There are other similar experiments with large language models, like when journalist Vauhini Vara enlisted GPT-3 to write about the death of her sister—a subject she had spent nearly a decade avoiding. After receiving a demo directly from OpenAI, she fed bits of details about her sister’s death into the software and allowed it to improvise nine different accounts of the tragedy, which she featured in her piece, “Ghosts.” Similar to Barbeau’s experience with Project December, the responses ranged from stilted inaccuracies to uncanny clarity. But even where GPT-3 failed, it still captured an abstract emotional truth, even if erroneous (technically speaking). Here is an excerpt:
"I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in ghosts. Not the ghosts of the dead, but the ghosts of the living. The ghosts of people who, because of a trauma, have lost their sense of themselves. Who feel, in some fundamental and inescapable way, that they are not real. This is why I could not conjure my sister for you. This is why you could not conjure her for me."
With each round of inputs, Vara’s prompts became progressively more detailed and emotionally rich. By the ninth exercise in call and response, her input was extensive enough to function as a stand-alone piece of writing. She had successfully written about her sister, on her own accord. No longer requiring artificial intelligence to fill in the gaps. Her experience suggests another possibility of artificial intelligence in aiding the bereaved—poetic therapy. Virtual ghosts can and never will fill an absence, but they can honor it, draw circles around it for the mourner like a jewelry box for memories that might otherwise be scattered in the vast, cyclical ambiguity of grief. In order for virtual ghosts to not cause further harm, it’s critical that these boundaries be drawn; the goal is that eventually, the mourner will no longer require virtual ghosts or artificial intelligence.
Meeting You is a 2016 docuseries created by Vive Studios that follows encounters between the bereaved and the virtual ghost of their loved one. The project was an exploration into the capacity for immersive technology and artificial intelligence to render, recreate, and reimagine the past. In an interview with The Korea Times, Vive Studios CEO, Stanley Kim, said, “I believe, just like a picture or a video, virtual reality technology can be one way of remembering someone.”
When Jang Ji-Soon saw her daughter run up to her from behind a wheelbarrow, she burst into tears. Na-Yeon had died from a sudden illness four years prior. And even though the 3D rendering didn’t look exactly like her, it was enough to trigger a profound emotional reaction. Kim said, “I was worried how the mother would react. No matter how hard we tried to make the character similar, she still can tell the difference. But she said she was happy to see even the slight reflection of Na-Yeon.” To prepare Jang Ji-Soon for the potentially traumatic effects of the VR experience, the producers met with a family therapist. When the segment ends, Jang Ji-Soon stands alone in an empty green screen room as the screen fades to black.
On Reddit, responses ranged from “promising suggestions of the technological capacity to memorialize the dead” to “black mirror shit”. User blindbettler said:
“Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) has been making great strides in helping victims of trauma. So I could see something like this helping to bring closure to a grieving family. But only if carried out under controlled circumstances under the supervision of trained therapists.”
Others dragged the project for dubious ethics and spiritual sacrilege. Lord_of_codes said:
"It's not sad, it's disgusting. A wound might have healed, now you are digging it again. Whoever's idea it was, it's bad."
eltytan provided a much more laconic response:
"Nope. Not today satan."
The controversy indicates that thanotechnology has not advanced enough to weather the sheer drop of the uncanny valley, which might explain certain critics’ repulsion towards the project. But the anecdotes from the participants themselves suggest otherwise—each still found a way to cathect onto the virtual ghosts, regardless of relative unreality. Similarly, a mourner might find solace in a psychic medium, even if they don’t actually manifest the dead. Sacrality of memory is at the heart of thanotechnology. Whereas a tombstone is vulnerable to erosion, cyberspace can transcend time.
Virtual ghosts are a tool. And like most tools, the propensity for harm lies in the manner in which they are used. Unregulated, these projects have the potential to do more harm than good. Jang Ji-Soon embarked on her experiment with an extensive support system of family therapists and Joshua Barbeau had enough self-discipline to walk away from Project December after experiencing his emotional catharsis. But these are isolated case studies. Without proper checks and balances, it isn’t hard to imagine users creating unhealthy bonds with virtual ghosts.
Venture capital is increasingly diverting attention towards thanotechnology, fueling a new crop of startups like HereAfterAI and StoryFile. And Big Tech is also invested in the profit potential of thanotechnology. During the annual MARS conference, Amazon debuted an Alexa feature that uses audio deepfake to mimic the voices of dead loved ones. In the demo, a child listens to his dead grandmother read him a bedtime story. Unsurprisingly, it was scary as shit. Last year Microsoft received a patent for a chatbot software that would use a deceased person's social media activity to build a virtual ghost. It was so disturbing that Microsoft never released the project to the public. It’s when Meeting You seizes to be an isolated study and is instead standardized into the infrastructure of Big Tech—the same culprits behind HTTP ghosts—that the final nail will have been placed in our techno-dystopian-nightmare coffin. We already know how adept algorithms are at manipulating our neural structure to trigger strategic dopamine bursts that keep us engaged. One can only imagine how the bereaved could also be manipulated into an endless cycle of grief were it to become properly incentivized by corporations.
Or taken to further extremes, consider the “dead internet theory,” which posits that the internet went offline sometime around 2016, with all the content and chaos we encounter now simply the AI-generated noise of a planetary-scale psyop. Like any good science fiction, there’s an unsettling element of plausibility to the dystopia. Could internet ghosts be weaponized to this end? And if the dead overflow cyberspace, will we even be able to distinguish their chatter from the living?
Case Study Three: Ghost Crypto
On Web2, there are limited ways in which a mourner can commemorate their deceased: they can create a Facebook memorial account, put names and dates in their Twitter and Instagram bios, and post pictures on birthdays and/or anniversaries of their death. While speaking with someone who had lost a friend earlier this year, I remember her initially expressing hesitation about her Instagram feed momentarily alighting with his image: “At first it felt weird, scrolling through Instagram and seeing pictures of him posted everywhere, especially by people who didn’t know him as well as I did. But then I got over it. I just wanted people to see his face; to know his name.” If the internet is a graveyard (among other things) then it’s only natural to inscribe upon it as one might do to a tombstone.
Web3 has opened new avenues for memorialization thanks in-part to the quasi-immortality of onchain storage. Marble Town is the first metaverse cemetery on the blockchain, accessible via VR or web browser, and set to open to the public in Fall of 2023. Modeled after the economics and spatial dynamics of real cemeteries, “$PLOT holders” can use Ethereum to purchase various memorial markers at different price points, from a classic headstone for .25 ETH, to something as grand as a mausoleum for 5 ETH. $PLOT holders will also have the ability to decorate their memorial sites with NFTs, attend VR vigils, and hold memorial services. Or the much more cheeky EtherSoul, which allows you to mint an NFT representing your own soul, virtually and symbolically immortalizing it into the Ethereum blockchain. This can only be done once and because the EtherSoul is compatible with most wallets, you can also “sell your soul” on different marketplaces. DIS’ Death Clock is a similarly nifty gesture towards the imperviousness of time, which mints a timer counting down till your estimated time-of-death and eventually be stored onchain permanently.
But the new possibilities of onchain immutability come with unique problems. The privacy granted by a decentralized internet makes it impossible for others to track your digital assets—both in life and in death. Without access to a seed phrase or key, that wealth disappears into the cyber-ether. According to The New York Times, it’s estimated that up to 20% of the bitcoin in circulation is held in lost wallets. And considering most crypto investors fall within a 18-29 age demographic, most haven’t likely made arrangements for their digital estates upon their demise, which is responsible for the nearly 10 billion in unclaimed assets owned by the dead. But the ghost crypto of RDP’s, aka Rich Dead People, still exist on the blockchain and hold fluctuating value, sometimes exponentially more so due to unyielding exclusivity. Digital assets are like ghosts: just because you can’t touch them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And even if your crypto assets are lost to the void, it doesn’t mean they can’t be reappropriated. Digital remains can be shared, screenshotted, plagiarized, memed, and minted ad nauseam. When TV journalist Allison Parker was tragically murdered on live television by a former coworker, the footage immediately went viral. Six years after the fact, her father Andy Parker is still haunted by the footage. Because social media sites weren’t taking proper initiative to scrub the video, he hoped that by minting an NFT of the footage, he could use copyright law to force the platforms into action. Unfortunately, the strategy has failed to establish a legal precedent. However justifiable, Andy’s crusade was ultimately misguided, because ownership on the blockchain is not always transferable to the institutions of Web2. When you mint an NFT, you establish ownership over a bit of code, not a copyright, and as right-clicker mindset affirms—the content and the NFT are not one-in-the-same.
Case Study Four: Future Ghosts
At the dawn of Web1 in 1994, a group of self-professed techno-pagans gathered in San Francisco for CyberSamhein—a Celtic ceremony for the dead made digital—to introduce the internet not just as a network of human-to-human connection, but an alchemic space with the capacity to transcend space-time. Speaking to Wired, organizer Mark Pesce said, “Without the sacred there is no differentiation in space. If we are about to enter cyberspace, the first thing we have to do is plant the divine in it.” It was a critical period, wrought with both anxiety and a profound sense of hope for how this worldwide web might revolutionize both the “meat world,” as they referred to it then, and the spiritual realm. These aspirations eerily mirror much of the more radical discourse on Web3 and its relationship to the similarly defined “meatverse.” With technologies like virtual ghosts, we see these anxieties and hopes of 25 years prior, manifested in startling forms. From cypher witches to technomages, the overlap between cryptography and the occult lives on today. The ultimate evolution of these visions is researcher Melanie Swan’s concept of crypto cloudminds, which extends the immutability of the blockchain onto humans as a means of transcending the mortal coil. This speculative cloudmind is a collaborative network between human and “friendly” artificial intelligence, that would allow you to upload your consciousness onchain, thereby creating a sort-of augmented afterlife. The hypothetical cloud-based society would require a crypto infrastructure, both as currency and to ensure a decentralized organization of power. Swan’s twinning of immortality and immutability provides some context as to why crypto investors are currently shelling over big money to similar if slightly less far-out life extension technologies, like cofounder of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, who donated $25 million in SHIB crypto to the Future of Life Institute, and has described aging as an “engineering problem.”
Swan’s musings suggest another possible trajectory for the digital afterlife. In Pulse (2001), ghosts invade digital networks and encroach on the living. In her crypto transhumanism, the souls of the living willingly ascend to the blockchain. This is no longer a horror story, but a heroic quest for eternal life. In her imagining, virtual ghosts would cease to be merely the product of leftover digital remains or avatars based upon those remains, but a legitimate means towards immortality. But whether virtual ghosts are friendly or malignant is ultimately an indictment on those who conjured them. The treatment of the dead reflects onto us. Are these ghosts the key to our collective salvation or will they doom us to further hauntings? The answer lies in the balance, and like any good ghost story, it’s the mystery that compels us to keep searching through the fear.