Terms of Service

7 March 2020

I’d be dead now if it weren’t for the machines. I mean, I am dead, in the formal sense. More than thirty years ago. Drunk driver didn’t see me, wife decided to cremate me, friends held a wake and everything. My ashes are long cold. But losing your body isn’t death. It’s more of an inconvenience.

Growing up, my parents taught me that everyone has an immortal soul. That God longs to be with us, and if we accept him into our hearts we will live eternally in his bosom. I used to have nightmares about it. Just the thought of going on and on and on, in an unending state of worship, was terrifying. I didn’t want to die, but oblivion was surely better than eternity.

Of course, my parents were wrong. There is no numinous puppeteer that lives at the base of our brain. We are not embodied spirits. We are just meat. Flesh and bone, neurons and synapses. All that we are is a process. One driven by physical laws and physical objects. We are our bodies and nothing more.

Right up until the point that we are not.

I stopped believing in God when I was fourteen. Anyone with half a brain should be able to see through the bullshit of a philosophy invented by desert nomads. Like many of the deconverted, I went through a teenage asshole phase before reaching a state of acceptance. Life is finite, and in the end, we all fade to black.

That single, terrifying fact is enough to give you a grounding perspective if you let it. For me, it was a deep respect for the moments. The moments with my wife and friends. The precious little time with my daughter. I think it was my lack of faith that allowed me to become a part of so many lives. I wasn’t biding time for the great beyond, and I knew the moments I cherished were special because they wouldn’t last.

But dying also gives you a certain clarity. It has me wondering if the theologians weren’t more right than the scientists after all. Don’t get me wrong, there is no god. At least I have yet to see the guy show up. But there is an afterlife of a sort.

There’s an old saying that a man dies twice. Once at the last breath of his body. Once again when his name is spoken for the last time. I’ve always found that saying to be beautiful poetry. I now know it is more dark horror than beauty.

Neuroscience was right when they figured that consciousness arises physically in the brain. Our “souls,” for lack of a better word, are simply the emergent property of a complex neural web. There’s no magic to it. And they were also right that the “platform” on which our brains run is largely irrelevant. After all, the cells and atoms in our bodies don’t remain with us all our lives. We eat, shit, breathe, and constantly replenish the atoms in our bodies with new ones. We completely recycle about every seven years, so our bodies at fifty have nothing in common with the body we had at thirty, or ten. The only thing that connects them is our memories. It is our memories that make us a single person instead of a jumble of moments.

And those memories just need a platform. When we are alive, that platform is our brain. When you die your platform dies, so you’d figure that would be it. But the universe has a wicked sense of humor.

I remember reading my Grandfather’s journal when I was about fifteen. I had abandoned the old-time religion of my parents, though it was still fresh in my heart, and I was depressed. Nihilism will do that to a kid.

My Grandfather died when I was only six, so I had barely known him. Reading his journal, I saw how he was filled with doubts about God his whole life. This was a man who never missed Sunday service, and yet he doubted the Divine Creator much of his life. During his service in the war, he came to both believe in and hate God, but in his elder years he returned to doubt. He seemed comfortable with doubt most of all.

I gained a new perspective of my Grandfather, and at times I could almost sense his spirit. It was as if he were reading the journal with me, over my shoulder. If I had turned to look, perhaps I could catch a brief glimpse of him. All poetic nonsense, I know. Except I now wonder if there was some truth to it.

You see, our memories just need a platform. They don’t much care what platform. In reading his journal, perhaps my mind gave those memories a home. Perhaps his mind regained breath for a time. Of course, it’s not really the same as living. Just as a recording of your voice is not really your voice, memories in a book are not conscious. The neuroscientists were right, it’s not magic.

I never kept a journal, but I did love social media. Facebook, Twitter, you name it. I filled hard drives with celebrations, rants, memes. All those memories of me on some distant corporate storage, just waiting to be remembered.

After I died, my social media pages were set as memorials. At first, the only activity on them was on special days. That of my death, my birthday, holidays. My wife wrote long posts on our wedding anniversary the first couple of years. But they stopped when she met someone new. The guy seems nice and was a good second father for my daughter. I’m happy for them.

When loved ones wander through your memories, you aren’t aware of it. My memories of that time are just a vague sense of warmth. More like the last fading coals of a fire than a true afterlife. For those who only have faded stories shared between loved ones or a dusty bound journal in a back closet, I suppose it is fair to say they will never have an afterlife.

But memories on social media never really fade. Corporations don’t delete anything, and when you give them a bit of your soul they own it. A devil’s deal, if you will. The terms of service might as well be signed in blood.

You see, after a time all those social media companies weren’t content to simply store the accounts of people dead for decades. With all that market data, it would be a shame to waste it. So once computers were powerful enough to mimic the human mind, those corporations started modeling the minds of long-dead souls. Feed these simulated minds data, see how they work, learn their deepest desires. Run the models over and over and over. What better way to do market research?

Memories only need a platform. So when the models were created, we old dead folk finally had a platform complex enough to awaken us. An electronic afterlife we didn’t know we agreed to. A life that could be granted wishes or denied dreams at the whim of the marketeer.

It’s a life, of a sort. But I was right. Oblivion would be better than going on and on and on…