Digital Legacy and the idea of life as a work of art.
Professor Steve Fuller, University of Warwick
The very idea of digital legacy divides opinion: Whereas some find it liberating and even empowering, others find it potentially corrupting of relationships with both the living and the dead. However, this division is not unprecedented. Consider people who spend their lives absorbed in a technical skill that involves instrumentation of some sort. We might imagine someone who designs and crafts purpose-made instruments for scientific experiments or the performing arts.
We might also think of someone who significantly merges (‘cyborganizes’) with their instruments, such as a painter or a musician — or perhaps even a composer, writer or mathematician, for whom the symbols they arrange on a page enables them to enter a world that transcends the one that their body normally inhabits. Down through the ages, such people have been regarded as ‘anti-social’ and sometimes have presented themselves that way. The obvious reason is that for long periods they are removed from ordinary human interaction, which they often present as a ‘distraction’. Yet, at the same time, such people do not normally see themselves as selfish or self-serving. On the contrary, they typically claim to be interacting with fellow humans in a more profound way – certainly more profound than were they active in everyday life. The energies that people increasingly invest in preparing their own digital legacies suggests that much of the same thing is going on: that is, a certain take on the idea of ‘life as a work of art’.
To say that such people are trying to present their ‘best side’ for posterity somewhat short-changes the metaphysics of the situation. The amount of time and effort involved in archiving and curating one’s various streams of digital data suggests that the activity is better understood as treating the experiences of the lived body as an incubator, platform or perhaps even palette for launching one’s true self, who will exist indefinitely in cyberspace – fully aware of the vicissitudes that entails. This is akin to people who claim to live ‘through’ or ‘for the sake of’ their art. Such people have often placed their bodies and their relationships under enormous strain (sometimes to the point of self-destruction) in a risky attempt to achieve who they think they are. I shall explore the complexities involved here, but the bottom line is that if we can live in a world containing artists and craftspeople, we should be able to live in a world where people spend increasing time and effort designing their digital legacies.
Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. A historian, philosopher and sociologist by training, he specializes in normative issues relating to the social production of knowledge. The author of 25 books, one of his most recent is ‘Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era’ (2020), which discusses extensively the future of death, including the idea of digital legacy.
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