You Too Will Surf Virtual Halls of the Dead

October 20 2008 / by Alvis Brigis
Category: Culture   Year: 2013   Rating: 12 Hot

The increasing richness of memorial media is a powerful by-product of accelerating change in technology, information and communication. In five years time, both broad public-facing and private 3d memorial media has a good chance of taking off, gradually catalyzing a shift in the way we interact with history and our dearly departed.

How do we properly remember and honor the dead? Our cultural answer to this question has changed over the millennia alongside with the invention of memory-enhancing technologies such as symbols, spoken language, writing, photography, video, digital information and the web.

Now the trend continues as powerful new disruptors such as social media, semantic search, virtual worlds and mirror worlds allow us to assemble, aggregate and interact with information about the dearly departed in surprising new ways.

On the most basic level, crowd-edited text-based structures like Wikipedia have already catalyzed an explosion of biographical data capture and made possible a growing niche of specialized human memorial websites.

Similarly, account-driven portals like’s Virtual Cemetery Project, MyCemetery, and World Gardens have been growing in popularity and each lay claim to being “The World’s First Online Memorial and Virtual Cemetery” or such.

In the physical world, progressive cemetery Hollywood Forever, which boasts the densest concentration of celebrity gravesites, has sparked a media memorial trend by displaying actors’ hilight reels beside their tombs. (Yes, for a pretty steep price you too can purchase your very own Lifestories Kiosk.)

Still, it will take something more abrupt and profound to jar us into realizing just how much our relationship to death through media is about to change.

Enter virtual worlds.

The rapidly expanding 3d virtual world Second Life, in particular, has become a hotbed for complex new memorial media. Its denizens have already constructed a virtual Vitenam Memorial, tribute to 9/11 at Ground Zero, and even an entire island, Memoris, that allows users to purchase memorial plots for the real or virtual friends and family of their choosing. All of these areas are open to the public and can be visited by simply flying or teleporting your avatar to the proper coordinates.

Furthermore, the Second Life platform lets you embed additional links, images, video, pop-open websites and 3d objects to any location therein. It’s incredibly easy to create a cloud of media relevant to anything and everything. So memorial sites can readily serve as 3d, or even 4d, wiki repositories for all sorts of rich data pertinent to the deceased individual(s).

Now consider these trends. Over the next 5 years, Moore’s Law, evolving code, cloud computing and faster web connections will enable hundreds of millions of people to much more easily interact with virtual worlds like Second Life. Wherever appropriate, virtual environments will be incorporated into our standard web browsing experience. In some instances they’ll take the place of jpegs, in others they’ll replace the web pages themselves.

Among a host of other things, this will catalyze easily accessible and editable 3d profiles, biographies and mausoleums. It’s not much of a stretch to think these will quickly become popular as students, researchers, news reporters, family members and other interested parties regularly patronize these in addition to or in lieu of their Wikipedia bio counterparts.

Mash-up Potential: As 3d objects, environments, behaviors and the associated data become more portable (a trait that the public will continue to demand), and as virtual worlds are increasingly licensed for specific uses and open-sourced, these platforms will undergo fracture, recombination and, ultimately, rapid evolution.

Thus, it will become possible to create personal memorial sites for limited or family-only viewing and interfacing. These will then be sent around through email or accessed via a secure server.

It will also get increasingly easy to mash-up memorial media files into other simulations such as 3d neighborhoods (Google Earth, Street View, and Ray Gun), other virtual worlds and even compatible video game platforms (imagine inserting biographical information into historically accurate video games like Rome: Total War or stylized realities such as the NYC portrayed in Grand Theft Auto IV).

The possible variations are endless.

Cultural Implications: By interfacing with increasingly rich and accurate simulations of the dead, we will develop a more refined sense of history and more powerful context for our own behavior, physical traits and culture. Fundamentally, less time will be required to generate a better simulation of the past. More accurate and accessible simulations of our deceased ancestors, friends, role-models and cultural icons will profoundly affect the way we benchmark, learn behavior, conduct research, perceive society and look at time itself. Such media co-evolution may prove to be very disruptive to our existing culture(s).

Simulating All Human History: Given that the retro-active quantification of all human information, aka assembling history, seems to be a natural human instinct, it’s conceivable that in a decade or so we’ll begin to make serious progress assembling a simulated 3d, really 4d, history of our entire planet, thus building a rough version of what Yale computer scientist David Gelernter calls the planet on a “time toggle”. The dynamic personality memorials and simulations that we create will be essential components of any such effort.

Considering the expected acceleration-enabled increases in hardware, software and information retrieval, it becomes conceivable that this historical simulation will gradually take on a “life” of its own as we continue to embed our increasingly virtualized intelligence into this system. Such a structure composed of increasingly intelligent ancestral and biological agents and systems would increasingly open the door to the possibility that we ourselves are in fact living in a very advanced version of such a simulation, an idea that futurist Nick Bostrom believes is probable if in fact we deign to generate such simulations. (Imo, the only scenarios in which we will not end up creating ancestral simulations are one in which we reach fundamental physical/technological limits, experience existential disruption, or collectively arrive at an enforceable decide to abandon our evolutionary drive to retro-quantify the system.)

Final Thoughts (no pun intended): The increasing richness of memorial media is a powerful by-product of accelerating change in technology, information and communication. In five years time, not only will broad public-facing 3d memorial media take-off, private will as well. In 10-20 years time we may see some amazing leaps in retro-active quantification of our entire system.

This will be very disruptive, from a cultural perspective, but also potentially very beneficial to our species. Rather than witnessing a boom in Speakers for the Dead, as Orson Scott Card surmises in his Ender’s Game series, perhaps we’ll be able to capture more of their characteristics, enabling a situation where we may be able to effectively “converse” with them.

Given such a plausible future, what kind of legacy or “world” would you like to leave behind?

Incidentally, memorial media is not solely reserved for humans. I also came across this Virtual Pet Cemetery while researching this piece. :)

Are we living in a Virtual Hall of the Dead, an ancestral simulation created by our descendants? ;)

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Comment Thread (11 Responses)

  1. Wow – I’m currently reading the Otherland series by Tad Williams (written 96-01) and one of the “Netfeeds” at the start of every chapter was a story about this very thing.

    Posted by: StuartDobson   October 20, 2008
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  2. @ Stuart: I loved the Otherland series and have often thought that Williams doesn’t get nearly enough credit for it, probably because he dabbles in so many genres. It is very prescient and the writing is superb. (As in his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn fantasy series, one of my all-time favorites.) If you have a moment, could you provide the volume title and page #(s) so that I can reference it here and in future writing?

    Wait until you get to the ending of that series. ;) You will be shocked that it was written in the 90s. It seemed a tad implausible then, but makes much more sense 12 years later. Man, I need to re-read it, just lack any free time whatsoever!!! I’ll just have to try to score and interview with Tad instead. :)

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 20, 2008
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  3. This means that anyone alive today won’t make it to the Singularity and that Kurzweil’s theories of Accelerating Returns are bunk.

    Our grandchildren will be the first to have access to radical life extension, while our generation dies off.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   October 21, 2008
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  4. @ atbatstone80 – And if we do die then at least we’ll be able to leave behind some cool representations of ourselves.

    Beyond that, perhaps one day we’ll be so accurately retro-quantified that we become “alive” again. But that would only happen if we had somethign to offer to advanced future civilizations.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 21, 2008
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  5. So you don’t believe in Kurzweil and most of what he says is wrong. I thought we were supposed to have a singularity by 2035 or 2050, it’s becoming another “flying car” idea which is infeasible.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   October 21, 2008
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  6. All I hear on this blog since FutureTalk left is energy this, green that and the assumption that the future will be like today with the same lifespans and much cooler gadgets, that’s it. Where’s the Singularity enthusiasm of old?

    I hate myself as I am now and would jump at the chance to become something greater. I’m an ugly Aspie loser that’s stuck in an ass-backwards, glorified 20th Century world. There BETTER be a Singularity by 2050 (plus or minus a decade or two), or else.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   October 21, 2008
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  7. I found it, luckily its in the one I’m reading. I was already shocked the books were written in the 90s when I was only a few chapters in – it seems to have “ripped off” Second Life – but SL was made a decade later! I’m just about to finish the final volume, and I’m loving it.

    Anyway, here’s the reference:

    Otherland, Book 4 Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams Page 197 Start of Chapter 8

    NETFEED/LIFESTYLE: Virtual Memorials – Visiting the dead

    Posted by: StuartDobson   October 21, 2008
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  8. Awesome Stuart. Thanks for looking that up! Off to the bookstore tomorrow…

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 21, 2008
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  9. @ adbatstone 80 – You’re right in that I don’t believe Kurzweil’s extrapolations are all that probable, though the law of accelerating returns is powerful and useful. For more of my thoughts on the utility of the Singularity term, check out this post.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 21, 2008
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  10. Simulations aside. I would love to make a cool interactive media piece to leave behind when I am gone so that others in the future might have a better idea of what I loved and what my life was like.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   October 21, 2008
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  11. @ Mielle: It’d be much easier to make that piece using 3d simulation media. :)

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 21, 2008
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