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Does The Internet Bring You Immortality?

My stepmother passed away last week. She was an extraordinary woman, full of life, who raised me since I was nine years old. In sharing the news with my older son, a graduate student in linguistics and second language acquisition at Indiana University, he said something that got me thinking: "Dad, in away, with the Internet everyone can achieve a kind of immortality. If you look for Grandma Lea I am sure you will find her. And so long as there are memory banks that are digitized, she will be there."

I searched for her and, bingo, there she was, photos and all. Things she did, panels she participated on, events, articles about her activities. I had to sift through a lot of others with the same name, with different lives and nationalities, a whole community of Lea Gleisers, or of Leas and Gleisers, living and dead, but all there, floating in some sort of timeless web-cloud universe.

It's a long shot from Viktor Frankenstein's dream of bringing back the dead through electricity, or, more currently, Ray Kurzweil's drive toward becoming immortal through a combination of genetic engineering, robotics and computer science.

The Internet offers a kind of passive immortality, the kind acquired through the accumulated storage of the many interactions an individual has with the World Wide Web, leaving his or her mark. It's not necessarily the writing of books, or the proving of theorems, or composing ballads or symphonies. (Although those would be there as well.) Just the Facebook or Twitter account, the mention in a newspaper or magazine article, the speech that was recorded in someone else's Google+ page, an exchange of recipes, even an obituary.

A cousin of mine started a genealogy project and, if you know how to look, you can find quite a lot of information about my family. (But why bother?) Everything is public access including, of course, the 145 blog entries I've written so far for 13.7.

Very few people have information on their own family going three or four generations back. Who were your great-great-grandparents, what did they do, where did they travel to, what did they like to eat, what were their hobbies? Up until a decade ago, a person's life remained in the memory of those who stayed behind, or on the occasional archived obituary. When those memories were lost, the person's life, all that she lived for, disappeared forever. Apart from gene transmission — not very satisfying from an emotional perspective and diluted with every generation — we could say that you existed so long as someone remembered you.

That's not true any more. Something of you now exists so long as electrons course through the wires of any person's computer in the world. It's quite a thought to recognize that we have a new kind of immortality to share. It should raise our collective awareness of how we'd want to be remembered. The words and pictures will remain, long after we are gone, for anyone who cares to look for them.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter @mgleiser

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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