By: Sandy Di Yu
Keywords: digital immortality; discrete units, archives, subjective duration, eternity
Eternal Recall/You only live on
A wise man once wrote, “one lives but once in the world”. Centuries later, a decade or so ago from today, a wiser man popularised the related aphorism “you only live once” by igniting it with a catchy anagram and letting it spread like wildfire on a maturing Internet 2.0.
I remain cynical of aphorisms both old and less old. How do they know that one lives only once? What makes them so sure that existence doesn’t simply go on and on and on and on and on? It’s not like they died and came back to let us know, like a cyclical continuation of life after death, like wilted flowers renewing their blooms in the spring.
I suppose that’s the whole point. We don’t know, just as surely as they don’t. The impossibility of knowing instils in us the fear of an unremarkable life lived mutely and without purpose. And so we say, “YOLO”, and in a stirring display of presentism, follow through with actions that claw at the possibility of ecstatic escape.
This same unknowing compounds with the unassailable knowledge of life’s ending. We only live once (probably), and it’s not even for that long. This is the condition that makes our limited time precious, and why finitude is a categorical component of Dasein. As the late philosopher and celebrated bank robber Bernard Stiegler once wrote, “Human beings exist only under the condition of the anticipation of death, which is a protention they hold in common, but is also their impossible protention.”
Our shared impossible protention is the commonality of death, the knowledge of the unknowable. It’s what Emmanuel Levinas calls there is, an alterity that might parallel other minds: “the other that is announced does not possess this existing as the subject possesses it; its hold over my existing is mysterious. It is not unknown but unknowable, refractory to all light. But this precisely indicates that the other is in no way another myself, participating with me in a common existence.” Boris Groys says something of similar nature, but in relation to the flow of time and the implications of museum objects: “…in analysing my own thinking process, I can never find any evidence of its finitude. To discover the limitations of my existence in space and time, I need the gaze of the Other. I read my death in the eyes of others.”
If the alterity of death and the alterity of the Other are analogous, then the death of the subject might be the gentle marriage of individual minds into an ocean of collective unconscious. It would make true Hito Steyerl’s proclamation about how the internet, the swathe of networked activity often characterised as a collective mind, approximates death by being undead. If death is a return to the great collective, then immortality is the contrived individuation of the self, continuing on without anticipation. If not death, then there is no destination to anticipate.
But what if the alterity of death is not to be anticipated? What if immortality, in all its grotesque implications, was within our reach? Imagine that you only live once, but you live forever. Without finitude, what would be of being?
What do you think of immortality? Most people I ask seem to shudder at the thought. A lifetime of this is more than enough, they say. But to have it go on forever? One might crumple under the mere thought of that immeasurable exhaustion. Then there are the outliers, those who revel in the idea of experiencing what’s to come with the next thousand or more rotations around the sun. It’s all harmless speculation. No one I know has taken up an offer of immortality and lived to tell the tale.
Not yet, anyway.
With the acceleration of technological innovations, and with the shared commonality of death that extends throughout human history, we might just be on the cusp of some sort of life-prolonging breakthrough at any moment.
In the bid for an indefinite postponement of biological death is gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. In his interview with Douglas Lain, he claims that people dismiss his project because they don’t want to get their hopes up rather than there being issues that are overlooked in his proposals.
De Grey will have to forgive me if I don’t quite buy his whole “misunderstood genius” schtick. As the self-appointed spokesperson of everyday people, I’d like to clarify that the root issue with such programmes aiming at indefinite life extension is the replication and perpetuation of the systemic inequalities that would be exacerbated. Who do you think would have access to life-prolonging medical procedures? Surely not the struggling worker who can’t afford private dental, or the time-poor caretaker who must choose between heating and food. Who needs longer-living oligarchs and tech billionaires? They can all die mad, thanks.
Postponement of biological death aside, in the digital milieu, there are other ways to think about immortality. That’s not to say that loading one’s mind up to the cloud would produce any more of an egalitarian society, but conversations about systemic issues can be carried out along with speculative modes of reinvention. Digitality is a relatively nascent field still formalising its structure. The possibility of redirecting its evolution away from the reproduction of preexisting hierarchies emerges with its advent.
Perhaps such tech optimism feels familiar, and caution to keep this in check may be warranted. Media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun warns that the internet in its earlier stages was never truly the utopia purported by 90s technologists with a hard-on for William Gibson, but rather “the Wild West meets speed meets Yellow Peril meets capitalism on steroids.” In the years since, with the monopolisation of the internet tempered by the phenomenon of platforming, the situation has only grown direr. But if by some miraculous feat we’re able to redress such systemic plights in the digital, might the physical follow suit?
Suppose that digital networks can be built up without the issues latent in their physical counterpart. Can the digital then become a vessel for eternal life? Could a former military-funded project for allowing executable code to survive past Cold War-induced catastrophes let us exceed the deterioration of physical bodies, of earthly death?
Metaphysically, the issue becomes multi-pronged. Digital networks are temporal in their architecture. They necessitate change, an elemental aspect of time. Yet immortality assumes a certain unchangeability. This is exemplified by the preservation of artefacts in museums, as explained by Boris Groys. Taken out of the flow of time, such objects enjoy the status of eternal commemoration. They become immortal, as far as culture will allow, but they are dead, no longer a part of the present milieu. Immortality, then, becomes timelessness, without change and out of time.
This is further complicated by the genesis of data analytics, a core component of the current tides of the web, and its connection to eugenics. “Both big data and eugenics seek to tie the past to the future–correlation to prediction–through supposedly eternal, unchanging biological attributes.” With eugenics, phenomenological time is folded in on itself, as the temporality of the object is stretched into eternity. Such is also the basis of biological immortality, of “good” genes that thwart the decay of telomeres. It might not be such a coincidence that the logic of eugenics rears its troubling head in the digital milieu.
Another issue arises if we accept that immortality is indeed the extended and contrived individuation of the self. Would this be at odds with the digital? Does the digital presuppose a lack of individuation?
Yes and no. Digitality as a pure concept implies differentiation, requiring discrete units in its very function. Such units might be interpreted as unmitigated individuation. However, digitality in practice, as the internet functions, is not so straightforward. The transfer and use of data are inherently leaky, spilling into one another as it makes borders obsolete. There’s little to say where one object stops and the other begin.
The motifs of the accompanying video draw on visual clichés representing life, biological, electronic and otherwise. Flowers form through layers of brushstrokes and colours before wilting into the background, and quartz crystals that keep the metronome of digital time melt away into new geometries. The confounded nature of a time-based medium composed of discrete frames, so slow in their transition from one to the next as to be discernible to the human eye, provides an additional conundrum to the question of digital immortality. At what speed will the digital afterlife be lived out? Will it be experienced frame-by-frame? The digital need not be visual (1), but human experience so often is. An event, lacerated into discrete units, runs counter to Bergson’s durée, the way we experience an event in time with the cognitive mechanisms at our disposal (2). Will the digital afterlife allow for durational experience?
In the moving painting, neural networks that nod at the cognitive function of organic and technological creatures spread and bifurcate, blurring the lines between object and environment. The sound sequences overlap and merge, asking its listeners to consider their own overlapping timelines of their lived lives. Paint and digital capture, the joint mediums of this work, clash in their onotologies, one a process-based physicality that relies on the drying or curing of a medium, where molecules experience the entropy that sets the universe in motion, and the other a deadening of a moment, the flattening of physicality into pixels and bytes. If a painting continues to grow and decay in its digital reemergence, if its aura is not lost but simply transmuted, does it give license to humanity to also grow and decay in its digital afterlife?
The individualised event of the transforming subject, stretched into a never-ending expanse of digitality, differs from the art in a digital archive in that it continues to mutate following its upload. To successfully contain a mutable work of art in a digital archive and to allow it to continually evolve might then be a plausible basis for digital immortality. If the digital subject can experience existence as enduring, memory, history, and self, it might yet be able to forge its unique differential timeline.
- Alexander R. Galloway and Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan. Shaky Distinctions: A Dialogue on the Digital and the Analog. e-Flux. Journal #121 October 2021. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/121/423015/shaky-distinctions-a-dialogue-on-the-digital-and-the-analog/.
- Henri Bergson. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications. 2001.
The immortal subject as a digital entity thus produces contradictions. To reconcile this, it must be remembered that subjectivity is fundamentally temporal. Dasein is nothing if not a historical being, bound up in time. Therefore, time in the historical sense must be injected into the immortal digital subject in order to reclaim its untainted existence.
To do this, the historicity of the digital subjectivity may be captured in the digital archive. It might also provide a way to rethink the individuation of extended life, or what it means to be an individual subject confronted with eternity. Counter to the hierarchical systems of contemporary societal structuring, we might consider the archive as the commons, after author Ariella Aisha Azoulay. We heed the cautions from sceptics telling us that a true digital commons is a pipedream, impossible to substantiate in this reality, but we shimmy forward towards a digital archive that might activate a site, rich in historical nuance, that offers respite from the lonely inidividuation of the immortal subject.
We’re still building our archives, architecture and contents and all. As they continue to be engineered, it is still unclear what it would mean to be a pure subject living on as a digital being. But the historicity sculpted into the framework of the potential digital archive may be key and crucial to the possibility of eternity. Its digital beams and columns reverberate in the realm of not-yet-but-soon, echoing the refrain, “You only live once, but you’ll have always lived.”
Sandy Di Yu is a Canadian writer, researcher and artist currently based in the UK. She primarily works with painting, text and digital media, having obtained an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, the University of London in 2018 following her BFA in visual arts and philosophy at York University, Toronto. Sandy has taken part in several group exhibitions, and she has written extensively on visual culture, working with several arts organisations, independent zines and publications from the UK and beyond. Her current research focuses on the dissolution of time that coincides with the advent of digital networks. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Digital Media at the University of Sussex.
 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Clavigo. 1774.
 Drake ft. Lil Wayne, Tyga. The Motto. 2012.
 Hui, Yuk, and Bernard Stiegler. On the Existence of Digital Objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
 Lévinas, Emmanuel. Time and the other. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1987, 77.
 Groys, Boris. In the Flow. London: Verso, 2016, 27.
 Steyerl, Hito. “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” E-flux, no. 49 (November 2013). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/49/60004/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/.
 Lain, Douglas, and De Grey, Aubrey D. N. J. Advancing Conversations: Aubrey De Grey. Zero Books, 2016.
 Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. UPDATING TO REMAIN THE SAME: habitual new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT PRESS, 2017, 8.
 Groys, Boris. In the Flow. London: Verso, 2016.
 Kyong, Chun Wendy Hui, and Alex Barnett. Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2021.
 Galloway, Alexander R. Uncomputable: Play and Politics in the Long Digital Age. New York: Verso, 2021.
 Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. UPDATING TO REMAIN THE SAME: habitual new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT PRESS, 2017.
 Azoulay, Ariella. Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. London: Verso, 2019.