Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in Article | 0 comments

In 2005, the Swiss art collective etoy.CORPORATION launched Mission Eternity (winner of the first prize at VIDA 10.0), an ambitious project spanning various decades which seeks to explore life after death through a system that enables the conservation of digital files containing people’s memories. The idea is based on the inescapable fact that when a person dies the only thing left behind are their physical remains and a certain amount of information. In the words of the creators:

“The dead continue to exist as biomass and traces in the global memory: in governmental data-bases, in family archives, in professional records, and in emotional data stored as electrical impulses in the bio-memory of our social network.”

This after-death existence can be maintained and made visible thanks to the latest conservation and file-sharing methods offered by digital platforms and data networks. With this in mind, etoy have created a series of devices and structures that facilitate the conservation of data pertaining to a set number of people for a long period of time (theoretically, in fact, for ever). Whilst this may seem like a service that a large corporation might offer (comparable with those offered by a number of companies, as can be seen in this list which appears on the blog Digital Beyond), Mission Eternity is a creative project, part of the art circuit, and raises questions as to how we approach time, memory and death in the information society. The artists have decided to dedicate a substantial period of time to this project, in opposition to the trend toward a constant search for novelty and short-termism, which may strengthen new technologies but provides no space for reflection on their role. The project also examines the problems that current art faces in dealing with its history, conservation and possible loss at a time in which the amount of information circulating worldwide and its content exceeds the capacity of any audience, institution or means of communication.

Mission Eternity is based on a series of devices and collaborators:

 

  • M∞ Arcanum Capsules: data storage which saves a “digital portrait” of a person (known as an “M∞ Pilot”), consisting of images, text, voice recordings, messages left by the deceased person for posterity, social network information and so on. The content of these capsules is created under the supervision of the etoy team.
  • M∞ Pilots: the people who have signed up to preserve their data on Mission Eternity. The project began with two “test pilots”, the Swiss businessman Joseph Keiser and the writer Timothy Leary (who died in 1996). Their information (as well as a part of Leary’s mortal remains) were included in the file and on Mission Eternity devices. etoy plans to work with a maximum of 64 pilots until 2016.
  • M∞ Angels software and collaborators: in order to ensure the conservation of the data stored in the Arcanum capsules, etoy has decided that the best method is to distribute it between the computers of a large number of collaborators (currently standing at 1,454) through a free software programme, creating a P2P distribution between those taking part. “M∞ Angels” will therefore be setting aside a part of their hard drive to preserve all this data, whilst the programme ensures that all the stored data can be located on several of computers at any one time.
  • M∞ Bridges: the physical form of the project comes in the shape of a series of objects which establish a bridge towards the space occupied by memory using technical devices and artistic action. In the words of the artists: “The M∞ BRIDGES exploit the traditionally stable and well-organized structure of art collections, libraries and museums to host and display ARCANUM CAPSULES in the long run.” The first of these objects is the M∞ SARCOPHAGUS, a six-metre long container whose inner walls are covered by a vast bank of LEDs which reproduce low-resolution images of the data capsules (artists justify this decision by explaining that this way the image can only be seen from a distance). This container also houses the mortal remains of a “pilot” in an object that contains the person’s ashes and replaces one of the pixels on the screen.

Sarcophagus

 

Using these main elements, etoy has organised a series of art events, including the M∞ SARCOPHAGUS travelling exhibition, performances such as M∞ TAMATAR, in which a number of objects react to the data from a specific “pilot”, and the M∞ STOWAWAY workshop, at which participants can create 32Mb Arcanum capsules with their digital portraits. The project therefore analyses the role of memory in our information-saturated global society as well as the inevitable transitory nature of our existence, which stands in opposition to our desire for immortality, reaching its greatest expression through art. But it also manages to illustrate the way in which collective memory is preserved, in this case through a P2P network comprising people who donate part of their individual memory (on their computer’s hard disc) to store shared data.

For Vilém Flusser, information is saved as a copy, a process subject to errors, some of which allow evolution:

“the biomass processes information stored in it as a result of faulty copying, and thus generates new information.” [1].

 

Cultural memory is processed in the same way, although data storage is modifying this somewhat, as illustrated by the etoy project. Flusser also feels that by passing information on to later generations, we are in fact doubly negating nature: firstly by contradicting the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that in nature, all information tends to be forgotten, and secondly by flying in the face of Mendel’s Law, which states that the information acquired by an organism cannot be transferred to a subsequent organism. With this in mind, Flusser believes that stored information has no alternative but to gradually move toward entropy. The theory seems to show that, in this sense, as computers allow us to leave behind the need to remember and to memorise, our skills will nevertheless have to move on to learn new ways of efficiently conserving, recuperating and updating data. If memory consists of data, its legacy involves transmitting a set of information from one generation to the next. As Hans Moravec explains it:

“Human beings have two forms of heredity: one, the traditional biological kind, passed on by strands of DNA; the other, cultural, passed from mind to mind by example, language, books, and recently, machines. At present the two are inextricably linked, but the cultural part is evolving very rapidly, and gradually assuming functions that were once the province of our biology. In terms of information content, our cultural side is already by far the larger part of us.” [2]

In relation to Moravec’s words, the etoy project suggests the possibility that our cultural heritage will transcend, within the limited context of the Arcanum capsule, freed by the entropy that a P2P network can create. This type of existence also brings to mind our current state as living human beings, perpetually tying us to the data network we use and which we feed on a daily basis. Alexander Galloway explains that, right now, we cannot escape our presence on the network nor can we effectively disconnect ourselves from it:

“The expectation is that one is either online or not. […] Network status doesn’t allow for technical ambiguity […] One way to fix the ambiguity is to be “always on”, even when asleep, in the bathroom, or unconscious. All the official discourses of the Web demand that one is either online and accounted for, or offline and still accounted for.” [3]

This continuous (and forced) online presence may well be one of the forms through which all internet users will be remembered, through the data preserved on banks of Web 2.0 company servers. Whilst etoy claims its project is an approach to memory and doesn’t seek to go beyond the grave, we cannot help but see this digital existence as a form of artificial life. Perhaps in the future, the data we have generated online could be combined in an Artificial Intelligence programme to create a “construction” of ourselves, such as the cyber-cowboy McCoy Pauley, a hacker whose memory was kept on the universe’s hard drive in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. This character exemplifies a form of artificial life after death that connects with Etoy’s project. All in all, in the novel, McCoy Pauley asks the protagonist of the story to erase all his data, once the task has been concluded, in order to liberate him from a ghostly existence.

Notes:

[1] Vilém Flusser, “Memories”, in: Timothy Druckrey (ed.) Ars Electronica. Facing the Future. Cambridge-London: The MIT Press, 1999, 202.

[2] Hans Moravec, “The Universal Robot”, in Timothy Druckrey (ed.) Ars Electronica. Facing the Future. Cambridge-London: The MIT Press, 1999, 122.

[3] Alexander R. Galloway, The Exploit. A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press, 2007, 126.