Is It Possible to Achieve Immortality Online?

Martin Manley

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One of the things Martin Manley had to consider before committing suicide last week was how long a website could last. This, after all, was a big part of the retired newspaper reporter’s plan to take his own life: to leave behind a website comprising more than 40 pages in what he called “one of the most organized good-byes in recorded history.”

It’s as much an autobiography as it is a comprehensive suicide note. Manley included on the site a detailed account of his life and an attempt to rationalize his decision to die. He wrote that he didn’t want to grow old, that he was certain an economic collapse was inevitable, that he was tired of all the war and chaos in the world. And so he shot himself on his 60th birthday. He wrote that he had no children and that if he hadn’t left behind a record of his life, if he hadn’t done this, the world would forget him. When he was gone, he feared, there would be no proof he existed.

In preparing for his death, Manley bought a Web hosting plan from Yahoo and paid in advance to keep the site up for five years—the maximum Yahoo allows. On the website, he included a release of rights to the public, making it possible for the people of the Internet to keep a copy of the site up indefinitely. In the digital realm, in the endless span of the Internet, Manley sought a sort of immortality.

His actions were bizarre and disturbing, but the desire to leave a lasting mark on the world—sans suicide—is arguably a hardwired element of the human condition. The sentiment arises even in one of the earliest known literary texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, a mythical tale that dates back approximately 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. After King Gilgamesh fails in his quest to find immortality, the story goes, he returns to his home city and remarks on its great walls. This was his consolation. He couldn’t live forever, but maybe the bricks of these walls could last through time, and his name could last along with them.

In the modern world, we’ve buried time capsules filled with mementos of our lives; we’ve written our names in cement. We are, as a species, legacy-builders. But in our quest to leave our mark in the Information Age, we’ve begun to look beyond the finite, beyond the physical, and into the digital space. We can’t live forever, but maybe we can build a digital presence, brick by brick, that will.

Perhaps this is what Steve Jobs was suggesting when he used to say he wanted to “make a dent in the universe.” Maybe it’s what security researcher Dan Kaminsky hoped to achieve when he embedded an ASCII tribute to a deceased hacker friend into a Bitcoin transaction log.

Certainly this pursuit of a bit-based afterlife has motivated Ray Kurzweil, the prominent inventor, to spend years trying to build a digital avatar of his dead father. Indeed, Kurzweil hopes to compile his father’s life story—using old documents and photographs and letters—into a fully computerized representation that can interact with humans. His father has been gone for more than four decades, but Kurzweil believes he will talk with him again.

The Internet has produced endless ways for our online egos to communicate with the physical world once we’re gone. One service, Death Switch, regularly checks in with you to make sure you’re alive. If you don’t respond, it checks a few more times, then assumes you’re dead. At that point, it sends out emails you’ve pre-written, so that you can reach out to the world when you’re gone.

In 2009, Facebook had to update its policy on dealing with deceased users because people were seeing them pop up in their “Suggested Friends” lists. If family or friends of the dead contacts Facebook, the company will now take these users out of public search results. But their Timelines remain open so that family and friends can continue to send messages to the departed’s online presence.

Pieces of most of us already exist in the land of ones and zeros; our photos and messages are being replicated and stored whether or not we realize it, transmitting from one server to the next, byte by byte. But how long will the data remain? We can probably assume that the Internet will last as long as electricity lasts, as long as our infrastructure lasts. Really, when we as a civilization get the point where we no longer have the resources to sustain the Internet, we will likely have bigger problems on our hands.

It’s hard to say, though, how long our online identities, our softselves, will last. If we turn off our computers right now and go live in the desert for the rest of our lives, would our information still be there in 30 years? Maybe. But when is the last time you saw a web page from 1983? Much of the content of the early Internet has been purged or taken offline, and even the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine only goes back to 1996. Google’s archive of Usenet posts might hold the oldest of all Internet antiques—the earliest is from 1981. But if Google hadn’t archived the content, it would likely be gone.

The day after Manley committed suicide, Yahoo took his website down, citing a violation of the company’s terms of service. But by then, the people of the Internet had already mirrored it, and Manley’s sister is calling on Yahoo to restore it. So maybe it will last. Maybe people who read the site will remember him as a reporter and sports statistician. Or maybe they’ll just remember him as the man who shot himself in the head and wrote a website about it.

In any case, if our civilization falls and is rediscovered thousands of years later, what will they do with the gray metal boxes that hold our stories?

Maybe they’ll be more interested in the walls we’d left behind.