An expert on the digital afterlife responds to Cat Rambo’s “The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees.”
You never know precisely how much time you have left, despite what life insurance industry mortality tables or death-prediction startups might claim. Now, an emerging field of death tech is capitalizing on such anxiety by pitching individual immortality as deepfakes or AI-driven chatbots. Meanwhile, we’re facing an ongoing environmental catastrophe perpetrated by colonialism and relentless extraction. These two forms of existential uncertainty may seem separate—but they are intrinsically related.
I’m a death scholar and a sustainability researcher at a major tech company, so Cat Rambo’s “The Woman Who Wanted to be Trees” hit home. In the story, a death care worker is asked to memorialize clients in innovative ways, using cutting-edge technologies to blur the boundaries between life and death, and between humans and the natural world. For the past 15 years, I have been researching how people use technology to remember and communicate with the dead. My forthcoming book, Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond, explores the fundamental incompatibility between dreams of technologically mediated life extension and the planned obsolescence of material technologies. “The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees” captures something my research has also found: Efforts to commemorate or even re-create people using their data fail because they lack the larger relational infrastructures that make both life and posterity possible.
In “The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees,” a wealthy woman known only as K plans to have her mind implanted in a redwood tree on Love, an intergenerational starship. The redwood is itself a memorial to flora that no longer naturally exist on this future Earth. Nefirah, the death care worker, is legally prevented from equating a replica with a person, even if it can pass a Turing test, but she nevertheless has made a name for herself by promising to upload versions of individual humans into networked systems to assuage their fears of death and decay. Echoes of this tension exist in real-life immortalist fantasies: Some companies are building metaverse avatars that can stand in for you and converse with your loved ones after you die, but NFTs are not eternal life and are also environmentally harmful. What good is posterity on a dying planet?
In Rambo’s world, the Earth has already been “crumpled and discarded” by the ultrawealthy. Rather than working to solve the problems they created, men like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seek to exit. But care and maintenance labor tethers outer space to networks of life back on Earth. K, unable to leave Earth due to her health, must stay behind, making the redwood her legacy in space. She refuses Nefirah’s offer to create a memorial that would instead be part of an ecosystem on the ship. In the end, under threat, Nefirah does what K asks—but what K doesn’t realize is that the tree is doomed to die because it isn’t connected to any other living plants. Even a souped-up redwood tree cannot survive in isolation.
Remembrance of the dead on the Love resembles today’s often clunky or sometimes convincing chatbots, where startup companies build digital interactive replicas of dead humans. Such memorials also have the capacity to take on new characteristics. Subjectivity, including that of the dead, is always relational. Social media memorials are one thing, perhaps surprising mourners with an email reminder, Instagram memory, or ping from LinkedIn. But there are also more robust models such as OpenAI’s GPT-3, making it hard to distinguish between the living and the dead, sometimes taking on a poetic life of their own, or perhaps threatening to kill their creator.
At heart, digital remains are traces of relationships that once were. To put it another way, “your” Facebook profile is really a long-term aggregation of exchanges, reflecting relationships over time. The profile’s value, for corporations and surviving loved ones alike, is a result of its interactivity, its metadata. One profile cannot be preserved in isolation because it depends on an entire ecology of social relationships and platform infrastructures to be discernible.
Memorials, too, are collective endeavors and, like the mortal beings they commemorate, subject to decay. Through the years, I’ve encountered many startups that purportedly emulate you or a loved one after physiological death or digital estate planning companies that say they will preserve your digital assets for all of eternity, but the majority of those companies quickly lose funding and disappear; my research archive is littered with 404 error messages and dead links. Devices, websites, servers, people, companies, and even planets: all of these suffer breakdown and die. In the immortal words of Axl Rose, nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.
Yet in some elite transhumanist circles, there are attempts at uploading mind files into computers to achieve immortality, perhaps contributing to a technological form of rapture known as the Singularity, or, for traditionalists, using cryonics to preserve the brain for later. For powerful white men, their long-term legacies are bound up in the futuristic fantasies they engineer—even as the climate crisis is already impossible to ignore. Arctic sea ice is melting at an alarming rate, and the temperatures at both poles were recently 50-70 degrees above normal. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report tells us that humanity has a short window left in which to mitigate mass extinction.
Rambo’s story captures all of this, critiquing extreme wealth inequality and techno-solutionism as well as computational immortality that doesn’t take into account social and ecological relations. The fungi that break down a redwood tree to support other life, signaling an embrace of or at least acceptance of death, are in stark opposition to AI as gimmicky immortality. Rather than posing a problem to be solved, death generates meaning and the desire for connection.
Caring for the dead, too, is a necessary form of work, and women and non-binary people dominate the DIY and green burial scenes. Death doulas, like birth doulas and midwives, resist patriarchal forms of expertise and norm creation, putting new value on the often secretive work of mortuary care. Death acceptance is a political act. Nefirah uses wetware to merge organic matter with networked protocols, forming cyborg ecologies. Having someone’s data double uploaded into a tree is a riff on current burial trends, where you might decide to be composted, turned into a diamond, ensconced in a mushroom burial suit that use the body’s nutrients to feed surrounding plants, or placed in a biodegradable urn with a tree planted above your body. Decay and finitude haunt Rambo’s story, including social breakdown, the limits of technology, and the loss of Earth as a habitable place.
But decay is not just an organic process. Even the best-planned smart home running after a designer’s death requires human work; memorialization relies on the continued labor of the living, upon networks of human and non-human entities from specific devices to social protocols. A posthumous chatbot is only as good as its upkeep, and someone has to pay for domain names and delete spam. This all becomes even more heightened when we consider the material realities of climate disaster—how ecological destruction challenges the very way we think about the future. Who and what is a memorial for? A 2019 memorial to a disappeared Iceland glacier recalls this question. The memorial’s creator used copper, not paper, imagining that people might read the plaque in 300 years. Even in the face of extinction, thoughts of material posterity on a mythic timescale persist.
Which brings us back to Rambo’s tale. With the Earth dying, Love is a living memento mori. Mourning is not only for individuals who have died, but for all living things on Earth. Rambo’s parting lesson is that instead of becoming a single tree, be an ecosystem with intertwined roots. Echoing the mushroom burial suit’s embrace of precarity, the redwood tree memorial preserves life by gracefully accepting its breakdown, its inherent “corruption.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.