Information and Immortality

March 10, 2007

Susan Irene Neal (née Delventhal) passed on two years ago today. She was born on 29 March 1934 to Raymond and Pearl Delventhal of Napoleon, Ohio. After graduating from Napoleon High School in 1952, Susan briefly went to nursing school in Toledo, and she married Robert Miller Neal of Montpelier, Ohio in 1953. Three sons (Dave, Tom, and me) lived under their roof for most of their marriage, during which time Susan had a drapery business. She also worked briefly as a 911 dispatcher and library paraprofessional. Susan got breast cancer in 1993, but managed to go cancer-free for another ten years after treatment. Sepsis related to the cancer’s return ultimately claimed her on 10 March 2005. Surrounded by family photos and prayer beads, her ashes currently rest in an urn on top of my father’s entertainment center.

Looking at the previous paragraph, I feel compelled to find an obituary to compare notes. Nevertheless, it sounds similar to the kind of brief biographical items that appear daily in newspapers. In the case of more famous people, obituaries seem redundant because we already know quite a bit about their lives… and deaths, as illustrated most recently by the ghoulish hullabaloo surrounding Anna Nicole Smith’s corpse. For many others, obituaries become one’s moment of “fame,” usually brief and local. Various mementos of one’s life remain scattered throughout photo albums and scrapbooks, guaranteeing a form of “immortality” until time or accident claims them as well.

For our own ancestors, we might be lucky to have letters, diaries, and stagy photographs in wooden poses. With increasingly less expensive digital technologies, more people can achieve a higher resolution form of “immortality” that consists of plentiful still photographs, as well as audio and video recordings. In addition, they can consolidate everything into personal websites, accounts on social networking sites, and so on. If such artifacts can easily transfer to newer technologies, our descendants will have an opportunity to develop more comprehensive assessments about our present. Of course, considering some of the stuff people put on their personal sites and social networking spaces, our descendants might look upon us with great bemusement.

Some have even wilder ideas about extended lifespans, afterlives, and immortality that dovetail with fringe ideas that tangentially relate to information science. X-Files fans may recall the William Gibson-penned episode Kill Switch, where a computer geek ultimately joins her companion in a cybernetic Liebestod. (I am woefully ignorant about “cyberpunk,” so I suspect that other stories exist with similar themes.) Even if one believes in an afterlife in the spiritual sense, it seems difficult to resist pondering the prospect of wandering in a kind of Second Life after shuffling our mortal coils, or “floating around” in cyberspace as an amorphous Star Child. In the real world, computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has more concrete ideas about how technology can help us achieve corporeal immortality. Rather than uploading ourselves like in the aforementioned X-Files episode, the article from Wired mentions Kurzweil’s belief that we could download improvements to our bodies from the Internet. Needless to say, plenty of scientists express skepticism about Kurzweil’s ideas.

Since such far-out technologies remain little more than dreams, I would like to believe that Mom has reunited with the people she cared about, but who passed on many years before. As far as I can tell, any notions of an afterlife remain firmly within the realm of fiction, or at least under the umbrella of “the unknown.” My skepticism may tell me not to believe in such a thing, but it also questions relentlessly materialistic worldviews that dismiss any possibility of a spiritual realm. Whatever one believes, all the possibilities can provoke interesting philosophical and theological discussions, even if our thoughts draw upon the usual metaphors.

My mother had a general aversion to technology, which I probably inherited to a certain degree. However, for the benefit of those who consider me a Luddite, I actually had to talk to exhaustion to convince her of the virtues of CD players and computers. Even though classical music had become difficult to find on cassette as early as the late 1980s, Mom did not want to get a CD player. Dad and I finally got her a Sony boombox for Christmas in 1996, though she seemed upset that we spent good money (around $120) on it. She also believed in driving cars until they passed their usual lifespans, which explains why we had a Buick Skylark and Chevette for 12 and 15 years, respectively.

If the technologies from the X-Files episode or Kurzweil’s head were readily available, my mother probably would have been skeptical of those as well. I could just hear her enunciating loudly, “What’s the point? Just convince me, and I’ll consider it.” (Convince? Yeah, sure…) To imagine her voice in similar scenarios, just think of Suze Orman’s manner of speaking, blended with a Midwestern twang and maybe a vestigial Teutonic touch. However, for more public appearances, my mother could go from Suze Orman to Hyacinth Bucket. I got this idea from Diane, who actually mentioned this after meeting my mother for the first time. Considering what I have seen of that show, Diane’s assessment doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.

Ironically, as I write this posting, I am giving my mother a form of immortality. As long as my mouse doesn’t suddenly fly away, or the computer monitor doesn’t flash otherworldly images, I suppose I’m on the right track. Besides, other than her phone number in Google, I turn up nothing about her on the Internet. I do have a few photographs of her on my flickr profile, though she did not like having her picture taken (unless absolutely necessary).

Right now, all you probably know about my mother derives from her brief biographical sketch, as well as the additional anecdotes peppered throughout this posting. I feel compelled to tell more, however, just to make her seem more real… and to show her more generous, thoughtful, and witty side. However, to do so properly would constitute a story about her family background… quite rich in itself, with family having come from Germany just two generations earlier. It seems a bit self-indulgent for this forum, but I hope to make a more comprehensive story about my mother’s life (or my version of it) available sometime.

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