Meet Joe Black:
The Future of Death And Mortality In The Age of Technology
By Elaine Cameron, Burson-Marsteller, 2013
In the Hollywood movie , Anthony Hopkins encounters death in the form of Brad Pitt. They move in together and - almost - live happily ever after, except of course that at some point Brad dispatches Tony. It’s all very elegantly done. I had my own meeting with Joe Black in 2008 when I was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer called Non Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was very keen not to make friends with him and absolutely determined not to give him house room. So far I’ve succeeded, although from time to time I still catch a glimpse of him over my shoulder. He looks nothing like Brad Pitt.
The Last Taboo
Interestingly, when I finally dragged myself back to work after 8 months’ arduous treatment, it quickly became apparent that death and disease are pretty taboo subjects. It would not be an exaggeration to say that some people were literally unable to look me in the eye. As if to do so would be to admit that death actually exists. I, on the other hand, have developed a morbid fascination with the subject that I feel compelled to share. Not least because there’s one thing this kind of proximity with your own mortality teaches you and that is there’s absolutely no time to waste. Tomorrow is promised to no-one.
The Future of Death
On my return to Burson-Marsteller, I was lucky enough to be given the task of bringing more futures thinking into the organisation. This could not have been more timely. I am desperate to know what the future holds on every level, just in case I’m not around long enough to experience it myself. And guess what? One of the areas that is manifesting the most change is – cue doleful tolling of church bells - death.
Famous Last Words
Continuing my cinematic theme, in the film the main character Sam (Patrick Swayze) uses all sorts of crazy methods to try and communicate with his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) after he is killed. These include enlisting the help of a spiritual medium in the form of Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg). Things would have been a whole lot easier for Sam if only he’d had the Facebook App enabling users to create a video or written message that is then sent to all of their Facebook friends when they die.
This is one of many innovations that have been developed as legal, technology and social media companies realise the wide-reaching implications of managing people’s digital footprints. The average person now has 26 internet accounts for a range of services including email, banking, online shopping, social media sites, Skype and PayPal. In the past, the only Will you needed was a physical one to deal with your goods and chattels. Now you need to decide who – if anyone – to appoint as your digital executor. A study by Goldsmiths, University of London, showed that more than one in 10 people had made provisions to pass on internet passwords after their deaths or planned to do so.
A whole new digital legacy industry is springing up around this. Companies like My Webwill will store your passwords and fulfil your digital wishes so that online identities can be closed down or handed over to family members at the appropriate time. The free version of the service deactivates all accounts associated with a user, while the paid version can add more customization, such as giving the user the opportunity to decide whether they would like their Facebook wall cleared or to send a final Tweet. Legacy Locker, (described as information insurance), and Slightly Morbid are some other providers of this ‘virtual undertaker’ service.
Six Feet Under
For those who have seen the film (and if not, this is definitely one to see before the Grim Reaper makes you an offer you can’t refuse), the funeral business did very well out of the Corleones. But things would look quite different now, even at your average funeral, and I’m not just talking about coffins in the shape of mobile phones or Ferraris.
Worldwide, more than 50 million people pass away each year. Traditional burial and cremation practices have significant negative environmental impacts, C02 and mercury emissions being the two major culprits. The funeral industry has been busy developing new technologies to deal with this issue. You may not have heard of (dissolving) or (freezing and powdering) but these are two greener alternatives to cremation which offer significantly less pollution and lower energy use. Coming soon to a funeral parlour near you.
The fact is that cemeteries are amazing hotbeds of innovation and undergoing their own digital revolution. For example, companies like are embedding QR codes in gravestones. When these are scanned by smartphones it opens up an online biography of the deceased. The related webpage can show profiles of the person, pictures, videos and tributes from family and friends. Just imagine what they could have said about Don Corleone.
Who Wants to Live Forever?
Ah but enough talk of death I hear you cry. Why can’t we live forever? Just like Christophe Lambert in the film . The prospect of halting or at least slowing down the body's ageing processes is not so far-fetched. Several promising scientific developments may lead to interventions that could extend human life expectancy beyond the longest lifespan observed so far: 130, the record currently held by a woman living in Georgia. Indeed the Office of National Statistics recently released a report predicting that more than a third of babies born in 2012 will live to celebrate their 100th birthday.
Paradoxically, a survey by Dying Matters in 2011 discovered that 15% of people want to live forever (so that’s 85% who don’t) and only 9% want to live past 100. I guess the answer to that also depends to some extent whether the concept of ‘living forever’ means keeping the vitality one has in one’s prime or simply managing the effects of ageing better.
My favourite optimistic futurist, , suggests that by the 2030s, we'll be putting millions of nanobots inside our bodies to prevent disease and that by 2040 nanotechnology will have the ability to make us immortal. This may seem beyond our wildest dreams but then, remember that far-fetched film ? Well, only last week I saw a Channel 4 documentary called where they did just that. Built a walking, talking bionic man named Rex. Alongside this, the newly announced is bringing together international researchers to simulate a human brain. This in the hope that the insights gained will help in the treatment of neurological disorders like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Feed the World
It may seem counter-intuitive to be talking about a prolonged - if not infinite lifespan - without addressing the question of how this ever-increasing population will be fed and watered on a planet with seemingly finite resources. Can it be a coincidence that 2013 is being proclaimed ? Most analysts believe that, in order to feed a global population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, we will need to increase food production by as much as 70 percent. Happily greater brains than mine are bent on finding a solution to this problem. that we actually already have the resources. What is needed is to mobilize political will and build the necessary institutions to ensure that key decisions on investment levels and allocation as well as on agricultural and food security policies are taken with the goal of hunger eradication in mind.
A Question of Ethics
The possibility of achieving immortality - alongside other scientific advances in the area of artificial intelligence - is fundamentally changing what it means to be human. With profound implications.
What if one day we really will be able to chop and change the defective parts of our bodies for good ones, change one face for another, cleanse our diseased blood cells with nanobots? At some point, will we actually be able to elect not to die? If we must die, will we be able to download all our thoughts and memories and create a hologram of ourselves that lives on after we are gone? If we do end up with a population that the planet cannot sustain will we one day have some form of incentivised euthanasia to encourage an early departure from this mortal coil?
On the plus side, we may one day be able to look back at the heinous pain we have endured, having to say goodbye to loved ones when they die, with nothing short of astonishment at the primitive barbarity of it all. On the other hand, I think we have seen enough films featuring to have an inkling of the potential issues inherent there.
One thing is certain; we are incredibly privileged to be living at a time when science fiction becomes science fact. Whatever the future brings, and for as long as I am on this planet, I will be watching with utter fascination. I hope you will be too.