Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Mac Tonnies and the "digital afterlife"

About a month ago, I was interviewed by Rob Walker of the New York Times Magazine for an article he was writing about the idea of a "digital afterlife", with a specific focus on my friend and collaborator Mac Tonnies, who passed away in October, 2009. The article, titled "Cyberspace When You're Dead", is now available here, and it's a fantastic piece of writing, offering a thought-provoking look at what is, and what someday may be. It also offers a timely and poignant reminder of the impact that Mac had on so many lives, an impact that I'm confident will continue to grow in the years to come. I admit that as I had a tear in my eye as I read the part about Mac's three watches, which his parents were kind enough to give to Greg, Nick and me. We were all incredibly touched.

Walker placed my contribution at the end, just before he gave Mac the final word for the piece. In a way, I feel like Mac and I are together one more time, partners, as he would say with a wink and a nudge, in crime... which, ironically, proves the point of the article, and the validity of Mac's ideas.

An excerpt:
I found myself wondering, oddly enough, about what Mac Tonnies’s take might be. The last of his friends to whom I spoke was Paul Kimball, a filmmaker who lives in Nova Scotia. He met Tonnies online about a decade ago; they corresponded for six years before meeting in person, when Kimball came to Kansas City to interview Tonnies for a documentary. They ended up becoming close, even collaborating on a play (swapping drafts via e-mail) that was staged at the Boulder International Fringe Festival.

Among their shared interests, it turns out, was the relationship among technology, consciousness and mortality. Their play, based on a science-fiction story Tonnies had written in college, involves two women who turn out not to be, strictly speaking, creatures of organic matter: one is an artificial-intelligence program, the other a human consciousness uploaded into a form that could survive a centuries-long space journey. The very title of Tonnies’s Posthuman Blues blog, Kimball points out, hints at ambivalence about these subjects. But that was the place, he says, where his generally private friend “revealed himself,” post by post. The fact that the blog persists, in public, is what makes it distinct from, say, a journal Kimball owns that belonged to his grandfather and that has been read by perhaps 20 people.

The day before we spoke, Kimball continued, he had linked to an old Posthuman Blues post on his Facebook page, seeking reactions from his own online circle. “So I’m still having this conversation” with his friend Tonnies, he told me, “even though he’s been dead for more than a year.” Eventually, Kimball added, such situations may be routine. “We’re entering a world where we can all leave as much of a legacy as George Bush or Bill Clinton. Maybe that’s the ultimate democratization,” he said. “It gives all of us a chance at immortality.”

After talking to Kimball, I ended up watching a couple of interview clips of Tonnies on YouTube. In one, he discussed “transhumanism,” the techno-scientific quest to transcend the traditional limits of the human animal, death included, whether through merging with machines or fiddling with our genes. Skeptics or opponents of transhumanism are missing the point that it’s well underway, he argued: medicine is transhuman, in that it thwarts mortality. While I didn’t find this wholly convincing, I will concede that it was interesting to find myself in a position to listen to his arguments at all. It made me wish I could offer Tonnies my counterpoints — but of course I can’t. So I’ll give him the last word. “I like to think of death as a glorified terminal illness,” Mac Tonnies said, and will continue to say, for as long as this particular collection of bits remains available for someone to watch and listen to. “If we can escape the boundaries of death, maybe we’ll be O.K.”
The Boulder theatrical version of Doing Time can be accessed in this post, wherein I offer some thoughts about the play, and the process of creating it. Alas, Mac passed away before we finished the screenplay that we were working on, but I've finished it based on our early drafts, and it looks promising to shoot in 2011.

Mac's blog The Posthuman Blues can be found here.

Paul Kimball


Tyler Kokjohn said...

One of the many contributions made by Mac Tonnies may be his methodology. Posting his thoughts on the web he recognized an opportunity to discover kindred spirits. More important, Mac seems to have frequently developed true collaborations to refine and extend ideas. Not everyone is secure enough to do that and I have to wonder how much delight he took in seeing thoughts evolve as truly living entities in his care.

I put it to you, Paul, that you have discovered/invented Mac's personal posthuman future. Linking your Facebook page to his still existing post and seeking reactions is both methodological essence and legacy. Driving new conversations into novel realms, Mac has escaped the boundaries of death.

Is there more to come? A new Facebook page serving as a nucleation site for those inspired by Mac to collaborate and cultivate new ideas perhaps?

Tragically, Mac left so much undone. But maybe there is a way for him to not only beat death, but cheat it as well.

Thank you for your insights.

World Without Me said...

Great post! Mac Tonnies's story highlights the need for planning one's digital afterlife. All the great work, thoughts and memories that we put up online are part of our legacy. Making provisions to pass them on to heirs and loved ones saves them from a lot of painful legal hassles to access it.