Buffy believed in ghosts. Our children do as well, and I think I might. She told some of her friends, in her final weeks before she passed on, that she “didn’t want to become a ghost mommy.” And I don’t think she did, at least in the way she meant. I think she found peace, and I think she’s in a better place, be that place heaven, or the light at the end of the tunnel, or her soul rejoined with the fabric of the universe. But in some ways I don’t think she, or any of us, have a choice anymore about becoming a ghost. Technology demands it. And as technology progresses, these demands will become all pervasive.
When you sign up for in-home hospice, they give you literature. They say that people close to dying often see loved ones visit them, who have died. They have conversations with them, which can be scary for unprepared caregivers. They’ll sometimes talk to these loved ones, in their final moments. This is a common thing.
Buffy didn’t see that. But she did see a cat.
We’ve had cats much of our marriage. Our first cat was named Yoshi, because we are a Nintendo family, and he used to go sailing with us. Buffy loved our cats.
About a week before she passed on, she saw a ghost cat. She said a cat came to her, and laid with her, and she petted him for a while, and then it went off a direction she couldn’t see. Only after, did she realize he wasn’t real. When I told this story to a friend of mine after she passed, he told me that in Egyptian mythology, the cats lead your spirit to the land of the dead. He might have been pulling my leg. Even if so, I like that story. It comforts me.
Many religious traditions talk about ghosts. Christian mythology has the resurrection, and the Holy Ghost, and St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, which lines up curiously well with some of the descriptions of the benevolent force at the end of the tunnel reported by those who’ve had near death experiences. My formative indoctrinations as a Quaker took this view a step further, that each person was gifted with an “inner light,” our own personal Holy Ghost, which seems a bit in practice like the Islamic concept of “rūḥ.” Many Buddhists believe everyone’s spirit enters a ghost state, before it is either reincarnated, passes into a different plane, or becomes a more permanent haunting spirit.
Colloquially, ghosts are the memories or spiritual imprints of the deceased at places they valued, or places of their trauma. Memories and fragments stuck in the ether. Pop culture fixates on the idea of possession, where a ghost can inhabit another mind it passes in aethereal proximity. This meshes curiously well with some of the recorded stories of reincarnation. And we find we are full circle to both the Buddhists and to St. Peter. But as technology develops, there’s something else going on in parallel, and it’s tied much more physically to stuff. And at a higher level, to digital stuff.
Ghosts of Memorabilia
When you wake from a dream, you forget the dream unless you write it down, or unless you tell someone about it. If life is a dream, and I don’t tell anyone about it, does it disappear?
I never liked memorabilia. Trinkets, patches, keepsakes, pictures. They just seemed like pointless clutter. To me the best memorabilia were the memories in my head. I was with my wife half my life, so many of our memories were shared. Certainly the best ones. The memories would come up in conversation. She’d remind me of something I’d forgotten, or I’d remind her. Our memories were connected in that way — her mind was like extra storage space for events I’d forgotten, and mine hers. One of my first shocks the first few days after she passed on, was a fear I hadn’t anticipated. How will I remember her without her help? What will I forget?
I made an about face in that moment on memorabilia. “Memory” is the root word of “memorabilia,” and memorabilia is simply stuff with memories attached. After the funeral I hung every picture I could find on my wall. Reminders. I do think it helps.
Mankind has always had these ghosts of memorabilia, amplified by the invention of the photograph, VHS, and such. But now, these ghosts are growing rapidly.
Ghosts of Technology
She didn’t want to die, so I didn’t pressure her for her passwords and such. But I do have the unlock pattern for her phone, which means I can access her Gmail and social apps.
The morning after she died, I opened her phone, and pulled up Marco Polo. It’s a simple app that creates a private chatroom for recording video messages. The messages are archived in a feed, and Buffy had been heavily using it with some of her high school friends for the last half a year. I pulled up the chatroom on her phone a few hours after the body had been carried away, and I left my first ever Marco Polo message, to her friends, letting them know. Then I looked back through the feed. Six months of video chats in chronological order.
She’d just died and there she was.
And there she was again, in her Facebook. Her social feed was still there, still feeding. Notifications, interests, curiosities, and thoughts from friends or media outlets. This new kind of sensorium is like a second set of eyes, which doesn’t stop working when you die. These artifacts of the feed would have continued to become small parts of her, were she still alive. I have since become addicted to “On This Day Memories” from Facebook, not from my account, but from hers.
Sometimes I find media on her phone that I want to have, kid videos or similar, so I forward it to myself from her accounts. Then I get emails from her, or instant messages. Not her, her account, but the lines between those things have become increasingly and intentionally blurred, by the Silicon Valley archons who profit from streamlining our brain processes. Ghosts from her accounts.
If I try to type a text with her phone, the Android autocomplete feature is tuned to her texting behavior. Word ghosts in a machine.
When I record our children playing on the beach, and a put the video up on Facebook, it appears in her feed. This isn’t her, but when I open her phone, it feels like I shared that memory with her. Is this some kind of Zuckerberg Trick? Is it kind or sinister?
When I turn my TV on, she’s right there in the Netflix recommendations list. British Baking Show, Queer Eye, Project Runway. Ghosts of Buffy inside my television set.
The home display on my Tacoma’s radio has four slots for quick dialing important contacts. There’s a face beside each. Her Bluetooth Ghost watches me drive.
I used her phone’s Gmail access to crack her Dropbox password. Photos I didn’t have. Notes from work seminars I never attended. Dropbox is memories only, not an active experience, but it conjured my own memories, and alluded to memories I never had of events I never saw.
And that got me thinking about who we are as people, what makes us. We have memories of the past, and experiences of the present, and decision making for the future. But Dropbox and Marco Polo are memories, Facebook is experiences, and Autocomplete is decision making. These objects of technology had absorbed a tiny part of Buffy at every level of what made her an individual. It was a tiny incomplete ghost, certainly not comprehensive, but I was watching it.
I don’t want to give up that ghost. I hope this phone never breaks.
I wonder what my technological ghost will be like if I make it another twenty years, or another forty. Will the autocomplete AI be writing entire emails for us? Will everything we see be recorded in a cloud of human experience? They can write dead actors into movies today with CGI. Will they be able to write everyone into their own lives by then? At what point do the deepfakes stop being fake?
These technological ghosts are imprints of people’s personalities on the virtual world we’ve built for ourselves. Our colloquial understanding of “real” ghosts is that they are imprints of people’s personalities on a house, a space, the ether, the non-virtual world. If some day science could explain that ghost as an imprint on the “real” universe, then that really would be nothing more than a higher-level abstraction of the very ghosts we’ve already created. The virtual ones.
Why shouldn’t I believe in spiritual ghosts, when we’ve already literally created virtual ones, purely by accident? How do I know if she didn’t want this? Does a virtual ghost haunt you, or guide you?
What if I don’t want to be a ghost daddy?
I don’t know the answers, but I’m glad I have that phone.