Social media is full of dead people. Untold millions of dead users haunt the online world where we increasingly live our lives. What do we do with all these digital souls? Can we simply delete them, or do they have a right to persist? Philosophers have been almost entirely silent on the topic, despite their perennial focus on death as a unique dimension of human existence. Until now.
Drawing on ongoing philosophical debates, Digital Souls claims that the digital dead are objects that should be treated with loving regard and that we have a moral duty towards. Modern technology helps them to persist in various ways, while also making them vulnerable to new forms of exploitation and abuse. This provocative book explores a range of questions about the nature of death, identity, grief, the moral status of digital remains and the threat posed by AI-driven avatars of dead people. In the digital era, it seems we must all re-learn how to live with the dead.
“Eloquently written, choc-a-bloc with piquant stories of tech history, and combined with the penetrating philosophical analysis we have come to associate with the author, Digital Souls is a rigorous and yet accessible mediation on the perennial question of personal identity as it intersects with our evolving cyber self-personifications. It is a rare feat, but there is enough history of philosophy in these pages to satisfy scholars without losing non-academic readers. In sum, the smart move would be to put away your Smartphones for an hour or three to digest this wise and entertaining reflection on how new-technologies of the self are molding our understanding of personal immortality and alas, what it means to be a self.” – Gordon Marino, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, St. Olaf College, USA
“Digital Souls is a little gem of applied philosophy, and Stokes’ erudition is undiminished by the lightness and accessibility with which he presents it. Scholars and general readers alike will have their assumptions constructively disrupted by this book, and it’s certainly been a long time since I was this enjoyably provoked.” – Elaine Kasket, author of “All the Ghosts in the Machine”
“Online technologies have allowed us to extend ourselves ever further in space, time and memory. But have they thereby allowed us to ‘cheat death’? Digital Souls is a seminal investigation of this possibility and the ethical quandaries it raises for all who live in a digitalized social world.” – Michael Cholbi, Professor of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, UK
“This is a fascinating exploration of how online sites and resources represent, and, in some ways, transform death. The book is written in a lively and accessible style. It helps us to understand our attitudes toward death in a new and illuminating way. Highly recommended!” – John Martin Fischer, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Riverside, USA
I’m very excited to say a documentary I’ve produced for Radio National, The Lost Boys of Daylesford, is available to download now!
On a clear, cold Sunday in June 1867, three little boys wandered away from their home near the town of Daylesford, on Dja Dja Wurrung country in central Victoria. Over the next six weeks the boys’ story gripped the colony, and made newspaper headlines around the world. Over a century later, the case continues to capture the imagination of locals and visitors to the region. Philosopher Patrick Stokes heads to Daylesford to find out why the lost children story has such enduring and haunting resonance.
This was a sad and haunting story to work on, but also a fascinating project that took me deep into volcano country to meet some really interesting people: Yvonne, who has tended the memorial on her own for nearly four decades, Megan who wrote a play trying to recover the mothers, and academics piecing together how lost children became such a distinctive and persistent part of the Australian cultural imaginary.
This was also the first non-comedy project Christian Price and I have collaborated on in over 26 years of working together!
I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please spread the word.
There’s a story I was a bit obsessed with as a child. I was that weird, nerdy kid that was massively into UFOs, ghosts, the paranormal etc. I read everything I could find and bored anyone who was within earshot. But this one story in particular stood out.
It happened in my home city, in the year I was born. And it took a life.
I still remember riding my bike (black BMX with white tyres; the kids called me Nutty Professor White Wheels, which tells you a lot about me at that age) down to Moorabbin City Library in Bentleigh after school to photocopy news clippings about the case. I even wrote to the local UFO group, VUFORS.
Somewhere during my teens, something shifted. I went from believer to skeptic, but the kind of skeptic who’s less interested in debunking and more interested in what these extraordinary human experiences say about us.
But that one story. That story never left.
People at this latitude still know the name of Frederick Valentich, or if they don’t, they recall there was a young pilot who vanished over Bass Strait. A family’s tragedy had morphed into an eerie piece of modern Australian folklore – except, of course, it wasn’t just folklore. A man was missing, presumed dead.
The story always finds its way back again: anniversaries, new bits of detail, TV shows with recreations of the final flight and the aftermath. Books. Podcasts. It seeped into our culture. Henri Szeps did a one-man play based on it. The Kettering Incident drew on it.
The story and I both turned 40 last year. I found myself thinking about it more and more, reading the newly discovered Department of Transport investigation file, unsettled to find I was now less sure of what “really” happened than ever.
What was striking now was how the central figure in the story was constantly being overwritten by other people’s interpretations of what happened to him. With every telling, a totally different Frederick.
I wanted to trace all those different Freds back to their source. And I wanted to know what happened to the people left waiting for that plane to come back. What it’s like to live for four decades suspended in that kind of uncertainty.
And that’s how I found myself at Moorabbin Airport with a bunch of recording gear, exactly forty years to the day since the disappearance.
This project has been pretty all-consuming for nearly a year now, and I don’t think the story is finished with me yet. I’m a bit terrified how this piece will be received. It’s almost certainly going to be misinterpreted in some quarters.
But it’s here. I want to thank supervising producer Lyn Gallacher – herself a pilot – for her wisdom and guidance, Michelle Rayner for taking a chance on me, Jack Montgomery-Parkes for his impeccable ear and unerring timing, Irene and everyone VUFORS for trusting me to come into their space, and George, Mike, and Chris for sharing their recollections.
Above all, I want to thank Rhonda and Steve for being willing to speak to me about the evening in 1978 that they are both, in their very different ways, still anchored to.
In their (not infrequent) darker moments, academics have been known to observe wryly that students’ grandparents seem to die at a much higher frequency near exams, requiring the students to have time off for the funeral. The ‘Dead Grandmother Problem’ has even been the subject of (tongue-in-cheek) academic research demonstrating that based on extension requests, the period before assessments are due is a very dangerous time for students’ relatives. This is, of course, rather unfair: students may lie to their lecturers sometimes, but people do die, and they rarely time their deaths to accommodate their relatives’ exam schedules. Moreover, as the blogger Acclimatrix has pointed out, the ‘dead grandparent’ might actually be a polite euphemism for something traumatic the student cannot (or in any case shouldn’t be expected to) disclose to their teachers. In any event, anyone who has taught a large college or university class quickly comes to realise there is a huge amount of illness, sadness, violence, disability, and loss in the background of what we see in the classroom. We only ever get glimpses of what goes on in our students’ lives, and those glimpses are often quite distressing. Imagine all the things we don’t see.
One thing you have to give Steve Bannon: he knows how to get people yelling at each other. The former Trump chief strategist and Breitbart editor may be greatly reduced on paper, but he continues to exert a disturbing influence on global affairs – and start fights just by turning up, and sometimes not even that.
Just in the last couple of weeks, he managed to cause upset simply by accepting invitations: in Australia, giving a one-on-one interview on the ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ program, and in the US by being invited and then disinvited to an on-stage session at the ‘New Yorker’ magazine’s ideas festival, after several other speakers pulled out in protest.
These events feed into a larger, ongoing contested narrative about free speech and harm. On the one hand, there’s a liberal charge that the “censorious” left is silencing right-of-centre voices via “no-platforming,” and thereby repressing speech rights and stifling debate. On the other, there’s the view that inviting those whose views serve and entrench various forms of oppression to speak in public fora causes real harm to the marginalised, by treating those views, even if only implicitly, as somehow worth discussing.
In 1994, an impish Northern Irishman stood in front of a room full of smelly, doubtful-looking sixteen-year-old boys, and declared “By the end of this term, I will make you love Keats.” Incredibly, it worked. After weeks of luxuriating in every syllable of “Ode to a Nightingale,” pulling apart every line of “To Autumn,” we loved John Keats.
So it was quite a shock, not long after, to get to university and learn that this approach to literature didn’t cut it in the English Department. That books, or ‘texts’ as we soon acquired the tic of calling them, were social products that play a range of political and cultural roles, not all of them good. “Your enjoyment,” as one lecturer told us, gently but firmly, “is none of my business.”
Outrage at this discovery is how a certain class of young fogey is made, latter-day F.R. Leavis-es railing against those damned postmodernists ruining everything. It almost happened to me. Perhaps it’s what happened to Senator James Paterson, the latest IPA-adjacent voice to attack the Australian National University for rejecting the Ramsay Centre’s Bachelor of Arts (Western Civilisation) program.
On Paterson’s telling, the rejection demonstrates the very thing the Ramsay program is designed to counter: a “rampant anti-Western bias” among academics and a corresponding lack of “viewpoint diversity” in our universities.
For people supposedly hostile to the West, humanities academics in Australia teach disturbingly little else. This year I’ll spend all of six weeks teaching non-Western philosophy, and even that’s unusual. As for the dreaded ‘cultural Marxism,’ the Ramsay Centre’s curriculum contains considerably more Marx than ours does.
The Ramsayite complaint however is less about what we teach as how we teach it. Sure, we cover European thought and history, they say, but we’re just so damn critical, obsessed with the sins of colonialism and cultural imperialism rather than the achievements of our forebears.
Ironically, that critical stance is itself an Enlightenment value, which is precisely why the Enlightenment’s loudest critics came from within. This fact troubles those who want to gerrymander the ‘West’ into a clean, linear narrative that takes in everyone from Plato to Hayek but excludes ‘postmodernists,’ as if Nietzsche and Foucault weren’t as much the children of Aristotle and Christ as Kant and Locke were.
Why are academics so critical? Because that’s the job you pay us to do. The function of universities is to create and disseminate knowledge, and you can’t do that by simply nodding along enthusiastically. Hagiography, like huffing Keats, is often fun but rarely useful for understanding the world, let alone fixing it.
Critical isn’t the same as hostile. It’s just what we have to do in order to do our job as scholars: determine which ideas are serious candidates for the truth, and which aren’t. It’s not our job to make you feel comfortable about your heritage. Your enjoyment is none of my business.
Yet the Ramsay vision seems to be all about providing such comfort. It fluffs the pillows of a dying, self-congratulatory view of history while complaining that the doctors won’t admit what excellent health their patient is in.
Tony Abbott insists that the Ramsay Centre — his idea, as we now know — is ‘in favour’ of Western Civilisation, not simply ‘about’ it: “it is “for” the cultural inheritance of countries such as ours, rather than just interested in it”. Not all cultures, Abbott has argued for several years now, are equal.
But therein lies a fatal contradiction. If you think that the Western tradition is valuable because its beliefs — say, science or universal human rights — are in fact true, then your interest is not actually Western Civilisation, but truth per se, and you should fund courses in that. (Good news: you already do).
If on the other hand you think universities should study Western Civilisation as a distinct culture or contingent historical formation, then you’re committed to studying it with the same critical detachment as anything else.
In other words, the Ramsay Centre’s approach turns out to be incoherent: either it’s about Western Civilisation, or it’s in favour of truths that transcend it. To be ‘in favour of’ Western Civilisation itself simply because it’s one’s own heritage would not be scholarship, but something else entirely.
One of those non-Western philosophers, Kongzi — or as the West insisted on calling him, Confucius — argued that the first step in putting the world to right is giving things their proper name. So let’s call the Ramsay proposal what it is: indoctrination.
Senator Paterson declares that “universities don’t receive such generous funding so that fringe academics can impose their narrow worldview on the next generation of students.” Perhaps he could tell his friends at the Ramsay Centre to stop trying to do just that.
Imagine that there are many reasons why they have no friends. Some might be very shy or simply lacking in social skills. Some might live in places or move in circles where they just don’t get to meet potential friends. Some might simply be unpleasant to the point where people don’t want to be their friend.
Naturally we’d feel sympathy: loneliness is terrible, and a life without friends is missing something that, for most people (but perhaps not everyone) is very important.
Imagine if, in some of the more obscure pockets of the internet, people without friends began to interact with each other. They compare and commiserate over their suffering and start to thematize their plight. They build an identity for themselves: they are the ‘involuntarily friendless,’ or, for brevity, ‘infrels.’
Imagine infrels notice that friendship isn’t evenly distributed across the population. Some people seem to have all the friends, while others are perpetually friendless. To explain this distribution, they decide there must be a ‘friendship market,’ and that they are unjustly shut out of this market; from the viewpoint of the friendship market, they are ‘low-status males.’
Oh, did I not mention that part? Imagine that infrels are pretty much all men, in one of those stunning random coincidences that nobody can explain. There are plenty of women who don’t have friends, but curiously, they don’t identify as infrels.
Imagine infrels weren’t the first to notice that friendship is unevenly distributed. Imagine that sociologists, economists, and psychologists had often studied the social dynamics of how friendships form. But imagine that for infrels, this isn’t simply a theoretical problem, but a practical, even existential one. They want to ‘get’ a friend, and they blame others for their inability to do so.
Imagine that, within their networks, infrels become increasingly angry and resentful. They rail against stereotypical figures they call ‘Todds,’ who have more friends than they need, and ‘Sallys,’ who — in their view — befriend Todds too eagerly. There are, after all, practical limits on how many close friends you can have — so surely the Todds are soaking up all the available friends, and the Sallys are cruelly enabling them? For some reason they don’t seem to expect the Todds to give up having lots of friends, but they do blame the Sallys for befriending them.
Imagine that one of their high-profile supporters thinks the answer is enforced best-friending, so that there are friends left over for low-status males, even though he also argues that hierarchies are morally desirable because lobsters are — no, wait, scratch that part. Nobody would believe that.
Imagine there are also professionals who will be friendly with you for a fee. Call them ‘friend workers.’ Friend work is controversial: some people think acting in a friendly way to others for money is demeaning, while others think this is simply another way of selling labour. Imagine some people say infrels should just hire friend workers if their unmet friendship needs are so great.
In that, perhaps, infrels might have a point, just not the one they think they do. If infrels went to friend workers, they’d be getting to do some of the fun things friends do with each other, and for some people that might well be more than enough. A fun,vno-strings-attached chat now and then might even be preferable for some people.
But that’s not the same thing as friendship. Friendship isn’t bought and sold on a market. Friendship isn’t owed, isn’t earned, isn’t a reward for effort or a standing entitlement we can claim from others. Friendship is, in an important sense, always gratuitous. It just happens, or it doesn’t. It is bad to be without friendship, but it’s not something you can force, let alone demand.
Of course, there are certain qualities we value in a friend. Yet ultimately, every friendship is a unique relation, born of the event of encounter between two persons. Hence, friendship isn’t something that can be redistributed, because if we tried, what we’d be distributing would not be real friendship but a mere simulacrum. By turning friendship into a commodity — something fungible, tradeable, market-appraisable — we’d be converting the most personal, joyously spontaneous thing about ourselves into something impersonal. We’d be destroying what friendship really is.
Imagine that infrels don’t care about any of that. They want a friend and they resent the Sallys for not friending them. Imagine some of them start outlining elaborate fantasies about redistributing friendship. Imagine those plans amount to the Sallys surrendering control over their friendliness. Imagine infrels don’t seem to care about the Sallys’ autonomy at all, so long as they get what they want. Imagine this all starts to look like it’s less about friendship and more about people who can’t accept that Sallys get to decide for themselves who they will and won’t befriend.
There are some writers whose voice, by sheer accident of timing in your life, reach far deeper into your brain than the specifics of what they wrote.
For me, it was the satirist and actor John Clarke, who died suddenly on Sunday while hiking in the Grampians, aged 68. I never met Clarke. But he taught me a great deal about the English language and the Australasian voice, and what can be done with both.
Clarke was a transplanted New Zealander who became an essential Australian presence. As a young man he’d swapped the shearing shed for university without ever losing his clear affection for both worlds. That sums up the sense of duality in Clarke’s persona, firmly at home yet ever so slightly removed from the absurdity around him.
The ideal posture for the satirist, in other words. And his facility with language was wholly unrivalled in Australian satire.
One of my earliest comedy memories was my parents’ copy of The Fred Dagg Tapes. I had no idea who Whitlam or Kerr were, but I hung on every word. You have to. You cannot listen to Clarke even at his most seemingly flippant without sensing the incredible precision of the word choices and the careful elegance with which his sentences are shaped and finessed. Every flourish and detour, every wry circumlocution, is perfectly formed and placed.
In that craftsmanship lies the unnerving durability of Clarke’s work. So much of early 1980s Australia seems impossibly alien now, yet Fred Dagg’s musings on real estate could have been written yesterday:
You can’t write like that anymore. The media that services our Twitter-addled attention spans won’t reward phrases like “probably isn’t going to glisten with rectitude” or “why you would want to depart too radically from the constraints laid down for us by the conventional calibration of distance?,” or writing insider send-ups of literature (“the stark hostility of the land itself – I’m sorry, the stark hostility of the very land itself”) or entire books parodying major poets with perfect pitch.
Clarke could invite his reader into jokes about Samuel Richardson (“he’s probably dead now, he was a very old man when I knew him”) or Ibsen and Monet playing tennis
without a trace of pretension or smugness. His Commonplace pieces for Meanjin reveal a remarkable racconteur with an obvious curiosity for people and places. Above all, his work is shot through with an unflagging affection for language itself. And, in deference to the fact this is supposed to be a philosophy column, we should note his unique take on Socratic Paradox:
To call what Clarke did sarcasm seems at once too crude and too weak. It’s a dryness beyond sarcasm. To work at all, irony has to find a way to signal the speaker’s ironic distance from what they’re saying. The question is how you do it. Sarcasm screams it at you; subtler irony gives you a knowing wink. Clarke doesn’t have to wink. It’s there already, something at the top of the throat, in the posture, in something the forehead’s doing. A near-total irony perfect for dissecting the deadly serious.
Clarke’s was a voice that was Australasian in the best sense: refusing self-importance but finding a deep earnestness in taking the piss.
He didn’t do impressions or voices, he just did his voice. It didn’t matter who he was meant to be: the voice sounded right. It sounded right as any politician you care to mention, it sounded right as Wal Footrot, and it sounded right as the conniving developer in Crackerjack.
It was a finely-tuned instrument in The Games. In a country that lurches alarmingly between cultural cringe and shallow triumphalism, The Games hit the sweet spot in the national neuroses in a way that’s unlikely ever to be repeated.
And it was never better than when he and Bryan Dawe deftly unweaved the tortured logic of the week with paradoxically brutal restraint. Clarke and Dawe was a masterpiece precisely because two middle-aged men in unremarkable suits against a black background, not even attempting an impression or costume, made a space where the latest absurdity could be made to disassemble itself in front of us.
Urgency in wryness. Bemused ferocity. We so dearly need voices like that, but we’ve just lost the best we had.
[In a swanky Washington DC restaurant, L’Metaphysique, VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE is enjoying an intimate dinner with his wife and constant companion KAREN PENCE]
MIKE PENCE So I said, “Well, Don, if they’ve got the video, and it’s really that bad, why don’t you just” – Karen? Karen, what’s wrong? Is the steak a la potus ok?
KAREN PENCE Sorry, Mike, I just feel a bit… funny…
[KAREN PENCE begins to vibrate alarmingly, and an earthly blinding light suddenly engulfs the room along with a loud humming noise. The light subsides to reveal TWO KAREN PENCES sitting next to each other. They are exactly similar in every way: same body, same clothes, same everything]
MIKE PENCE What the hell?? Karen? Karen what’s going on?
[Pandemonium has broken out. The Secret Service are frantically trying to work out what’s going on, while waiters and diners run around madly. Amid the confusion, an English man with a wild crop of white hair approaches the table. Among this man’s more striking features is that he is quite transparent.]
PARFIT Forgive the intrusion, Mr Vice President, but I believe I might be able to shed some light on this. I’m the late Derek Parfit.
PARFIT How jarringly improbable that you knew that.
MIKE PENCE Never mind the background, man, tell me what the hell is going on here!
PARFIT Oh it’s perfectly straightforward, really. Your wife has fissioned. Split in two like an amoeba, into two qualitiatively identical individuals. Each individual is both physically and psychologically continuous with your wife as she was before the fission event. So each individual remembers everything your wife remembered up until the moment she split in two. Call this scenario The Second Lady.
MIKE PENCE Why… why are we giving this situation a title?
PARFIT You see the difficulty, Mr Vice President. Both women are psychologically connected to your pre-fission wife in the same way as your wife would have been had she not fissioned. Each has the memories, committments, and character of Karen Pence.
MIKE PENCE Ok, so they’re both my wife then!
PARFIT They’re both your wife? Why, that’s bigamy!
[A WAITER turns around]
WAITER Yes, and it’s bigamy too. It’s big of all of us. Let’s be big for a change!
PARFIT Well, you’re claiming that each of these women is your wife.
MIKE PENCE No, I’m saying, they’re… they’re both my wife. My one wife, Karen.
PARFIT I’m afraid that’s impossible. They’re clearly two separate individuals. They may be exactly alike – though in time of course they’ll diverge psychologically – but if they’re sitting next to each other rather than occupying the same space then by Leibniz’s Law they can’t be the same person.
[MIKE PENCE looks aghast]
MIKE PENCE You mean one of them’s my wife and one’s an impostor? So which one’s really my wife then?
PARFIT Ah, I’m afraid that solution won’t work either, Sir. After all, they’re qualitatively, but not numerically, identical. Each has just as good a claim to be Karen Pence as the other.
BOTH KAREN PENCES But I’m Karen Pence!
PARFIT Well you can’t both be Karen Pence, but there’s also no non-arbitrary grounds on which we could declare one of you to be Karen Pence but not the other. Fission doesn’t preserve identity. Thus, neither of you are Karen Pence. And you, Mr Vice President, are now having dinner alone with two women who aren’t your wife.
MIKE PENCE You mean I… I have to move tables?
BOTH KAREN PENCES Is that really your biggest concern right now?
PARFIT Well, before we all get too despondent, look at what The Second Lady teaches us: neither of these women is strictly identical with Karen Pence. Thus, Karen Pence has not survived. And yet, it seems completely wrong to say Karen Pence has died; if anything, apart from some initial awkwardness, this situation may even be much better than ordinary survival. The Second Lady preserves everything we care about in ordinary survival, and adds more of it. There is still someone to carry out the duties of Second Lady of the United States – indeed, there are now two people to do so, and the duties of office will correspondingly be less onerous. Karen Pence had both official duties and a passion for art therapy; now both can be pursued to twice the extent as before. From this we may conclude that identity is not what matters in survival.
MIKE PENCE Do you always talk like this?
PARFIT I did. On paper, anyway.
BOTH KAREN PENCES So where does this leave us?
MIKE PENCE I’m so confused.
[The restaurant doors swing open and PRESIDENT TRUMP walks in]
DONALD TRUMP Pence! Great to see you. Hey, how about I join you? Let’s get some more steaks over here! Extra well done! Just the best steaks. So beautiful, you’re gonna love these steaks.
POSTSCRIPT: After I’d published this on The Conversation, two interesting things happened. The first is that a couple of people rightly pointed out that Mike Pence probably wouldn’t say ‘hell’ so much. That’s fair, and in hindsight it clearly detracts from the otherwise perfect realism of the piece…
Secondly, on Facebook, my colleague from Herts, Brendan Larvor, replied that if identity doesn’t survive fission, there is in fact no problem here: as Karen Pence does not exist post-fission, the Vice-President is now single, and thus is free to dine with whoever he pleases.