Over the last 15 years I’ve witnessed the creation of many different websites aimed at new approaches around end of life. I’m not talking about basic websites with pragmatic information (like us.) No, I’m talking about high-tech, farther-reaching ideas.
I’ve seen online memorials, which are usually abandoned once the memorial service has taken place; sites that let you digitally store your hard assets such as wills and advance care directives; online graveyards (I’m as confused as you are on this one) and even websites that let you record a message or prepare an email that will be sent to friends or family upon your death. To me, they all seemed a bit far-fetched.
One example: last year California Magazine ran an article about IDEO, the largest design consultancy in the world, and its work on an app called After I Go. Paul Gaffney, a seasoned CEO with a number of startups under his belt, was working with IDEO on building the app, which he called a “Turbotax for death” — a place where users could write wills and advance care directives and store them online. But the concept ran into more than a few roadblocks. Over the course of a year (and most likely hefty design fees), it eventually morphed into a website called Keeps, a family-driven, social network where people — both alive and dead — could share memories online. This was reminiscence of 1000memories, a high profile venture funded website that launched back in 2010, only to die a quiet death, as I have seen so many other such websites do.
Then Keeps, too, ran into conceptual roadblocks, and development stalled. So when Gaffney was offered a job as a senior VP at Home Depot, he decided to cut his losses and move on. Both After I Go and Keeps died untimely deaths, long before they were ever launched. My heart went out to Paul for the lack of understanding the Keeps team brought to his end of life project.
I’ve seen a lot of this over the past decade– websites and apps that tried to address death or end-of-life and failed. And there may be many reasons for this. But I believe one of the biggest obstacles to successfully implementing these hi-tech solutions is the schism between Boomers, who are now looking at mortality head-on, and tech-savvy young developers, who are far still removed from the reality of death.
According to the Conversation Project, only 27 percent of the American population has had a discussion with their family members about their wishes around end of life. Obviously, even the Boomer generation is not all that comfortable talking about dying yet. So it seems far-fetched (even ridiculous) to me that anyone would make finalized plans or decisions about end of life on a website or a smartphone app. Given the number of failures, it appears that most people who are actually approaching death agree.
In last Thursday’s Verge, there was an article that told the story of Eugenia Kuyda, a young developer who used Google’s recently released program TensorFlow to build a bot that emulated her friend Roman Mazurenko, who was killed by a car. Kuyda gathered all of the text messages and emails Roman had sent to friends over the years, creating an unrefined Roman-bot that mimics his speech. The bot allows family and friends to have “conversations” with Roman via typed words — essentially granting him a sort-of “eternal life.”
The bot received mixed reviews. Some friends flatly refused to try it; some found it therapeutic. And Kuyda found herself asking, “Is it really what’s beneficial for us? Is it letting go, by forcing you to actually feel everything? Or is it just having a dead person in your attic? Where do you draw the line?”
What the article did not discuss was that a bot can never replace a living, breathing person. Nor do human beings typically “let go” when we lose someone we love. We keep them close in all sorts of ways…wearing a coat they wore to experience their smell again, sometimes calling a cell phone just to hear their voice greeting us on the other end of the line. Perhaps a bot will help some people feel close to their loved ones again, but it seems unlikely given the way we currently deal with death.
Cultural change around something as profound as death does not happen overnight. As we start to come to grips with death and dying in a more meaningful way, technology and death will undoubtedly merge. Meanwhile I think Eugenia Kuyda’s question, “Where do you draw the line?” will not be answered for quite a while.