The Living Virtual

In the old days, historians dug through attics to find diarys and correspondence in the form of letters and, of course, books and periodicals published in the time their subject was alive.  Skilled archivists could knit together the stories told in multiple timelines by multiple voices to discern the truth about someone’s travels or their relationships and often even what they said.

Tomorrow’s historians might find themselves much more closely connected  to the ghost of the biographical subject.

Consider the autoresponder.

“John Smith is out of the office until July 22 with limited access to email, voicemail, tweets, facebook postings, LinkedIN news, youtube videos, Pinterest panels and his home golf course.  If this is an emergency, then why did you send him an email?”

We’ve all gotten messages like that from someone to whom we sent an email – usually without expectation of an immediate response – email is asynchronous, after all – so we’re a little surprised to get pulsed right back, then disappointed that it was a robot that wrote back.

Now, that’s the simplest and one of the oldest uses for an autoresponder.  It’s been around since you wrote email messages from a command line.  However, the realm of such machines is expanding.

If you’ve setup your Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIN accounts for maximum marketing impact, then each of those automatically replies to a new person who follows, likes or connects to your virtual entity in cyber space.

“You have a new follower on Twitter”

reads the email containing the profile photo,  blurb and button to follow them back.

Very like the prescient video presaging “Siri” in the iPhone way back in 1988 made by John Sculley at Apple showing him talking to a desktop assistant who knew his schedule, it’s foreseeable that the next application wave could contain app droplets that do intelligent responding to autoresponders.  Therefore, in the offing: a legitimate conversation of query or statement and response made by the virtual entities of long dead human beings – providing the accounts of each remain open.

Note: It’s hard enough to close an AOL account when you’re alive.  Imagine how many Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo email accounts exist for the deceased?

So, an entire new discipline might arise for professional historians alongside handwriting analysis and historical context analysis: ghost conversations – engaging with the virtual representatives of the deceased to discern the details of their lives and personalities.  Since most people employ the default message placed into the autoresponder for their email system, is that what you really want to represent you to your biographer after you’re gone?

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