From Out Whose Bourn

A friend who had died three months ago came online in Skype.  The notification flashed and faded and the icon which had been orange these last ninety days turned green. It must have been, I surmised, a family member who was clearing out the computer and perhaps going through the accounts to close and settle unfinished business. But how did I know?


Technology Review notes that the Internet is filling up with dead people and there’s not much anyone can do about it.  David Winer recently complained that Facebook kept pressing him to reach out to his friend Guy Kewney,  simply because their algorithms suggested that he was getting lonely. It “noticed that he’s not getting a lot of messages, and that alarmingly he isn’t even posting very much! Let’s wake Guy up, the ‘bot at Facebook seems to be saying. Only one problem. Guy is dead.”

Problems need solutions, so Chris Matyszczy suggests this shows that what Facebook really needs is code to figure out if someone has permanently gone offline. The company explained it’s working on it, but that its programmers weren’t really old enough to realize the frequency with which people shuffled off their mortal coil.

The problem with dead people is that they accumulate.  Because they are part of a summation the terms never go away no matter how far one looks. The ranks of the dead never diminish, only increase. It’s estimated that total of 50 billion people have died since the dawn of the species, some ten times more than the number of people still alive.  And they’re still dying. Which means that assuming everyone eventually joins a social networking program of some kind, the ratio between the virtual quick and the dead will eventually approximate the physical ratio. What do we do when 90% of Internet reputations belong to individuals who have gone to their long home?


Some have suggested that we bury them and change their accounts to deceased. Which doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. Some of the best sites in the world were authored by the dead. Eventually most literature will be written by them.

But that was farthest from my mind when I saw my deceased friend come online in Skype. I did the natural thing and said hi. I haven’t checked to see whether there’s an answer yet, but it occurred to me that there would be a really big potential problem if I checked to find one there. That could only mean one of two things. First and most likely, was that some family member, or person unknown, had assumed his identity and was answering back as a game. Second, and less likely was that Skype’s reach extended a good deal further than most people knew.

Fortunately, I have the family’s phone number and can quickly call to find out who’s got the computer. But what if I had no way other of knowing who was on the other end of a supposedly dead person’s Skype account besides continuing the conversation and the answers appeared to indistinguishable from those that I recalled? Then I would be in a version of the Chinese Room Problem.  That, you will recall, was “a thought experiment by John Searle which first appeared in his paper ‘Minds, Brains, and Programs’, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1980.”

He imagined a scenario in which a person inside a room had a detailed set of instructions which when followed enabled him to translate messages submitted in Chinese and reply intelligently to them without himself knowing any Chinese whatsoever.  To all intents and purposes the persons outside the room, who slipped messages inscribed with charcters under the door, would consider themselves in converse with a Chinese man. But reality the man inside the room might be anything at all, even a sufficiently capable computer.


The philosophical question would be: does it matter? Is there any real difference between something which seems perfectly Chinese and a real Chinese man?  In the hypothetical instance where I found my Skype greeting answered in the same vein as the original account owner and I had no way to discover otherwise, would he be alive or dead? And how could I know?

Absent the family’s phone number, which I might call to check, there would be no way in principle to tell. I might assume based on previous experience, that the dead don’t normally answer back on Skype.  But that would simply be a conjecture.  “In mathematics, any number of cases supporting a conjecture, no matter how large, is insufficient for establishing the conjecture’s veracity, since a single counterexample would immediately bring down the conjecture.” Just because no one has ever logged on from the dead doesn’t mean no one ever will.

If I were as good as Harlan Cobain, it would make an interesting starting premise for a novel. A person confronted with an ongoing Skype conversation with a dead person is faced with both a terrestrial mystery and a potential existential problem. What does it mean to be dead?   Any person in that hypothetical situation would at one level hope to find that his interlocutor is really dead. But on second thought, why would he wish that? Why would he like to fling open the door only to find some IBM version of Deep Blue instead of a real Chinese man?


Fred MacMurray in the nearly forgotten 1947 movie Singapore, returns to the hotel table in the post-war entrepot where he once left a lady he knew was dead only to find her there again. Don’t you like movies like that?  Or do you hate them and prefer to find the table empty and turn, as you knew you would, back to the airport to catch that long DC-3 flight to Manila and the China Clipper back to San Francisco? I’ll check the Skype window tomorrow and let you know if someone answers.

“No Way In” print and Kindle edition at Amazon
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