One way to imagine dying is like time travel, except instead of journeying into the future or seeing Ancient Rome, you go to eternity, see nothing, and never come back. We have no idea where people go when they die; it’s what makes death so scary and awful. But the sense that they obviously go somewhere—that the person in front of us, situated in the time and space we share, suddenly gets transported to another realm; that their consciousness flickers, then vanishes—also makes death incredibly inconvenient from a logistical standpoint. This became apparent after the railroads were built. If a train engineer died suddenly on the job—poof!—he would be instantaneously swapped out for a lifeless lump of matter while the huge steel machine he’d been driving kept barreling down the tracks. To get around this problem, the railroad companies devised a “dead man’s switch”: a pressure-sensitive lever or pedal held down by the engineer as he drives. “If the guy suddenly plotzes,” neuroscientist David Eagleman explains, “he’ll release the switch and stop the train.” Eagleman had this antiquated technology in the back of his mind when he sat down to write a short science fiction story called “A Brief History of Death Switches.” The story begins with a familiar problem: “At the beginning of the computer era, people died with passwords in their heads.” It was an administrative nightmare, with emails, photos, diaries, and financial information locked away for all eternity simply because people kept crossing into the beyond with the only set of keys. Eventually, Eagleman writes, a solution emerged: software called Death Switches that would detect a person’s demise and send prewritten, postmortem emails to next of kin, sharing passwords. But it didn’t take long, Eagleman goes on, for people to realize they could communicate more than passwords. They could say good-bye or get in the last word of an argument. As it turns out, Eagleman wasn’t just writing fiction. In 2006 he launched a real-life startup, Deathswitch, to provide the service. Subscribers are prompted periodically via email to make sure they’re still alive. When they fail to respond, Deathswitch starts firing off their predrafted notes to loved ones. The company now has thousands of users and effectively runs itself. Among the perks of a premium Deathswitch account is the ability to schedule emails for delivery far in the future: to wish your wife a happy 50th wedding anniversary, for example, 30 years after you left her a widow. Death is the original other dimension—a parallel universe that, for millennia, we have anxiously tried to understand. As software, Deathswitch is relatively simple, but as a tool in that millennia-long project it can feel spine-chillingly disruptive. Eagleman has jury-rigged a way for people to speak from beyond that inviolable border and—for those of us still sticking it out on this side—to feel we’re being spoken to. It’s another example of technology enabling things that previously would have seemed magic. More via WIRED.
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