Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dead Souls

With each passing week more and more of us be­come ready to con­cede that eco­nom­ic growth is no longer pos­sible. Eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, on the old mod­el, which UN Sec­ret­ary Ban Ki-moon re­cently char­ac­ter­ized as a “glob­al sui­cide pact,” is be­com­ing con­strained by the lim­its of nat­ur­al re­sources of the fi­nite plan­et, en­ergy, ar­able land and fresh wa­ter fore­most among them, and stressed fur­ther by ex­treme weath­er events that in­crease in fre­quency due to the rap­idly destabil­iz­ing cli­mate.

Since the narrowly averted financial collapse of 2008, aggregate indicators of economic growth have been anemic at best, and would be negative were it not for a dramatic expansion in public debt and aggressive financial manipulation by American and European central banks. These methods are only effective up to a point. Some time ago it became apparent that we had reached the point of diminishing returns on debt expansion: further expansion of public debt decreases rather than increases GDP. Perhaps the next realization to hit us is that public debt is in runaway mode: it will continue to go up whether government spending is cut or increased. From this it follows that the government's days are numbered; but few people are ready to make this leap yet.

Against this background of economic stagnation and decay and widespread financial insolvency one sector is experiencing a boom time: Silicon Valley is booming again, and tech start-up IPOs are doing well. Social networking and mobile computing are hot, and some are expecting them to power the global economy out of the doldrums. Others contend that this industry segment is, and will remain, far too small to pick up the slack for the rest of the resource-strapped global economy. What neither side seems to grasp is this: as the virtualized realm of cyberreality and social networking takes over daily life, the actual physical economy will matter less and less (to those who are still alive and have an internet connection). What these new gadgets offer is, simply put, escapism. In a world of dwindling resources, where each person's share of the physical realm decreases over time, it is no wonder that physical reality fails to satisfy. But thanks to the new, intimate, glowing handheld mobile computing devices, the unsatisfactory real world can be blotted out, and replaced with a cleansed, bouncy, shiny version of society in which little avatars utter terse little messages. In the cyber-realm there are no sweaty bodies, no cacophony of voices to suffer through—just a smooth, polished, expertly branded user experience.

While riding the subway through the Boston rush hour, I have been able to observe just how well these personal electronic mental life support units work in shielding people from the sight of their fellow-passengers, who are becoming a rougher and rougher-looking crew, with more and more people in obvious distress. By focusing all of their attentions on the tiny screen, they are also spared the sight of our well-worn and crumbling urban infrastructure. It is as if the physical world doesn't really exist for them, or at least doesn't matter. But as Horace already understood over 2000 years ago, "Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret" ("You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she still will hurry back.") If we ignore the physical realm, the physical economy (the one that actually keeps people fed and sheltered and moves them about the landscape) shrinks and decays. The inevitable result is that more and more of these cyber-campers and their gadgets will drop off the network, shrivel, and die with nary a tweet to signal their demise.

And this is, of course, a shame: a terrible and unnecessary loss to the online community. Yes, resource depletion cannot be turned back, nor can catastrophic climate change. Yes, the global economy will crumble as a result, and people will die. But why should their online personae die with them? That, at least, seems preventable. Not only that, but letting users die is bad for the economy: companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and numerous tech start-ups are judged based on the size of their user base. Some of them may not generate much in the way of revenue, but if they have millions of users then everyone assumes that they must be worth something. But if the physical economy continues to cave in on itself and their users start to drop off like flies in autumn, then that would be bad for a company's valuation and stand in the way of it securing additional rounds of financing. If it finds a way to compensate, then all would be well with their business plan, and their innovative social networking platform might indeed help power the global economy out of the doldrums and into some other nautical metaphor... the coastal shallows, perhaps, where it would be careened and methodically picked clean by the coast-dwelling troglodytes... But if not, then it would be doomed. Doomed! Investors don't like the sound of the word "doomed."

The solution is as obvious as it is counterintuitive, and it comes from a classic of Russian literature: Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. It details the exploits of one Chichikov, who rambles around the Russian countryside, visiting estates and convincing their owners to sell to him their dead peasants. With the dead peasants' papers in hand Chichikov is then able to use them as collateral for loans and to mortgage them (omitting to mention, of course, that they are dead). Correspondingly, the solution for the social networking tech start-ups, moving forward, is to leverage their dead users. This, after all, seems like a humane and caring thing to do: why let someone's online persona die with them? This is often a shock to the other users, who most likely have never even met the deceased person in real life, and don't particularly care whether he or she physically exists. It was once said that on the Internet nobody knows whether you are dog; so let it be that nobody knows whether you are even alive. In a society that lavishes hundreds of thousands of dollars on end-of-life medical care, why not save a little of that money for the cyber-afterlife? For people whose lives are mostly lived on the Internet, technology that extends their online personae past their physical death would be life-extending technology par excellence, and a fitting tribute.

The technical challenge is considerable, but it is by no means insurmountable. For example, let's say you have a dead user who likes cats. Now, it is well known that uploading pictures of cats is a good way to get “karma points.” In life, our erstwhile cat-lover would have immediately responded with a succinct message such as “UR KITTEH RLY CUTE LOLZ” by thumbing it into some handheld device. After our user's untimely demise, the same function would be performed by a computer program. To paraphrase Descartes, “Txto, ergo sum.” Here is a proof of concept that took me just a minute or two to code up:

With a bit of effort this sample code can be extended to cover the typical set of the eternally resting user's online utterances. (Of course, a more contemporary way to implement it would be as a web service. And, of course, it would have to be a RESTful one.)

Thus, generating tweets, SMS messages and posting comments, perhaps even generating entire blog posts that convincingly mimic those of a living user is an eminently surmountable technical challenge. But a much harder problem would be to keep our dead user in the vanguard of exciting new social movements and fashions that sweep through the net with lightening speed. Just recently “planking” was all the rage. 

This is "planking"

But now “planking” is just completely last week and everyone who is cool and hip is into “owling.”

This is "owling"
Without a timely infusion of such new trends our deceased user's persona would grow stale and unpopular. But perhaps that is as it should be: let the living rise in popularity while the dead slowly become de-friended and de-linked, eventually lapsing into oblivion. After all, all we are doing is buying some time. The last person out, please remember to shut down the cloud, because what would be the use of dead people talking to each other on a dead planet?


what the Tee Vee taught said...

Ear to ear, Dmitry, that was a real treat. I've been really focused on growing food of late... but learning of this owling thing is making me feel like quite a fool.

Elise said...

This is an excellent post, a very accurate account of the path to hell that our present society is embarked on. However, on second thought, have we really changed? La plus ca change.. "To keep the populous subdued, you need bread and circuses."

Crash_Watcher said...

“Not only that, but letting users die is bad for the economy”

That’s just great Kollapsnik, you are against Zombies leaving Zombie comments on your blog, but now you are advocating for a Virtual Zombie Economic Stimulus Plan? Well, at least this would not put the USA deeper into debt...would it?

Anonymous said...

One would hope these slackers could get a bit more creative with their silly hipster trends. I suppose the process will evolve: from lifeless plank, to solitary and motionless owl, to perhaps dangling sloth, or pouncing panther. Eventually we will see still photos of people flying-squirelling (leaping from trees and buildings with arms and legs outstretched. I wait with baited breath.

Pangolin said...

4chan, free streaming porn, free online gaming; who says Skynet didn't already take over the world

If the streets are empty it's because reality can't compete. If you're broke getting Facebook updates on your (air quotes) friends recent vacation, music festival or bar crawl gets old quick.

The zombie apocalypse already happened. Hell, I'm a zombie.

Pangolin said...

Hey Mods_ Why are the drops so lousy on this game. Nothing I click on does anything. How'm I supposed to lvl?

wv: nestinse; totally rockin the man-cave

JMS said...

It's a track back -

I wonder what it will look like on the bus when these things plug right into our optic nerves?


Lauren said...

Given that a neighbor just lost his 20 year-old daughter to a car accident most likely brought about by either texting or cell phoning, I find this post vaguely sinister, and morbidly spot=on.

ses said...

do we have now a digital version of the Stansilaw Lem's 'futurological congress', perhaps...

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Dmitry I love ya! Several LOLs in this beautifully mordant piece. Thanks a million for Club Orlov's beacon of unwavering quiet sanity in a mad (Western) world.

Ronald Langereis said...

Developing from a Dead Soul to a Dead Owl, I'd sign for it, planking the night away.

Jeff said...


Robin Datta said...

From this it follows that the government's days are numbered; but few people are ready to make this leap yet.

Thank you for this perceptive insight!

coner said...

don't forget about cone-ing

hey where is my t-shirt....just kidding, ha ha lol. Love your blog D.O.!!!

Brian said...

I don't see anyone, other than myself, stating the obvious: when the power goes out, the net is gone. When the power grid fails, through lack of fuel, disaster, or abandonment, the net is gone. All this is gone. All the digitized info and silliness, brilliance and rantings, all of it gone, as if it never was. And yet you have people like Cory Doctorow saying, "The only thing that can bring down the net is nuclear holocaust." Nope, Cory. All it takes is lack of cheap electricity to power all that hardware that makes the cloud. And without power, that hardware is just so much junk.

On the plus side, without the cloud and without computers, those claiming authority will be forced to fall back on manual methods of surveillance and control of the masses, and I hope they've lost that skill during the brief digital age. Could be our best chance of surviving the ruling schmoes.

Lizzy said...

Yep, spot on. Very good.

tarwater said...

I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, and work for the computer industry. A few salient facts about Silicon Valley.

1. The best damn finest agricultural district in the U.S.A. was destroyed in order to construct Silicon Valley. At some future time I suspect many of the office complexes, roads, parking lots and whatnot will be removed to reclaim the prime agriculture soils buried beneath them.

2. Most people employed in Silicon Valley, especially engineers and managers, have no significant knowledge of the relationship between mankind and Earth.

3. Many people employed in Silicon Valley drive, drive and drive. If they are well paid, which is not uncommon, they may drive a energy intensive vehicle, such as a Porsche, Lamborghini or Range Rover. A few have a situational-ethics backup vehicle, generally a Prius.

4. Conjoining 2. and 3. is simple proof... " Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us."

Erik said...


seen this yet?

Anonymous said...

On the NYC subway, I often note, "Plugged in and tuned out."

Last night I dreamt I was in an old movie theatre with my brother. A movie theatre we frequented as kids. It was dark, broken down, and unkempt -- yet full of zombies! I handed him a rod I tore from the ground - "this looks good" - and listened to thuds, gurgles, and humorous complaints as I gathered rope and chain to repel an escape route from the roof. Zombies watching a screen are harmless, but when that screen goes out, zombies are best avoided.

Glyn said...

Thankyou for another entertaining post Dmitri! This has actually been going on for a while already; an old clubbing acquaintance committed suicide a few years ago (much to the sadness of her partner and children), but her facebook profile is still up and there. Facebook has occasionally included her in the sidebar list of people I’ve not spoken to in ages, who it suggests I should re-connect with, but I slightly uncomfortably ignore it.

rpauli said...

Nice observation.

Peak Population.

Possibly adults alive today will know peak population. But certainly children today will come to know what year will be the peak population for the planet. Looming.

Unlikely this year.. but maybe some time in the next few years.

Allie said...

Dmitry, as some one who's tuned in to the limits to growth, peak oil, resource depletion, climate change, et al. and who also has a foot in the search marketing / social media marketing world (as long as that fiat can buy physical goods and wares!) I really got a kick out of this post. Setting up campaigns and looking at competitors campaigns and all the other stuff that gets people to 'thumb', 'like' or share really does show how out of touch from reality the average (American) internet user is. Thanks for highlighting it with your unique sense of humor.

Also, I didn't see any one else mention it, but 'leisure diving' is apparently hot right now as well.

Check out:

From their site:

Q. What is a leisure dive?

A. A leisure dive is a jump into a body of water (or at least something soft), striking a ‘leisure pose’ in mid-air. Ideally, a photographer captures the moment when the diver has reached peak height above water, when his or her hips are parallel to the waterline. If successful, the result is an airborne Corona commercial you can post to your preferred social networking platform, or mantle, if you’re old school.


I thought it was rather ironic that you are suppose to get it at the 'peak' of their jump.

Here is a gallery of more leisure dives:

Here's to the big leisure dive of modern civilization...may you do it in style and at your lesiure! ;)

Anonymous said...

The code snippet to imitate deceased facebookers initially brought to mind a Turing test. Then I realized I'd missed a key point: Turing envisioned a machine that could to reply indistinguishably from an intelligent human!

Keep Tomatoes Legal said...

This is not something that may take place in the future. Dead souls are already rampant in today's world and on the Internet. If you think this is far-fetched you can read about it here:
And if you think about it brain deadness explains a lot about human behavior today.

bluebird said...

Brian said..."I don't see anyone, other than myself, stating the obvious: when the power goes out, the net is gone."

Yep, that is why I refuse to buy a Kindle or a smartphone. Instead, I buy lots and lots of books.

UncommonBusiness said...

This is totally off topic, Dmitry, but living in ultrareligous USA, you might get a kick out of this song that mocks utlra right russian orthodox. It's called Ubivai Kosmonavtov, Oni Lezut Na Nebo. Lot's of russian cusswords, too

The Paralegal said...

WOW, this post, Dead Soul, says it all. I have been trying to compose my thoughts on the current decay of "life as we know it..." You did it all in this post. Your last paragraph says it all. THANKS!

sandykrolick, ph.d., editor FIBP said...

Dmitry - this is classic Orlov!!! Thanks for taking the time on this post.

It truly is the case that the Cartesian dualism that ignited modern scientific-industrial consciousness has delivered us to a point of no return, I am afraid. We have replaced our original animal instincts and our primal trust in nature with increasingly disembodied posture of domination. All of this has led to the destruction of the natural world, and the (ab)negation of our own physical embodiment in favor of a virtual world with a virtual life.

It is understandable in a world where trust is replaced with control, and anonymity is the normal life-blood of everyday existence. Our alienation from the physical world, and our own self-estrangement is so profound that there remains little hope for what comes after the collapse, globally.

But, I do love your networking-after-death program. Sounds like a good commercial enterprise... LOLZ

best, as always, sandy (kulturcritic)

Steady Footsteps said...

Well, we'll certainly know when Dmitry has "left the building" won't we? What computer program could simulate his unique and brilliant take on this world?

Spud said...

Back in the day we called the owl, the Kimchi Squat LOL

michigan native said...

Rumor has it that Obama has an internet kill switch as well as a plan to shut off cell phones. Another rumor has 20,000 troops ready to be deployed in the event of "civil unrest". Yet another says these Halliburton FEMA camps are obstensibly to imprison public figures who try to organize the people to revolt

If true, then it looks like the spooks in the Pentagon/"intelligence" community are preparing for collapse by cutting off our communications and will attempt to impose martial law. It looks like they will stop at nothing to attempt to ensure their survival.

2012 will indeed be an interesting year.

Joel said...

I just saw your lecture to the Long Now society, and came here to catch up on your writing.

The start of this post, and that lecture, suggest to me that you might be interested in the book reviewed here. The reviewer was recently engaged in politics, and now realizes most of us will have to deal with a collapse.

The book is on American examples of social collapse best practices, from neighborhoods that collapsed a few decades ago.