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Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM

Louisa Hall

The experts say that within the next fifty years, personal computers will be advanced enough to sustain online avatars that will not die when we do. Using animation and voice-recognition technologies, our friends and relatives will be able to create lifelike digital bodies, into which they will breathe our particular spirit, a complicated spell composed of such ingredients as online communication, downloaded photographs, consumer reports and GPS tracking. When we die, we will leave behind three-dimensional, animated versions of ourselves, replete with records of our experiences and relationships. Once these avatars have been linked to the social networks of our living friends and relatives, and once they’ve been endowed with technologies that allow them to impute the emotions of these friends and relatives based on facial expressions in photographs, our avatars will be capable of maintaining attachments to our loved ones, gaining knowledge and experience about their continuing lives, and evolving with them—even after our death.

Even now, these technologies aren’t so far-fetched. We already maintain the Facebook accounts of our deceased loved ones, as do we rekindle old relationships by checking in with the online presence of friends and exes with whom we no longer speak. In part, we build our own online presence for exactly this purpose. It’s no longer necessary to trust the unreliable memories of our loved ones to keep us alive in their minds. Every time we upload a photograph to Instagram or allow our phone to record our location, we are contributing to our online afterlife; each post we make to Facebook breathes a new sigh of life into the golems we’ve made of the phones in our pockets.

They are our guardians against total destruction, our guarantee against endings—if only we can be sure to arrange the right combination of pictures, if only we can be careful to give a true name to the experiences we’ve recorded.

The impulse to treasure up our spirit in a body outside our own has always been with us. It’s the urge behind writing books, behind creating art. It’s also the urge behind making golems. Sometimes we choose bodies of clay; other times, we choose bodies of paper. Now, increasingly, we choose the bodies of our phones and computers, and already, like the others, those avatars have gained a power of their own: changing us, making us more reliant, absconding with our memories, replacing us in the minds of our loved ones.

Louisa Hall grew up in Philadelphia. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Texas at Austin, where she currently teaches literature and creative writing. She is the author of the novels Speak and The Carriage House, and her poems have been published in the New Republic, Southwest Review, Ellipsis, and other journals.

On a sidewalk, two people looking at their smartphones walk towards each other

People walk on a sidewalk in Manhattan both holding smartphones in their hands
Michael Kowalczyk, New York, 2015

Citation recommendation:

Louisa Hall (2016), Avatars. Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM.

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