The comfort in end of life AI
Nostalgia lends comfort in times of upheaval. Millennials, thanks to a lifetime of internet use, have witnessed plenty of it. What impact does this have on how we digitize the afterlife?
Thanks for being here. If you like what I do, consider forwarding this email along to a friend. If you’re new, consider subscribing to receive Brands Mean a Lot once a week.
Last year, Millennials became the largest generational cohort in the US. This means two things:
The market for nostalgia-tapping muck drudged from millennial childhoods like second Ghostbusters reboots will at best remain, and at worst, increase.
The Baby Boomer generation, previously the largest, will continue to get smaller.
In the past couple of years, there have been over 750,000 Covid related deaths, increased environmental precarity as realized through the rationing of the Colorado River, non-stop wildfires, and brutal, more frequent hurricanes in the Southeast. Death looms a little larger now and if the growth of the end of life technology market is any indication, our reckoning with it is becoming an increasingly digital proposition.
Millennials came of age when one could still see the ground under the mountainous, ever accumulating, digital scrap heap we all presently sit upon. I still use my AOL email, which I received as a pre-teen, for anything that could be unnecessarily spammy. I have an Xbox live account somewhere and refuse to get rid of my last iPod because I think I could somehow bring those mp3s back to life elsewhere. If this is just some of the stuff I remember, imagine all of the accounts, photos, and apps I don’t.
For end of life technologies, the snowball growth at which our digital scrapheap accumulates is the underlying business thesis. What’s to be done with meemaw and peepaw’s Facebook, iCloud, and 123Greetings.com accounts? But more importantly, what can be mined from those accounts to recreate cloud-based versions of them?
Going back to #1 above, It’s not just nostalgia for Hogwarts, Spice Girls, and Ninja Turtles millennials will be marketed, it’s nostalgia for their parents. This is how we end up with companies whose mission it is to tap rich veins of nostalgia with digitally synthetic versions of loved ones. Two such companies are GoodTrust and HereAfter AI.
The roots of the word nostalgia come from the Greek words nóstos, which means “homecoming” and algos, meaning “pain”. Nostalgia is a yearning for home, the place where one is most at peace. Since the word means a yearning for something from the past, the implication is that the melancholy which arises during nostalgia is rooted in a yearning for comfort. For most, parents are the emotional home.
From a marketing perspective, nostalgia needs two things to be deployed successfully.
Fuel on which to run. In this context, the past is fuel.
A successful framework to combust the fuel. As in, the most effective and compelling way to portray the past, such that the proper amount of melancholy can be dredged from the audience.
Because we can never actually go back, and because time’s arrow points in one direction forever, nostalgia’s regenerative power is infinite. The fuel is also free: the existence of people who can remember their pasts comes at no cost to a company hoping to use nostalgia’s power. Finally, in terms of mining the fuel which makes us yearn for ‘home’ there is none greater than a person’s loved ones.
Hereafter AI pairs its living subjects--those being memorialized--with interviewers tasked to ask questions about the participants’ pasts that “evoke memories”. The company feeds the responses into its artificial intelligence tool so the tool can then respond, in the memorialized voice, to the question in a natural way. To avoid the potential for any major divergence from the existing computer-generated personality and whatever the dead persons’ personality was, the tool only responds to factual questions pertaining to the past like “what were your siblings’ names?”, or “how did you end up on this computer?”
GoodTrust goes a slightly different route by creating AI animated photos of the dead. The best I can say is that GoodTrust knows which parts of the face are able to move and which cannot, and ensures you, the viewer, do as well. Also, two of the photos contained in the website’s slideshow meant to demonstrate the photo product are of toddlers (I’m unable to insert them on Substack, so I suggest you view them here). Death comes for us all.
Time, in the form of the past, doesn’t only serve as the fuel for the nostalgia marketing machine, time is the platform which enables the extension of a person’s monetizable lifespan. Technology, like time, progresses infinitely outward--at least until the world implodes--making it a fitting partner for nostalgia.
What’s happening is an increase in the volume and velocity at which people are remembered, and therefore an extension in people’s monetizable lifespans. Both HereAfter AI and GoodTrust offer lifetime pricing plans. While all tech eventually becomes obsolete, the idea is the tech behind both companies will be transferable in a way that presents less friction than tape recordings and film, with better durability.
As it’s meant to lend comfort, nostalgia is something often turned to in times of turmoil or upheaval. Whether we’re experiencing more upheaval or turmoil than previous generations is debatable. What’s certain is that thanks to technology, we’re witnessing more upheaval and turmoil than ever before. And so, the market for nostalgia expands.
What better counterbalance to a constant stream of upheaval than an AI generated ersatz peepaw?