Friendship, data, immortality and the brain

Last week, I lost one of my oldest friends. He died of a brain tumor. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. Still processing. This happened after a very intense time reflecting on humanity, technology, how they intersect and influence each other, and what the limits of each are or should be, so my  thoughts and feelings are strands loosely braided together. I have a hard time believing he is gone, and I have no idea where he went.

In the conversations in Lisbon at the House of Beautiful Business, I was struck and, quite frankly, a bit triggered by the conversation on transhumanism. Reflecting on my friend’s death all of a sudden made this a lot more real. Who are we as humans? What is that thing that makes us us? What “format” does this come in? Had he been able to upload his “data set” (for lack of a better word) into the cloud or wherever – would that still be him? And what about the way we remember with and make sense of things through our bodies – would that data set have contained how it feels to drink a cup of Frisian tea the traditional way, layers of increasing sweetness? (One of his soapbox topics, how this is one of the most underappreciated cultural practices, deeply wishing it was as famous as the Japanese tea ceremony). If I concentrate, I can still taste it, and I remember the pattern on the cup and where we drank it. Would the replay have felt the same? What sort of data is this? And what sort of data is the long list of memories and things unsaid that pop into my head at the most random times since I’ve gotten the news? How do you put zeros and ones to an absence?

Decades-long friendships are a precious gift, and I have profound regrets not valuing this while I had it, not valuing him as much as I should have. He was the housemate of friends I visited at age 20. We enjoyed conversations and stayed in touch. Both moving around, both finding time to meet up in the most random places on a fairly regular basis. I partially envied his life he built for himself, a respected profession, generous benefits, a home to go back to. He probably saw mine with suspicion, he liked things orderly and predictable, my life with its twists and turns and near-misses very close to his idea of a nightmare. I am at the more innovative end of things with what I do for a living. He got panicky when I sent him a text message, he wasn’t sure what to do with it, his very first (feature) mobile phone. That was about 3 years ago.

Most likely, he would have considered transhumanism absurd – one of the many conversations I wish we had had a chance to have. It would have been sprawling, all-encompassing and utterly glorious  (with food and drink). He would have laughed at the idea of keeping a “data set” of himself somewhere. Or would he? Would he have welcomed the chance, in those last months, had that been available? A Faustian pact for a way out of the inevitable? For a second lease of life in some unclear future? To do the things in life he always wanted to do (but never found the courage to, he always picked the safest of all options).

The doctors said the tumor accentuated the quirks of his personality. Parts of what I consider to be “him” could have been side effects of the tumor (that was also a part of him). Who was he? The him that I knew? And where was that? His brain clearly had something to do with it, but that wasn’t everything – or was it? A lot of spiritual traditions have a thing, called soul, or something like that. The thing that is more than the sum of the parts. Where does this sit? I find it hard to believe that there could be a cloud storage solution for this someday, and that this is something we’d actually want. Also, calling it cloud storage, a heaven/sky metaphor that sounds so much better than a server park somewhere.

As layers of grief are slowly unfolding, I would give a lot to have something somewhere containing “him” in some way or another, to have the conversations with that we didn’t have a chance to have. Visiting a grave is not going to cut it for me, I want more than that. And then I imagine awkwardly hugging a zip drive of sorts, and that is not what I want either. Technology won’t help us who are staying behind with our internal processes. There is no app for that, and no app for friendship. These things need to be lived out loud, in the here and now.

Our friends help us make our joint stories, and we then carry those stories together. They are custodians of experiences shared, of steps taken, hearts broken, lessons learned. A few days in I realized he was the only person in my life who knew the 20 year old Christine and the 40 year old Christine, and who, without any significant disruptions, witnessed one slowly turning into the other.

Hours and hours, days and days of conversations live and on the phone. The photo exhibition in Vienna, the sprint across an island to catch the last ferry, the walk in the city center of Munich, Wembley stadium FA cup final, the missed connection at Boston airport, the fry-up in a pub in Kent, the windmill at the Frisian coast, my first cup of chowder in Ireland. Data points of sorts, but lists don’t capture what they were really all about. The little transformations that good conversations entice. Vestigiae in the body. Random snapshots in the album of the mind. And all that life, that daily life, that happened in between over these 20 years. Collecting nuggets to then being able to share them at the next encounter. I now wish we had at some point taken the time to look back and appreciate our journeys in those past 20 years. We would have had plenty of reasons to celebrate, and we never did.

Who was he? It feels like I still have no idea really. I know bits. We always only know bits if we are honest. Even after 20 years we still surprised each other (like the day I learned that this skinny intellectual was a licensed football referee). And there were things I meant to tell him, but never did… What is left is what I carry, what his other friends and family carry, what the hundreds of people he touched with his work carry. Fragments, well distributed around the globe. They might or might not add up. They might or might not translate into data. They are real nonetheless. For the time being, we could call that immortality.

 

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