Rolf Von Eckartsberg

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Social and Electronic Immortality - Part III

Our role becomes indeed that of "cybers", pilots in our own information ocean.


Dr. Rolf Von Eckartsberg

December 1988

The Spiritual Testament and the Electronic Immortality Portfolio

Every person has the right and even the obligation toward his or her kin and the state to make a last will and testament-- often a legal video-- in which he or she can determine how the possessions are to be distributed, what and how much is to be given to which heirs. Through the act of making a will a person can reach beyond his or her personal death and affect the future. This is the self-willed reach and immortality of the person beyond his or her biological lifetime.

If the person has produced "works": writings or creations such as art-works or knowledge-works, these have long since become disseminated through publications and dispersed through the market place and thus have achieved their own immortality as creative mini life-sums in the listener's or reader's consciousness and discourse. Every story is a mini life-sum and enters the great stream of our collective discourse. However, the birth of a work is also, at the same time, the partial death of its author as the spirit-rector of its accomplishment. The work moves beyond the recall and control of its author into spiritual immortality even during his or her life-time becoming a voice on a record which repeats itself forever and ever in new encounters with newcomers, or in suspended animation on the shelves of libraries and shops, or in electro-magnetic stotage in some data-base waiting to be rediscovered and resuscitated.

In this way of seeing, death is not the radical break we attribute to it from an ego-centric perspective. It is true that everyone dies as a body but we also survive and are reborn through language in the remembrance of the heirs and the surviving community, through the circulation of life stories and life portraits. Through such lasting spiritual wills and testaments we continue to affect our progeny and the community at large, although we have no longer any control over this. From a socio-centric perspective we survive our biological death in the spiritual life-time of the community.

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In facing sickness, old age, and death every person craves some form of immortality (Lifton, 1968) and engages in activities of "life-review" (Butler, 1971, 1975) . This desire is expressed in the many varieties of activities which assemble and express essential events and features of the person' existence.

Remembering and reminising, together, are the spntaneous activities we engage in. We also collect and review fotos and mementos which embody significant events and relationships in our life as traces. WE articulate stories which weave them into the meaningful fabric of our lives. Let us call this documentation material and its narration the "immortality portfolio" of a person. It is a kind of existential time-capsule.

As individuals living in our modern era we cannot assume that the increasing accumulation of our existential data made possible by technology will be welcome by our heirs. They are kept too busy with their own lives to sift through all our materials and organize them into a coherent documented legacy-story. Each person shall have to initiate and accomplish this for him-or herself and learn to engage in the rewarding activities of psychological life-summing, by means of which we can refashion our lived life into an existential work of art.

Such an existential gathering and accumulation of life-traces --- the immortality portfolio -- can be overwhelming and an embarrassment of riches, or at least an avalanche of details. What to do with such an overabundance of materials of a person's whole life-time? There are several promising approaches that I have come across. Progoff (1975) has developed a complex psychological system of existential bookkeeping called the "Intensive Journal Process" which aims at recording the inner and outer events of a person's life and integrating the life-data through journal feedback and inner dialogue. Through keeping a journal workbook which has 19 sub-sections, and dialoguing with these dimensions in a workshop format, Progoff leads people on a personality meaningful journey of self-recording, self-exploration, and self-integration. Progoff's "Dialogue House" has become and important psychological and spiritual movement.

Van De Bogart (1985) has composed and exhibited a very elaborate and complex "immortality portfolio" entitled "Life-O-Mation". A person's existential data are assembled and transferred unto a laser disc. An authoring program called the "immortality project" provides access to, organization and integration of these life-date in multiple forms.

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Leary (1988) has developed life-game computer programs under the collective title of "head Coach", and a specific program called "Mind Mirror" is available on the software market.

In the 1940's the artist Marcel Duchamp has experimented with ways of summarizing and condensing his work in the form of boxes and the "valise". In an interview he explains:

"Here again, a new form of expression was involved. Instead of painting something new, my aim was to reproduce the paintings and the objects I liked and collect them in a space as small as possible. I did not know how to go about it. I first thought of a bok, but I did not like this idea. Then it occurred to me that it could be a box in which all my works could be collected and mounted like a small museum, a portable museum, so to speak."

(Schwartz, 1969, p.513)

In my own work with graduate students in existential and co-existential social psychology I employ the task: "Make a representation of your life-world using any creative medium or means you see fit. After the representation is made write a legend to narrate and explain your creative production". An amazing variety of life-world representations are made and shared in the classroom, first in a small group context and then in the form of a plenary class exhibition which is photographed or videotaped. This exercise of representing one's life is always very provocative and much appreciated by the students. It accomplishes its aim of personalizing and condensing the individual's life-world and experience.

The availability and increasing popularity of electronic recording devices, especially of VCR's and Video-cameras, this democratization of technology invites us to become video-artists of our life within a circle of inspired fellowship. Our own life together becomes the subject matter of artistic expression and representation: personalized television. We can and do record our highest events and appearances. We are accumulating an existential portfolio of experiences which can then be edited into presentations as we grow older. Retirement becomes a time for personal reminiscing, life-sum constructions and co-creative personal video-production. We can now create an electronic immortality portfolio which contains all the records of the person's life, be they written, photographed, filmed, spoken or videotaped. All this is now available for technologically assisted commemoration.

Through electronic technology we can digitize all information and make it easily and instantly available for review and reworking. At present capacity, 54,000 still frame pictures fit on one side of a laser disc. 30 minutes of audio-visual motion can be stored and played back on one disc. Al types of life-data can be scanned and entered into the memory banks and the "hypertext" of electronic immortality. These existential data can be organized by various authoring languages and programmed for multiple access "information navigation". We become enabled to travel through our life and that of others. Our role becomes indeed that of "cybers", pilots in our own information ocean: personal electronic data bases. Technically, a person's life-data would be available as an electronic immortality portfolio in the form of a laser video disc.

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Psychological Life-Summing and the Life-Sum Video

The approaches discussed in the previous section are very instructive and they illustrate the immensity and complexities of one person's life-data. But, we think yet another step has to be taken. A condensed form -- a synopsis -- has to be given to these materials, an ordering and editing, and creative rearrangement must take place. Representative episodes and icons must be selected. A story-line must be fashioned from our total life-collage. The isolated events, the relationships, the projects, the achievements and faliures, the glories and defeats, the joys and sorrows need to be condensed and integrated into a coherent bio-narrative. The "life-sum" of a person's existence, which expresses this unique life as a work of art, calls out to be created.

To do this life-summing on one's own can be very difficult. It calls for the guidance of a professional collaborator who is trained in "life-summing-counseling". The counselor's role is to help the person who may be overwhelmed by his or her life-data and memories to attain a self-accepting and even celebrative attitude and to engage in philosophical reflection on the essence and wisdom of his or her life-experience and existence. The counselor must assist in finding the most appropriate form for the person to work out a "life-sum-presentation" whether this be in the form of writing, of an audio-tape, or of a "life-sum-video", whatever the client feels is most congenial.

In our experience and work in psychological life-summing we have found that it is important to clients to dwell on the important milestones of their life, both as achievements and as losses or defeats, on their value-experience and emergent life-philosophy, and on their interpersonal relationships which are often illustrated fotos and stories. The person's favorite books, art-works and music, places, celebrative and vacation-activities, are also significant dimensions of existence to be woven into the life-narrative. The way a person arranges his or her home and belongings is typically already a "person work of art" which can be videographed as a guided tour narrated by the person, creating a living portrait of personal living. A recent television production in the series: "The Lifestyles of the Rich and famous" featured a "video-souvenir" of several of Liberace's houses, their furnishings and collections of art-objects which were filmed in their original setting and arrangement. The vido reflects and preserves Liberace's unique taste before everything was auctioned off and dispersed. It is a good example of one possibility or dimension of life-summing which is adaptable also to the lifestyle of "the not so rich and famous."

The lifestyle portrait combined with an existential "show and tell" format in which the person selects the most important fotos and mememtos from their portfolio and narrates them to an evocative interviewer and is also asked to draw some "life-lessons" in the form of maxims or a poem, is our preferred mode of working. This is easily video-taped integrating pictures, voice and the speaker into a unified production. We call this the Life-Sum-Video.

In preparatory meetings the clients are instructed how to gather and collate the materials of their life for the immortality portfolio and perhaps even to put them into video-disc storage. More than one sesion may be needed to complete the preparation engaging the client in short term life-sum counseling, especially since clients often have to face and work through stong emotions associated with their memories. Collecting all materials, organizing them and thinking about them inaugurates the life-summing process which is intended to accomplish an existential harvest. The fruits of one's life are to be identified, articulated, and then fashioned into a spiritual form which expresses the person's life as a work of art and as a morality play, as a video-performance within a given limited time frame demanding summarzation and condensation. This life-sum video will then be both a crystalization of the immortality portfolio and a hypertext which provides points of access to the more detailed and complex life-data portfolio of the person.

In the future we shall all be retired computer-video literates with time on our hands to make our life and its digitized immortality portfolio into audio-visual art-works. We will engage in life-summing, electronic life-summing, as a most meaningful therapeutic as well as personality-integrative endeavor. With the rising population of the elderly, life-sum counseling and life-sum creation may well become a popular new trend in psychology, we hope. A new way of "thanking-thinking" (Heidegger 1969, von Eckartsberg, 1981) will develop which expresses the spirit of appreciation and thanksgiving for the gift of a life fully lived and transmited in a condensed form to others. Through life-summing everyone can complete their lives which otherwise might remain fragmented and "unfinished symphonies", so to speak.

These creations of life-summing will constitute a person's lasting spiritual will and legacy, perhaps to be placed into national archieves, a sort of "universal population life data bank" as Butler (1974) has also suggested. Life-sums and their matrices, the immortality portfolios, may also become accessible at "electronic wakes" and in "electronic cemeteries and memorials" and even in "immortality communication satellites", by means of which the survivors and successors can engage the deceased and his or her life via interactive video -- especially at anniversaries -- thus commemorating the deceased and enlarging and deepening their understanding and appreciation of who and what this person was and remains in our living discourse: in electronic immortality.


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