In my latest book “Unconscious 3.0” I have dedicated some reflections to the use of technologies in the service of the denial of death. The famous episode of the Black Mirror series entitled “Be Right Back”, in which a young woman buys a robot to replace her dead husband, anticipated a reality that is not far off. For some years now, there have been several platforms on the Internet that allow the avatar of a deceased person to be recreated, by sending photographs, videos and voice recordings, so that their relatives can maintain a sort of virtual encounter. But the speed with which the developments of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality are advancing has just taken a giant leap on this question.
I owe to a dear colleague access to the news of a truly shocking event. The South Korean production company Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation has just released a video clip announcing the documentary “I met you” (which could be translated as “I found you”, or even – given the context – “I rediscovered you”), which tells the story of Mrs. Jang Ji-sung, who in 2016 lost her seven-year-old daughter Nayeon to an incurable disease. By means of virtual reality goggles and gloves, Mrs. Jang is reunited with her daughter in a park they used to visit together. A child actor plays the role of Nayeon, but Jang “sees” her own daughter, who approaches her and asks her where she has been all this time. In response Mrs. Jang hesitates for a moment, but then immediately caresses her, crying all the while.
The amazing technical realization allows Mrs. Jang to experience the kind of hallucination in which the experience of virtual reality consists. The viewer (myself included) cannot help but feel an uncontrollable emotion when witnessing the encounter between the mother and her dead daughter, resurrected through the magic of a technology that is capable of challenging what we did not hesitate to describe as “The absolute master “. Jang has the name of her daughter and the date of her birth tattooed on her body. On her neck is a necklace made of dust from Nayeon’s bones.
The controversy took not a moment to unleash. What is the purpose of this technology, still imperfect, but which will soon arrive at a verisimilitude impossible to distinguish from reality in its most elemental sense? Some say it can be an extremely useful tool for the work of mourning. Others, on the contrary, think that this invention not only perpetuates the impossibility of any resolution, but also constitutes a sinister industry that adds a new product to the emotional economy.
When Eric Clapton lost his four-year-old son in a tragic accident, he managed to rescue himself by composing one of his best songs: “Tears in Heaven”. Of course, not everyone has at their disposal a similar way of working through what is possibly the most terrible experience that a subject can go through: the death of a child, something for which there is not even a word. An orphan is someone who has lost his parents. There is no way to name a father or a mother who has lost a child. This, which constitutes a real of the symbolic, is something that the technological vertigo has detected and insists on denying.
Nonetheless, and before we psychoanalysts rush to draw conclusions about certain uses of virtual reality, conclusions from which for now it is very difficult to untangle our own fantasmatic residues (or our ego prejudices, to put it in simpler terms), we might consider one of the fundamental principles of our discourse: not to confuse ethics with morals. This is not an easy principle to maintain, but in order not to go astray in the attempt, it is worth remembering that something similar happens with technologies to what happens with analytical transference. It is a question of perceiving the use that each one will have to make of the object in order to fabricate their symptom. The symptom that each and every one of us needs to stay afloat on the littoral that unites and separates sleep and wakefulness.
Translated by Roger Litten