Human Futures: A study of Technoscientific Immortality

Case studies

The Human Futures project consists of several different case studies in the USA and Russia.

Main content

Ethnographies of Mind Transfer: A study of the Bina48 project

This first case study, which Annelin Eriksen undertakes, will ethnographically explore transhumanist groups currently working on immortality projects involving information technology and/or robotics in the US. In short, the study investigates ethnographically quests for achieving immortality by fusing human consciousness and computer technology. During fieldwork she will work with the Terasem Movement, which hosts one of the leading US mind-transfer research institutes that is currently gaining traction both inside and outside transhumanist circles.

Recently featured on the popular National Geographic series The Story of God, the figure-head and leader of the movement, Martine Rothblatt, is currently working on building a machine-replica of her partner, called Bina48, and is noted for her work with what is called the Lifenaut project. This project encourages people to create a digital archive of personal information and memories, upload personality tests, and create online avatars as an extension of themselves into the future. Rothblatt is also renowned for her alliance with futurist and Google engineer Ray Kurzweil, a key thinker in the transhumanist movement, and while the Terasem movement draws heavily on the future-oriented high-tech vibrancy of Silicon Valley, they fuse state-of-the-art information technology with the tenets of eastern spirituality such as yoga, embedding these as explicit resources in their ongoing life extension endeavours. 

Cryonics and "Bio-Inclusive" Human Augmentation in the US

The second case study, which William Dawley undertakes, will ethnographically explore the US-based projects whose goal is to allow humans to attain immortality (or at least radical longevity) within the body, through advances in technoscience (especially the fields of medicine, nanotechnology, genetics, biotech, and computational sciences).

Cryonics will be studied in ethnographic depth as one of the most “upper case” examples of these “bio-inclusive” efforts to achieve immortality, especially the community around Alcor (currently the largest cryonics facility in the world, outside Phoenix, Arizona), in comparison to the cryonics communities near Detroit (Cryonics Institute) and around the new Tomorrow Biostasis company in Switzerland and Berlin.

This study will also try to contextualize cryonics within the US. How can cryonics be distinguished from other research projects in the US, aimed at overcoming current limitations on human longevity, mental and physical capabilities, and well-being? Where does cryonics fit within the country’s widespread practices attempting to augment the body and mind (not only medical and technological interventions, but the development of cultural lifestyles around incorporating scientific findings and new technologies into health-and-fitness regimens). What are the special roles of science and technology distinguishing cryonics from these other scientific and cultural projects? Additionally, the project asks: What is the role of risk management in motivating these projects? Its proponents often describe cryonics, not as a guarantee, but as the best available option for avoiding the high risk of personal annihilation, and it is funded largely through insurance products that are more commonplace in the US than elsewhere. What is the role of a broader US culture of private investment and risk management, and how is risk management understood in these communities?

To complement this ethnographic and cultural investigation, this project will include both digital ethnographic research as well as a “Big Data” research component—both aimed at better understanding how the relatively rare practice of cryonics (only 190 people are cryonically suspended at the largest facility near Phoenix) is connected to broader trends, like intense mass media coverage of human augmentation and communities of interest around forms of human augmentation (largely online). Public social media and online forums for cryonics and other human augmentation practices provide one site for digital ethnographic research. Big Data approaches allow the project to visualize and measure the links between these topics, public accounts, mass media, and online communities, using tools like community detection and salience and proximity analysis to visualize the shape of these networks and to uncover unsuspected connections, the way these topics are framed, and where and when these topics are being most discussed. This complementary part of the project can help better understand the (often digital) communities and subcultures of interest that lead people to cryonics or to other projects of human augmentation.

*David Herbert, Fartein Nilsen, and Ida Skarsæterhagen will also collaborate on this part of the project.

Ghosts in the machine: A study of 'digital afterlives' in the US

The third case study, headed by PhD Candidate Fartein Hauan Nilsen, aims to examine the growing field of 'digital afterlife' technologies in the US, which are services that allow individuals to preserve their memories and create online avatars of themselves that can interact with others after they have passed away. To achieve this goal, the study will focus on a handful of startups that provide these services, located in California where many of these companies have their headquarters.

Furthermore, the project aims to not only study how people interact with posthumous digital avatars but also how they interact with digital companions in general. This is because the use of AI-designed digital companions is becoming increasingly common in various settings, including healthcare, education, and customer service. By examining how people interact with digital companions, the project hopes to gain insights into how people might interact with posthumous digital avatars, as well as understanding the broader cultural implications of using these technologies in everyday life.

The research will be conducted using a combination of qualitative research methods, including participant observation, in-depth interviews, and online engagement with virtual communities that use and discuss digital afterlife technologies. By examining how people interact with these technologies, the project aims to shed light on the ways in which they are affecting cultures of death and dying, as well as exploring new research methodologies within social anthropology.

To understand the complex relationship between technology and culture, the project will draw upon the analytical frameworks of both digital anthropology and cyborg anthropology. The former is an approach that seeks to take the affordances of digital technology seriously, recognizing the impact that digital technology has on culture and the possibilities it offers for new research methodologies. The latter is an approach that emphasizes the interdependence between humans and machines, acknowledging that technologies are agents in reproducing social life. By combining these approaches, the project hopes to gain a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which digital technologies are changing our relationship with death and dying, and also open new avenues for experimenting with methodologies within social anthropology.

Nikolai Fedorov: Kinship, Resurrection, and Filial Duty

For the fourth case study, Anya Bernstein will extend previous fieldwork done in Russia and undertake archival research to examine the theory of kinship of one of the earliest predecessors of transhumanism. From the midnineteenth century onward, in Russia, the theme of science-based physical immortality has been consistent across diverse intellectual circles in a way that we do not find elsewhere in the world at least until the 1960s. Not only have a long line of Russian philosophers explored the idea of immortalism, Soviet scientists organized decades of experiments around its potential. Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903), a nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox philosopher, famously proposed that through science we would one day learn to resurrect the dead. There could be no worthier undertaking than furthering this task, he argued. It was the only thing capable of uniting humanity, ending wars, and achieving world peace. Fedorov called it “the Common Cause”. As eccentric as it sounded, the Fedorov’s legacy influenced a wide range of phenomena, from the embalmment of Lenin (Tumarkin 1997) to the creation of the first cryonics company in Russia.

It is less known, however, that behind his resurrection of ancestors project is an original theory of kinship. Fedorov distinguishes between the condition of “kinship,” or rodstvo, and a condition that is “unkin-ly” (nerodstvennoe). The unkin-ly condition, according to Fedorov, is the ultimate cause of the “unpeaceful state of the world,” while what is needed to bring about world peace is the “restoration of kinship.” In his view, the resurrection of ancestors is an act of love and compassion on the part of their descendants, but it is above all an act of filial duty. Fedorov’s key idea is that, as children, we owe a “resurrectory debt” to our parents. To repay it, and in the process restore human kinship, each generation must become responsible for resurrecting its parents, a process that will ultimately extend to the resurrection of the very first humans (Bernstein 2019).

Not only Fedorov’s kinship theory made Russian cryonics distinct from its American counterparts, it also inspired a new church, the Church of Perpetual Life, to emerge in the United States. Fedorov’s kinship theory can be viewed as both a subject of anthropological scholarship, as well as a contribution to anthropological analyses of kinship in its own right. The analysis of his kinship theory will provide the background for the two subsequent ethnographic case studies.

KrioRus: Cryonics in Russia

The fifth case will be conducted by Bernstein and extends previous fieldwork with KrioRus, a Russian cryonics company in Moscow. Although it has only been in existence for 14 years, it has already frozen 73 people and 41 pets, growing much faster exponentially than the two U.S. companies. Next to Fedorov’s messianism, cryonics appears to dwindle into a merely rational practice of investing in the self, a sort of insurance policy against death. Yet, closer analysis reveals distinct Fedorovian themes showing that cryonics too is deeply embedded in kinship relations. This case-study will be set in direct comparison to the US cryonics case, and we ask: What is distinctive about KrioRus, as opposed to the U.S. cryonics? How is kin, especially in descent, conceptualised and developed? And is cryonics potentially changing the way personhood is understood in Russia?

KrioRus was created initially to provide free or low-cost cryopreservation for activists’ closest kin and only secondarily as a business catering to outsiders. Almost everyone in the inner circle of KrioRus has a grandmother, grandfather, parent, or at least a beloved pet waiting in liquid nitrogen for their “next” life. Bernstein will investigate the extent to which they are fulfilling a distinctly Fedorovian goal of filial duty by striving for the eventual resurrection of previous generations. Moreover, “KrioRus Animals” department reveals an importance of kinship for the preservation of “companion species” (Haraway 2003), as kin is “made” with other species in this case through freezing. Bernstein will draw on her previous research to investigate the role of kinship in the cryogenic preservation of relatives and pets through ethnographic fieldwork, theoretical analysis of the untranslated writings of Fedorov, and anthropological scholarship on kinship. The two Russia-based cases are worth studying not only for their own cultural distinctiveness, but also because they can provide a new interpretation of immortality projects in general, and cryonics in particular, as global practices.

The general aim of the Russia-US axis of this project is to uncover the real-life transnational interactions between specific scientists and futurists in immortality movements and bring this history into the present with the most recent example of Russian-American links in this domain. Strikingly, Fedorov’s kinship theory developed in the nineteenth century recently has become the foundation of a new Christian church in the US — a church that truly belongs to the twenty-first century.

Fedorov Gone Global: The Church of Perpetual Life

This last case study will be conducted by Eriksen and Bernstein together, and will concretely connect US and Russian immortality projects, and focus in particular on the genealogical connections. If Fedorov has been influential in Russia, until recently he was relatively unknown in the West. Recent rise in transnational connections between American and Russian transhumanist movements brought about an unexpected development. A few years ago, Fedorov was proclaimed to be a prophet in a Protestant Christian church called The Church of Perpetual Life located in Florida (interestingly, their second saint is the science fiction writer, Arthur Clark). Drawing on the Fedorovian unorthodox reading of Christianity as the divine plan, which involves humans working alongside God to bring about immanent resurrection, the Church views its mission in making Fedorov’s “Common Cause” a reality through both providing religious services to longevity activists and popularizing biomedical research on life extension among the general public. In light of these beliefs, the Church of Perpetual Life has developed a distinctive ritual called “Remembrance of the Resurrectables” that has not yet been studied by anthropologists.

The “resurrectables” are people in cryonic suspension who are commemorated every month, with the service taking place in the physical church and livestreamed on YouTube. Russian cryonicists regularly send them names and biographies of their frozen clients (or, as they say “deanimated” people, as death is considered a temporary cessation of animation; cf. anthropological scholarship that proposed to replace the terms “life” and “death” with “animation” and “cessation,” Franklin and Lock 2003). What does “providing perpetual support to deanimated members,” as the Church itself states its mission, entail in this case? Until science catches up to “animate” these people (and some pet companions), “perpetual” remembrance service is a form of symbolic immortality (Lifton and Olson [1974 ]2010) that the Church can provide to the relatives of the “deanimated,” as well as the larger community of believers. Drawing on their long-standing expertise in the anthropology of religion, Bernstein and Eriksen will conduct the ethnographic study of the Church of Perpetual Life, looking at how the notion of kin and personhood is viewed by the Church founding members and congregation.

Cited on this page

Bernstein, A. (2019) The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia. Princeton: Prince University

Franklin, S., and M. Lock, eds. (2003). Remaking Life and Death: Toward an Anthropology of the Biosciences. Santa Fe: School for
Advanced Research Press.

Haraway, D. (2003). The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Lifton, R, and E. Olson. ([1974] 2010). Symbolic Immortality. In Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader. Antonius C. G. M. Robben, ed. Pp. 23–40. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Tumarkin, N. (1997). Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.