When I was a cub reporter at the Lumaville Daily Echo (in the last century, as I like to say to burnish the recollection with a sense of antiquity), a frequent request made of me by Old Editor Hedgebrow was a form of slave labor he quaintly called “outputting the obits.” Writing obituaries is meticulous, mind-numbing work, more akin to arithmetic than writing seeing as accuracy was of paramount importance, unlike these hazy recollections that are often rendered in gauzy soft-focus (buoyant as my memories be, they float on a sea of wine).
Prior to craigslist, copy-editing classifieds was the newsroom’s bane of choice, but since the late ‘90s it’s been obituaries – literary tombstones, whole biographies in 500 words or less wherein even the slightest typo is construed as disrespect. This happened to me once: I inadvertently left an asterisk at the end of a write-up which sent survivors trawling for its mate before realizing the lonely star was an empty promise keyed by a slapdash young hack. In retrospect, I think that all obits should end in an asterisk – it admits to the mystery of an individual life cannot be known in its entirety, and just as often, not even by the individual in question (there I am again, taking the “art” out of Sartre). Of course, I would prefer a question mark rather than an asterisk – better to fake one’s death a few times to get it right. I once knew an old daredevil who strove all his life for an exclamation point, but instead slipped away, quietly with a schwa. His last word was “huh.”
Between humiliations in the screen-trade, I would kill time at the Hollywood Forever cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard, where, I suppose, dead stars eventually turn into either white dwarfs or black holes depending on the currency of their waning star-power. The cemetery proffered an attraction dubbed “Library of Lives” in which one could peruse video of the deceased prepared by one of their “professional LifeStory specialists,” dedicated to gathering images, audio and ephemera to be “captured and stored permanently in our unique LifeStory theaters.” I ventured into one of these multimedia mausoleums, closed the door and pushed the button that activated a private viewing screen. Through speakers, a pleasant voice cooed “Hello, welcome to forever.” I clicked through half a dozen lives, theretofore unknown to me, before realizing I should be out living my own.
Writer and blogger Clive Thompson recently profiled Microsoft Research Labs maven Gordon Bell, who, for the past several years, has been recording every piece of his life into a surrogate brain – images from a miniature camera worn around his neck, audio recording of every conversation he has, e-mails, web pages read, everything from the mundane to the meaningful. This proactive (or preemptive) effort makes LifeStory theater seem like a puppet show by comparison and obituaries mere haiku. In the very least, Bell seems to be fulfilling the promise of a pre-bubble start-up I was once sent to profile, which was proffering a similar service, though theirs was then considered the forefront of neuro-technology. As the publicist explained, “We’re going to scan your brain.”
“For its contents. Think of it as a back-up drive for your mind,” the publicist explained, tapping a little black box the size of a thimble.
“That’s kind of small don’t you think?”
“You’d be amazed at how little you know.”
A couple of lab techs strapped a skullcap festooned with wires to my head and put a bite-block in my mouth so I wouldn’t bite my tongue, or talk, or both. They were a dour duo for whom the novelty of the procedure was long gone. One flipped a switch and the other shook his head. For a moment, the back of my head felt vaguely warm, then it was over.
The publicist beamed and tossed the data-cube to me.
“What do I do with it?” I asked, smoothing my hair.
“Nothing,” the publicist said. “But your biographer is going to love you.” *