Your Family is a Computer Program

MyHeritage claims its DeepNostalgia tool is a way to experience your family history. What for?

In February, ghosts started appearing on Twitter. They emerged from the past, smiling and nodding, silently tilting their heads, moving for the first time in decades, sometimes a hundred years or more. They were friends, relatives, historical figures, reanimated by modern technology. “I love the way MyHeritage brought my great-grandfather to life!” one person exclaimed on Twitter. “Incredible to see my late father come to life again,” wrote another. “Miss him every day.”

The reanimation process was just that — animation. Genealogy site MyHeritage’s deep learning tool that it calls DeepNostalgia. It applies a set of predetermined movements to a person’s photo and smoothes the transitions between them, as if capturing video. The effect is essentially like watching on an endless loop someone adjusting in the moments before a picture is taken.

While some people “consider it magical…others find it creepy and dislike it,” MyHeritage admits on its website. Still, the free version of the tool (more animations are now available with a $299-per-year subscription to MyHeritage’s family mapping plan) seems to have persuaded many of the former. In the first five weeks since its launch, DeepNostalgia users have created 72 million animations, according to MyHeritage. Part of the reason might lie in the way the company describes its effect: “Experience your family history like never before!”

To experience something new is an attractive proposal, especially in a society like ours, where we track, evaluate, and total our experiences obsessively. If life is a collection of experiences, we are obsessive curators, constantly appraising their value, evaluating their flaws and, ultimately, yearning for them to be perfect — but we’ll take what we can get, as much as we can get it. We want to live it all.

This obsession with experience — to not just live, but to in effect consume life by packaging it, usually with the help of social media, as a signifier of our personal brand — is relatively new in human history. It’s a change in mentality with its roots in the modern idea of progress, the late Jonathan Trejo-Mathys wrote in his introduction to Hartmut Rosa’s Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. In the premodern era, “the social and natural world were viewed as fundamentally unchanging or as at most rotating among stages of an already known ‘cycle,’” Trejo-Mathys wrote. “One missed nothing by living only several decades, since in that span one could see most of the central things existence could offer.”

The idea of progress changed that, because it introduced the concept of social momentum — not cyclical, but continually building toward an end point. This, “in conjunction with the shattering of the cultural hegemony of religious ideas, opened up a terrifying gap between the seemingly infinite experiential possibilities that will develop in an ever more perfect future and the starkly limited span of one human life in a still unperfected society here and now,” Trejo-Mathys explained. “Therefore the prospect of accelerating our ability to have different experiences, and thus to exhaust the available possibilities, becomes extremely seductive.”

Technology helps — in some cases creates — that acceleration, allowing us to experience more and more, to push the limits on what we can cram into our lives. It’s the airplane that takes us across the ocean and the translation app we use to explore an unknown country, for instance. It is a key tool we use to not merely exist, but to consume our own existence. And by using the most up-to-date tech gizmos, we can consume aspects of future existence, too.

Maybe also the past.

The same desire to experience a life we will not live exists when we think about the past. It is, likely, what motivates some people to recreate Civil War battles or visit historically-themed villages where you can churn butter, ride a steam train, and stare at dusty mannequins posed behind glass for eternity in antique furniture, forever surrounded by ghostly consumer products. We do these things and visit these places to step into the past, experience a world before our own, marvel at the telephone bolted to the wall and the washboard in the sink. The past, like all time — present and future — becomes a thing to consume, rather than something to simply feel. And even though, by experiencing the past in this way, you might reassure yourself you didn’t miss anything, the experience leaves you empty because while it was real, it wasn’t real at all.

What do we get out of having a computer program modify and animate photos of our dead ancestors? Beyond a few likes and reactions on social media, where these computer-generated animations are designed to be showcased (after all, what else are you going to do with it?), it’s a symbol of a deep desire to not miss out on what you might not have experienced first-hand. Your consumption of another aspect of existence is fulfilled. You own a piece of what you perceive to be the past.

But the people in those photos, the ones now moving uncannily in the frame? Those weren’t their true features. That’s not how they actually smiled, or tilted their heads. You’re not experiencing family history; you’re experiencing a computer program.


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