At the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, the audience was delighted, perhaps perplexed, by the performance of Tupac Shakur. Why you ask?
The man died as the result of a fatal shooting in 1996.
It wasn’t a hologram, as many have said, but a two-dimensional image projected onto a transparent plastic screen; the image looks just like Tupac, but the performance was 100 percent original. It was created on a computer and shown to concert goers at Coachella.
Digital Domain Media Inc., the company that created Tupac’s virtual image, collaborated with Amaru Entertainment and Dr. Dre to create Tupac’s posthumous live performance. After the success of the Coachella performance, there is talk of a Tupac Shakur tour with other hip-hop artists such as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa.
While it’s a neat idea to see a dead performer, is it ethical to take someone’s image and make it sing and dance, even after he or she has died?
Let’s start with the implications of bringing Tupac back from the dead. Who is benefiting from this business venture?
It sure isn’t Tupac Shakur. His mother’s company would make a portion of the revenue, as well as DDM Inc. and Dr. Dre, but is it right to exploit the image of a son, a musician, an idol?
The entertainment industry will surely adapt to this kind of technology, no doubt, by creating something like a legal mandate that calls for a prefix to be added to a deceased performer’s name: for example, Virtual-Tupac.
In Virtual-Tupac’s performance, he uttered the greeting, “What the f**k is up, Coachella?” This phrase had never left the real Tupac’s lips while he was alive; Coachella’s first annual showing was in 1999, three years after Tupac’s death. All of the Virtual-Tupac’s words were created, along with the rest of his image.
The implications that stem from this ethical dilemma are vast and profound. Virtual-Tupac is just one of the first examples of our society’s slow dissociation between what is real and what is not –– what is virtual.
Social networking sites, for example, reduce a person to certain fields of interest. That is how computers work: they use information as fuel; they weave data into mathematical patchworks of algorithms that reduce a person to a certain set of categories. According to people in the field of virtual reality and computer programming, this can cause people to reduce themselves to base levels to be understood by others.
Jaron Lanier, a master programmer who wrote You are Not a Gadget (2010), comments on this tendency of self-reduction in order to fit into an information system. Lanier believes that this distorts reality because “information under-represents reality.”
We have become a society that craves new waves of technology for entertainment purposes, but what so few of us take into account is the moral erosion of these frequent waves of technological advancement on the shores of humanity. This detachment from reality is the very subject of so many science-fiction novels.
It was Aldous Huxley’s fear when he wrote “Brave New World” (1932); George Orwell’s concern in “1984” (1949); and Ray Kurzweil’s delight in “The Singularity is Near” (2005).
Why haven’t we received the message?
The technological innovations of today could be heralded as the boon of our generation, but instead we use the recent advancements to take a man, one whom was murdered by way of four gunshots to the chest, and bring him back to life for our own entertainment, such a vain purpose.
Perhaps we’ve forgotten what it means to be human. Maybe we’ve dissociated ourselves from any sense of familiarity with each other, so much so that we have agreed collectively that it is morally permissible to demean the existence of one man for our inconsequential amusement, to project his likeness on a stage when he is long gone from our world.
In the future, if no one addresses this issue, you could witness great musicians of the past coming to a town near you. It won’t be the actual artist, but a recreation of his or her image. The artist’s image will be rendered after hours and hours of video is analyzed by a computer. Data points will be assigned to a musician’s profile, which will result in a realistic looking recreation. The image will sound just like him, move just like him.
Sadly, it won’t be him. It won’t be her. All of the information in the world cannot bring back a person from the dead. What you’ll see will be a misrepresentation of your beloved artist.
Here is my question to you, dear reader: If we analyze James Brown’s hours of video and synthesize his image from it and put his voice to it, will he still have soul? Will he still be super bad?