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The Final Countdown: Technology’s Many Methods of Reminding You That Your Days Are Numbered

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
June 19, 2014

We’re all going to die.

Sorry to be a bummer, but perhaps you’ll find the reminder useful. That, at least, seems to be the guiding idea behind a surprising number of digital variations on the memento mori — symbolic nudges to “remember that you will die,” as that Latin phrase is typically translated.

It’s an idea that goes back hundreds of years. But the form of these modern memento mori says something about the way we think about technology’s role in our lives (and deaths).

A Chrome extension called Mori offers a simple and stark example. Type in your birthdate, and you’re confronted, every time you open a new tab or window, with a grid-style infographic. Its blocks represent all the weeks in 80 years of life.

The ones you’ve lived are shaded blue. The rest represent “how much time you have left.” So, in my case, a glance drove home that my life is more than half over. I knew that, but the graphic reminder nearly gave me a heart attack.

OK, not really. But it did make me wonder about the existence of this grim mortality tool — and the many others like it.

At Deathtimer.com, for instance, you can enter some basic personal data and receive the site’s prediction of the day you’ll die (based on life expectancy stats).

Several mobile apps — with names like Day of Death, The Day of Your Death, and Memento Mori — similarly guess at the date of our demise so we can reflect on our mortality while on the go.

From Day of Your Death.

From Memento Mori

Looking for a physical version of the idea? Check out Tikker, a Kickstarter-funded wristwatch “that counts down your life,” supposedly to the second. This is meant to “remind you to make the most of your life.”

What’s driving all this morbid innovation? In part, it’s merely the latest extension of a long-standing human fascination with (and fear of) mortality.

But adding a veneer of data-driven precision to the familiar “make the most of the time you have” message indirectly links these tools to the more optimistic world of body-monitoring fitness trackers and life-quantifying productivity software.

In fact, Mori is actually categorized as a “productivity” extension, and the description asserts that it “helps you focus on tasks that are important” and “achieve goals.”

It’s a way of considering death not so much as a terrifying void — but as the ultimate deadline.

Art, games, and death
The online version of a 2007 University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology exhibition Final Farewell: The Culture of Death and the Afterlife provides a handy introduction to the memento mori idea.

The phrase memento mori, the site reminds us, “developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.” While similar symbolic reminders of death occurred across many cultures, in the Christian context it served “a moralizing purpose, unlike the pagan idea of seizing the day.”

It was also, frankly, pretty downbeat and scary in its symbolism: Think of still-life paintings with skulls or rotting fruit.

Interestingly, there is an app that addresses this tradition more or less directly. A sort of cross between a game and an art piece, Vanitas presents you with a box of vaguely creepy objects (a bird skull, a tooth, and so on), rendered in a digital version of classical painting style.

You can open the box, and move the stuff around, but you can’t remove it. “Pause for a moment,” the instructions suggest. “Reflect.”

Close the box, and one of several messages appears. Some are upbeat (“Now is the time for drinking and dancing”), others not so much (“Time is what we are, though we cannot think it”).

Its makers describe this as “a meditative experience” and “a spiritual toy,” but to me it’s also a gentle satire of memento mori tradition and the futility of death obsession. Even the app’s official mission hints at dark humor: “To lift you up when you’re feeling down. And drag you down when you’re up too high.”

Maybe mortality is something best responded to with a laugh?

Memento mori 2.0
Most digital descendants of memento mori take a quite different approach, of course. We don’t linger over the meaning of symbols these days: We scarf down charts, infographics, and data points. Naturally that craving extends to our curiosity about death.

Consider, for instance, some recent maps making the rounds that break down likely causes of death, by state or by nation. Or check out the app “Odds of Death,” which “provides you with factual data on the odds of dying from various causes.” Choose a category of potential death (“by nature,” “by animal”) and the app presents a random example and the odds it will happen to you.

As with the death-countdown technologies, these info-driven takes on mortality respond to the incomprehensible with cold, hard data. Maybe this is reassuring, in the same way that a snappy PowerPoint can make even the knottiest problem seem rationally solvable. But it’s all pretty much the opposite of pausing to reflect.

The broader subject of death in the digital age has been kicking around for a while now, and it keeps coming up as the implications of our tech-entwined lives become inescapable. We express ourselves online and vaguely wonder about the traces we’ll leave behind; we live-tweet our grief; we wonder if technology will help us preserve more of our existence, or even virtually extend it indefinitely. It’s only natural we’d turn to tech to help us cope with the final countdown.

The caveats are so obvious that it’s embarrassing to mention them: Not one of these tools can really tell you when you’ll die or how, nor do any of them promise more than an indistinct prompt to live better in the meantime. Ultimately, all the statistics and numbers and fact-y presentations are mere symbols — digital equivalents of a skull or a tooth in an old oil painting.

But that’s OK. Maybe they accidentally make us pause and reflect. And even if they accomplish nothing more than a fleeting distraction, there are worse things. Maybe, to borrow one of the truisms offered by Vanitas, “The best way to fill time, is to waste it.”

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.