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Thursday, February 29, 2024

How Tech Could Help Us Contemplate Our Own Mortality

The other day, I was sitting on a park bench at the playground with my son, agonizing over a work issue. Had I come off as rude on that Zoom call? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so emphatic. I pulled out my phone to send a quick apology. Just then, a notification popped on my screen:

Don’t forget, you’re going to die.

I stared at it for a second, jarred.

Don’t forget, you’re going to die.

I suddenly didn’t care as much about that Zoom call. So what if they thought I was too pushy? In 20 years, I won’t even remember their names. I turned off my phone, put it in my pocket, and went to play with my son on the slide.

This grim notification on my phone is WeCroak, an app that reminds you five times a day that, well, you’re going to die. As the app’s website declares, the mission is to “find happiness by contemplating your mortality.”

The idea that contemplating your mortality will help your life is not a new one. “A lot of religious and philosophical traditions have insisted that in order to live a full life, we have to come explicitly and consciously to terms with the fact that we won't be here forever.” says Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist and one of the authors of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. In Buddhism, this practice is called Maranasati, the contemplation of death. For Nikki Mirghafori, a technologist and Buddhist teacher from Palo Alto, California, death contemplation has many advantages. “Number one is aligning our lives with our values,” Mirghafori said in a podcast interview in August. Other benefits include greater awakening, more freedom (both in life and at the time of death), less wasted time, and increased kindness and gratitude. “If we have made peace with our own mortality, we can be fully spaciously present for our own life and death and those of our loved ones.”

As long as the internet has existed, so too have mortality reminders. You can find the day you’re going to die at Death Clock, which has been predicting death dates since 2006. There’s Life Clock, an app that counts down to your estimated death and lets you know when you’re engaging in activities that might reduce your life span. There’s Tikker, a watch that displays the time you have left. And of course, WeCroak, a simple but elegant app that reminds you five times a day that you’re going to die and displays a quote on death.

We spend our lives on our phones; it makes sense that we should contemplate mortality there as well. Well, sort of. “It’s right-minded but apt to have unintended and generally deleterious consequences.” The problem, according to Solomon, is that we’re not contemplating it. “The monks were sitting in an empty room all day with an empty desk, where staring at a skull surely kept the idea of one's transient nature very much in mind. The difference is when you get the alert on your phone, it’s apt to be a very fleeting reminder of death.”

Mirghafori says that’s OK. Not only is she an enthusiastic WeCroak user, she also recommends it to students in her death contemplation classes. “I think it’s not the same, but there are so many different beneficial practices.”

Hansa Bergwall, a cocreator of WeCroak, says he’s never gotten a complaint from the 130,000 people who have downloaded the app and the 80,000 who are active users. Instead, he’s gotten countless positive stories: a daughter cherishing her last moments with her mother, a young professional overcoming a fear of public speaking, a man trying to escape a life of opioid addiction. His theory is that WeCroak users are people who are intentionally trying to create a death contemplation practice. “People aren't going to try this unless they really want it,” he says. “It's not something you accidentally download on your phone.”

Bergwall says that the app has helped him make “a million little micro adjustments which just slowly lead to a better life.” He says the death reminder gives him a bigger perspective and stops him from obsessing about social media or the news. “Every time I get an hour of my life back by thinking about a bigger perspective is a victory, because my life is made up of hours, and the more of my hours I spend being happy, the happier of a human being I get to be.”

The things that Bergwall and Mirghafori are describing—living according to one’s values, bigger perspectives, more happiness—didn’t exactly happen for me. When I got the notification of my impending mortality, it did cause me to pause and make a different decision. But that decision was often more about living it up than living intentionally. I am typically a cautious and frugal person. I like to forgo takeout and cook at home instead, do back stretches every night, and get to bed early. But when I would get reminded of my death toward the end of the day, all bets were off! “Let’s get takeout from a fancy restaurant,” I’d tell my husband. I started to open expensive bottles of wine on weekdays and would stay up late binge-watching TV shows, just because. The app became a kind of morbid YOLO. When I asked Solomon about this, he said it’s possible my behavior was a sudden joyous reckoning of being alive, or it could just be a way to distract myself and increase the denial that I’m actually going to die. Either way, he says, it’s not sustainable. “You can’t live it up every day, and on the days when you can’t, you might even feel more anguish about the fact that you’re going to die.” It’s true. Even today, for example, as I sat typing this article, I noticed the sun was shining outside. But I was stuck at my desk trying to meet this deadline. And like clockwork, there went my phone: Don’t forget, you’re going to die. Don’t forget, you’re going to die. It became agonizing to think I was wasting an entire day of my short life sitting inside staring at my computer.

In this way, technology has created a kind of millennial YOLO-esque version of death contemplation. Get pinged, look at an app, text your grandma a heart emoji or say a gratitude mantra, then move on with your day. Or, alternatively, does the tech-bro version of death contemplation aim to make us more “productive” on “things that matter.” Not kindness and service to others as the Buddha intended, but instead applying for that promotion, writing that book, or running that marathon. Are we just using someone else's religion to stoke our capitalistic obsession with individual productivity?

Part of what’s been lost in the Silicon Valley translation seems to be the focus on happiness. “Happiness for its own sake becomes just another thing to want.” Mirghafori says. “Those who just try to become happy by any means just become more miserable.” The purpose of death contemplation is one of deep reflection, acceptance, and an alignment with your values, not simply giving you a hit of gratitude and a reason to order GrubHub. When it comes to not wasting time (which is a core benefit of Buddhist death contemplation), the goal is not to be more productive. Mirghafori says that without having a bigger picture of how your time saved can become of service to yourself, others, and the world, you’re still “a gerbil in the wheel.”

Another problem is apathy. Just as I ignore the reminders to drink more water, go to bed early, or—gasp!—get off my phone, so too did I begin to ignore the reminders that I was going to die. After a while, they became just another notification to flick off my screen so I could get to what I really wanted: Instagram.

Ignoring the reminders has its own issues. “The fact that you don't notice them doesn't mean that they're not affecting you.” Solomon says. His research has shown that when people are reminded of their impending death, they change their behavior: They double down on their beliefs, experience worsening mental illness, and drink more. “Death reminders might prompt you to engage in an activity that protects you, like putting your mask on, which isn’t a bad thing. But, just as likely, you might see that reminder and start participating in numbing activities.”

When it comes to “successful” death contemplation, mindfulness seems to be the key. The goal isn’t to have death become a fleeting (anxiety-producing) thought that races across your phone’s screen, but instead to have it be an idea that you sit and reflect on. Since sitting in quiet reflection is not exactly something technology has been known to help with, it’s no surprise that morality awareness apps leave something to be desired. “You have to get conscious enough to go from awareness to contemplation,” says Solomon. “And therein the conundrum lies.”

Should we forsake apps like WeCroak and instead order a skull off Amazon? Doubtful. Our lives are inextricably tied to technology, and if contemplating death truly is the pathway to a more meaningful life, we must simply continue looking for technical solutions to help with that.

Because in this way, death and technology have one thing in common: they’re coming for everyone.

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