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Y! Big Story: Tupac’s resurrection and questions over raising the dead

In case you were busy paying attention to the living and missed the news, Tupac Shakur was the latest dead celebrity to be digitally reincarnated. The reaction—from thrilled to queasy—at the Coachella festival may call for a repeat performance this Saturday. (A Coachella spokesperson could only confirm Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's concert, not the hologram.)

Anytime you resurrect the dead, though, a lot of questions crop up, from the technical (why isn't this a hologram?) to the legal (who owns you when you're dead?) to the downright ethical (what's to stop you from reanimating the fill-in-worst-dictator-and-criminal-scenario here?). Besides death, there is one certainty: Digital zombies will continue to rise, and so will the controversies.

Not a hologram, Tupac is Pepper's Ghost. To be technical, Tupac's recreation wasn't a hologram or even 3D, explains Michael Bove, co-director of the Center for Future Storytelling at MIT Media Lab. "There clearly was some nice CGI work done by Digital Domain to create the video that was projected onto the stage, but the projection setup itself is nothing new," he writes in an email to Yahoo!. "The 'technology' for the display is an old (as in, known at least as far back as the 1500s) magician's/theatrical illusion called a 'Pepper's Ghost.'" Pepper incidentally is 18th-century British professor John Henry Pepper, who modified someone else's invention, the Dircksian Phantasmagoria.

Seeing the dead everywhere. Musion, the company that revived Tupac, highlights its own history of "digital resurrection events" on its site:

The concept has been used to bring back to life the likes of Frank Sinatra, who privately performed 'Pennies From Heaven' at Simon Cowell's 50th Birthday party, Saatchi & Saatchi's late Creative Director Paul Arden who introduced its New Directors Showcase in Cannes, and Samuel Ryder who died in 1936. He was brought back to appear at the 2008 Ryder Cup Gala Event.

Raising the dead happened before that: Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Louis Armstrong gathered to hear Elton John sing about Diet Coke in the early '90s, a desecration that horrified filmmakers. Six years later, Fred Astaire danced with a Dirt Devil for a Super Bowl ad (wife approved, daughter did not).

Unlike those spliced clips, though, 3D Tupac's moves were brand-new:

Past footage and images were used to capture the way Tupac moved and his physical details, but the choreography of the performance is entirely new. Meaning: If people want to watch Tupac dance Swan Lake, it is now entirely possible. (April 17, Stop the Presses, Y! Music Blogs)

Other kinds of afterlives. Celebrities, especially those who die too young, don't fade away. Producers raid the vault for unreleased songs, even ones that the artists wanted hidden. The mourning circuit has extended beyond best-of albums and cable documentaries to include salutes via Cirque du Soleil, "Glee," and "American Idol." Then there are the memorial sites, Facebook pages, and fake Twitter accounts:  @HolographTupac explained the rapper's absence in a tweet, "Was trapped in a prism."

041912 Hologram Tupac twitter

But now thanks to the "possible," the dead can tour. Rumors of Tupac hitting the road are premature (Dr. Dre's spokeswoman told the New York Times, "As far as I know there haven't been an discussions like that"). On the other hand, Jackie Jackson, promoting the brothers' Unity Tour 2012, told E! Online that a Michael Jackson could very well be part of a bigger tour they're planning for next year and that a Jackson hologram had been contemplated: "As a matter of fact, we had that idea two years ago for Michael's Cirque du Soleil show."

"Technologically, the genie is out of the bottle," Larry Gross, a faculty member on USC Annenberg School of Communications and co-editor of "Image Ethics in the Digital Age," tells Yahoo!. "It's too easy to enter into the public realm with recreations or, you know, what are basically called mashups...They crop up like brush fires."

Letting the dead lie. Just because we can do it, does it mean we should? What are we ignoring (new creative works or even old creative works) when we're busy worshiping the dead?

Is it right for us to digitally marionette musicians around a stage for our own enjoyment, even though they obviously never agreed to such appearances? And, if we're really trying to honor them, wouldn't it be better to let the music they created while alive stand on its own? (April 17, "Monkey See," NPR)

Fans were thrilled—and then a little queasy (more comments at bottom).

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The Guardian treated the fuss as just another gimmick that fans will tire of:

In the light of this merrily unceasing gravy train, it's perhaps a bit rich that anyone, anywhere, is only now criticising Hologram Tupac for making money off a dead man; the past 16 years have been an object lesson in music industry exploitation...And it's unlikely that we've seen the last of the hologram itself: what was a revelation this week will doubtless become a tired gimmick rather swiftly. (April 17, Guardian)

'Technology vertigo' and what to believe anymore. Right now, the hubbub has been about reviving celebrities. Y! commenter Steve of Plymouth, Wisc.. wisecracked, "I would watch a celebrity boxing match between Abraham Lincoln and George Washington."

But with enough money and innovation, why not re-imagine a second coming of a favored politician, a fallen martyr, a holy man/woman, even a criminal? How about a virtual John F. Kennedy declaring the moon landing never happened? (It did, honestly.) And while (most) audiences know Tupac is dead,  what about 100 years later when his posthumous self circulates as fact?

"We're beginning to live in a world where it's extremely difficult for people to determine what is real from what is not real," Ryan Calo, the director for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, observes in an interview with Yahoo!. "It's kind of a technology vertigo." On the upside, while falsifying history has long been possible, forensic science has kept up with manipulation technology.

Yet what will this confusion over what's real and what's not real mean to later generations? Might this cement confirmation biases, the tendency to believe what supports your thinking? Say you're a moon hoax conspiracist: A revived Tupac "proves" how a mass lunar deception could be executed. "Maybe there will come a day you will physically witness something and not believe it," Colo suggests.

On the flip-side, maybe reality becomes irrelevant. In Japan, one of the biggest pop stars is computer-generated. Maybe when you reach a level of fame, your social meaning trumps your individuality. As Calo phrases the counterargument: "Do I really want to stand in the way of video art because I have some priggish views over people's control over legacy. Isn't your image part of the cultural zeitgeist?"

[Related: Virtual Japanese pop star sells out concerts, makes more money than real performers]

Who owns you after you're gone? That's the perspective Gross offers. In recent years, copyright has been extended (nicknamed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act). "In the context of intellectual property law, we give vastly too much deference to the presumed interest of the heirs or descendents of creators, which is really corporate interests most of time disguised as something else," he says. It's a larger benefit for society to share in the cultural commons, and these increasingly walled enclosures are a "perversion of the whole history of cultural creativity which involves sharing."

Speaking of the law, all sorts of legal protections do come into play: copyright, right to publicity, defamation. Daniel Nazer, a fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, points out to Yahoo! that a statute in California—an entertainment hub—allows famous public figures to be reanimated for a play and other broader works, in a nod to the First Amendment.

Then again, Gross says, "The legal question of ownership of a dead person's image is really unexplored." The law's clear in cases of commercial exploitation, like an ad of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan apparently endorsing a presidential party candidate. So what if someone revived a historical figure, be it Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Pol Pot, to appear at an extremist rally? There's a copyright issue if the King avatar gave the "I Have a Dream" speech, but legal territory gets muddier if it's made to say something else.

"If the fear of dying weren't bad enough," Calo says, "suddenly you lose control over aspects of your legacy."

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