The ghastly digital marionette of Michael Jackson traipsed across the stage at Sunday night's Billboard Music Awards, following in the holographic footsteps of Elvis Presley, Tupac Shakur, and Ol' Dirty Bastard. The King of Pop's pseudo-performance was marked by a macabre jerkiness, but worse than the actual execution are the moral ramifications. Is a hologram a loving tribute to a fallen hero, or thinly-veiled chicanery and exploitation?
At what point do we draw the line? When reviving dead people becomes commonplace, what's to stop them from endorsing products or singing at birthday parties? Who will be the first artist to host their own funeral? When will Chuck Berry guide patrons to the bathroom at the Hard Rock Cafe? To answer these questions, we have to ask, "Where do these holograms keep coming from?"
Hologram USA is the company behind the the technology. Born of a merger between companies, the corporation is now responsible for the majority of the holograms we've seen popping up in the last few years, and for a steep price tag, you can bring just about anyone back from the dead. Hologram USA -- "hologram" is technically innacurate, as the illusion is actually a variation on projection trickery known as Pepper's ghost -- will charge between £50,000 ($84,000) and £150,000 ($253,000) for a "digital resurrection." The copy on the website reads like a nightmarish dystopian novel. "The benefits of digital resurrection are obvious. Lost artists often increase in popularity after they pass so for holders of estates, the business potential is huge," it reads, before concluding with, "The End doesn’t have to be the end. Digital resurrection is just the beginning."
But that grim sci-fi description is only the beginning of the weird and questionable goings on. For some perspective on the company, we need look no further than founder and CEO of Hologram USA Alki David. He is a Nigeria-born Greek billionaire heir, the son of a family who owns Coca-Cola bottling plants across 28 countries, among other things. His own companies include FilmOn, a video-on-demand service, 9021go.com, a home shopping website, and modeling agency Independent Models. He is married to Jennifer Stano, a 27-year-old former swimsuit model. The couple had their first child last year.
The self-described "serial internet entrepreneur and shipping magnate" has a history of making ethically questionable decisions to make a buck. In 2010, he offered $1,000,000 to the first person who streaked in front of Barack Obama.
In 2011, he executed an elaborate hoax to promote his video streaming website, BattleCam.com. In an attempt to gain viewers, he put out a press release saying that he was going to broadcast the first legal assisted suicide on his website. The fictitious terminally ill man, Mr. Nikolai Ivanisovich, was quoted as saying, “I am grateful to Mr. David and his team for making this possible. My family will be able to live in prosperity after I pass. May God bless Mr. David for his kindness and generosity.” When more than 150,000 viewers tuned in to watch the man shuffle off this mortal coil, David staged a suicide using his hired help as actors. It was only then that they revealed that it was all a "social joke."
In a recent interview with CNN, Alki stated that the holograms produced by his company have educational, political, and military applications, in addition to the creepy resurrection of dead celebrities. David was painted as a "Hollywood bad boy" in a profile by The Hollywood Reporter, but it's clear that his goal isn't to provoke thought or spark discussions. The man is worth close to $2 billion. He is parading the corpses of former human beings around for a profit.
So, that's where they keep coming from. The business of turning famous dead musicians into ghostly puppets is just that -- a business. It's clear that the lines of life and death can be blurred for the sake of profit, but is stuffing the already-swollen coffers of a rich kid worth the dignity of our favorite artists? It's a decision that should be left in the hands of the viewers, not in the hands of "holders of estates" looking for "business potential," and certainly not in the hands of the "45th richest man in the United Kingdom."
For fans of Tupac, Elvis, Michael Jackson, and other legends, it may be thrilling to get a chance to see your idol onstage once again, but for now, let's let them rest instead of making them dance like pop-star automatons.