In this week’s episode of the CBS crime drama NCIS, detectives interview an unusual person of interest in a murder case: the victim herself.
Older narratives might have made this possible via a traditional spiritualist séance, with interested parties holding hands around a table as Madame Blavatsky channeled the spirit of the dead in order to ask directly, “Whodunnit?” In today’s séances, however, the medium has become digital media: complex technical imagery systems that archive a person’s likeness and prerecorded messages intended to be posthumously played back for survivors. Several such apparatuses exist already, though most are still in experimental and prototype stages. This NCIS episode, however, brings to the broader public a fairly accurate depiction of what such “holograms” currently look and seem like, as well as providing some early fodder for conversations about how they might be integrated into social realities. That is, people often ask, “Why in the world would you make a hologram of yourself?” Here’s a pop-culture text that starts grappling with a few real answers.
Imagining technology is crucial to the process of actually developing it, and science fiction is a cultural laboratory where technologies and social life more broadly are speculated and experimented with in advance of real-world actualizations. But once the Star Trek communicator becomes a flip-phone or the Princess Leia hologram seems to have become a media device in real-world homes, fictional narratives are still crucial to social groups finding uses for and making meanings from the new gizmos and gadgets. In this case, one of scifi’s most ubiquitous forms of “imaginary media” has become a very real technology (albeit in different form but with similar intent), and this episode of NCIS provides audiences with an opportunity to audition certain roles and positionings of the technology within everyday life, which is especially crucial to this technology since it claims to extend a person’s position and participation there.
In the show’s Dec. 6 episode (FWIW, this post contains spoilers), a formerly disgraced financial adviser, Sandra Holdren (actress Stepfanie Kramer), is found shot dead. When detectives Jessica Knight (Katrina Law) and Nick Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) visit her house to investigate, they speak with Holdren’s valet who, in the middle of questioning, asks, “Would you like to meet her?” A flummoxed Torres responds, “You mean, meet the woman who just died?” No doubt weary of trying to shorthand the technical explanation, the valet says, “I could tell you, but it’s easier if I show you.”
Cut to a bespoke basement home theater, where the valet punches buttons on a digital pad and, instead of a movie starting on a flat screen, the seemingly real figure of Sandra appears in an instant — no flash, no fade-in. She’s seated in a chair on a low stage, just a few feet before her audience, well-lit and wearing a white pantsuit, which allows her figure to contrast sharply against the room’s relative darkness (and, like Princess Leia’s white robes, helps signify some of the ghostliness of her technical image). She greets her audience, saying simply, “Hi” — though immediately before that her image glitches slightly, like a frame jump in film, signifying her not as a spotlighted human body synchronously present with the actors but as some form of media. “It’s good to see you, Sandra,” says the valet, addressing the idolatrous image as human, and she replies, “It’s nice to be seen.”
This hologram is a step or ten beyond the Tupac resurrection or other pop-star “holograms” that have haunted stages in recent years (e.g., Ronnie James Dio or Frank Zappa). The valet explains that a tech company came to the house and interviewed Sandra for two weeks to create “this whole thing.” He’s referring to an actual process pioneered by, among others, an offshoot of the USC Shoah Foundation called New Dimensions in Testimony, which extends the foundation’s work of recording Holocaust survivor narratives by constructing complex holograms of more than a dozen survivors thus far. These media objects not only add a third dimension to the traditionally screened archives, they also amp up the interactivity of the experience through the integration of natural-language computing. The recorded interviews are divided into numerous segments and tagged with, as explained in the episode, “trigger words.” Microphones installed with the hologram display allow spectators to address the holograms, even asking them questions; the system then recognizes the trigger words, selects the appropriate response, and plays it back instantly and seamlessly. The hologram thus isn’t a mere display but an interactive multimedia presence — and, in the case of imagery of the dead, a technically conjured ghost.
My use of spectral language is not just for affect. Holograms thus far have been crafted and deployed largely in the context of impending death — or at least its inevitability — with the intention of utilizing the hologram to embody one’s presence posthumously and in ways that dial up the ontology of that presence beyond what traditionally flat or screened imagery has thus far projected forward in time and space. Speaking of Star Trek: None other than William Shatner recently was imaged in a similar way, an experience he described as “a legacy … like what you would leave your children, what you’d leave on your gravestone.” These systems are often framed this way in the culture and even pitched as a life-extension technology (though, as I argue in my own research, it’s more an extension of one’s existing mediated persona). Later in the NCIS episode, detectives google the tech company that imaged Holdren — it’s called Extended Life.
The episode situates Holdren’s hologram in this way: “Sandra wanted to leave something for her [estranged] daughter and grandson in case she couldn’t make things right.” But this wasn’t just the whim of a rich person (who, as they rightly note, are the only ones who can afford such technology at the moment). In order for Holdren to be sympathetic in the narrative, the script gives her a more grounded reason for digitizing some aspects of herself. We learn this not from the main storyline but in an aside between another detective and the medical examiner, who have a solemn, heartfelt conversation in which the ME reveals that Holdren was dying of cancer, thus her motivation to do something as extreme as manufacture her own ghost. “Whatever drastic measure it took” to communicate with her estranged daughter, he says. Det. Knight later muses about difficulties communicating with her own mother, who she winds up phoning near the end — presumably to avoid the solution (and cost) of posthumous holographic mea culpas. It’s TV drama, of course, but it’s also the most nuanced exploration of potential uses of a hologram for interpersonal communication that I’ve seen in recent pop culture and an intriguing sign that social meanings about this technology are finally starting to cohere beyond its gee-whiz, Coachella-tweetable shock value.
In addition, the production design of this episode underscores the seriousness of the matter through its positioning of the hologram. The system is not hooked up to the living room TV or temporarily set up in the garage; it’s installed within a purpose-built theater room, subtly illuminated and decorated with creped curtains. Holdren’s image is not there to entertain an audience but to receive one. It’s the difference between Tupac and Kanye’s gift to Kim Kardashian of a hologram of her dead father. The hologram is there to be visited privately, consulted (like an oracle), and made intimately present for a highly specific, familial group. The room is a chapel. Again, this has emerging real-world corollaries. A similar space recently was built for a broader public to experience portions of the NDiT project mentioned above. At the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, holograms of Holocaust survivors are presented regularly to visitors and school groups. These interactive images “tell their deeply moving personal stories and respond to questions from the audience, inviting visitors to have a personalized, one-on-one ‘conversation.’” Rooms like these are spaces — spatial screens, really — purposely sanctified for socially sanctioned hauntings.
Real-world “holograms” like this are not actually spatial, volumetric, or even “transplane” (to use Jens Schröter’s useful term). They are still 2D video projections onto a transparent screen. The magic of accepting the imagery as more “real” arrives through both the aforementioned staging of it (as if it’s a body rather than an image) as well as the concerted hiding of the actual screen so that its imagery appears to be unmediated — somehow freed from visible material supports, at least to a degree that allows the image to stand in for certain levels of social exchange (without the uncanniness or silliness one might feel talking to, say, a painting or a photograph). It’s only situational magic, though: the Princess Leia hologram does not (yet) exist. However, that film’s potent imaginary — and its subsequent omnipresence throughout scifi —continues to dominate expectations of however the concept might be actualized. In another first, though, the NCIS episode includes a brief explanation of the technology using Tupac as the cultural reference point instead of Leia.
The princess’s iconic message nonetheless still haunts even this depiction — and in a remarkable moment of techo-spiritualism. Detective Knight, entranced by the technology, does what most spectators of holograms or “holograms” do: she reaches out to try and touch the image. Despite mostly accurate explanations and depictions of the technology throughout the episode, this initial encounter is filmed in a way suggesting that Knight’s finger does not meet resistance from the transparent screen but instead passes into the figure of Holdren. The actress is shot from low and behind the hologram, her finger reaching toward the camera (itself almost suggesting a new kind of parasocial interaction) while the projection beam glares slightly and motes of dust — or are those meant to be spectral digital bits? — float upward, vanishing the instant Knight withdraws her hand from the shock of touching nothing. Later in the episode, when the hologram is set up in a new location, another character touches the screen again and meets visible resistance, even scattering the projected image for a second. Nonetheless, a specter is still haunting hologram technology — the spectrality of Leia Organa’s original videomail.
Instead of the estranged daughter first quizzing her hologram mother, the detectives gently interrogate the hologram — learning as they go how to ask questions that elicit the best responses from the algorithm. Direct inquiries such as “Who shot you?” and “Where’s the suspect?” go nowhere, of course (though the latter question features the only moment Holdren’s hologram self-identifies: “I can’t tell you where Geoffrey is at the moment because I’m a hologram”). Knight addresses the hologram with social niceties, speaks to it more conversationally, and represents the possibility of treating a hologram like a person. She chastises Torres for treating Holdren’s hologram like an object rather than a subject, warning him not to offend her (“Rude is rude,” she tells him, implying that social graces extend to digital entities, too). This projected humanity comes up elsewhere in the script. When the interrogation grows circular, Torres leans on a ready excuse: “OK, she’s gotta be tired.” When the hardware containing the hologram app is stolen, possibly by the valet, a detective says, “He took Sandra with him” — rather than “He took it with him.” Chief detective Alden Parker (Gary Cole) then asks aloud, “Is that considered kidnapping?” Torres: “My vote is on graverobbing.” Knight: “What about piracy?” So many angles for society to consider as the technology emerges. For now, Parker concludes: “All of the above.”
The conclusion of this murder mystery, though, doubles down on the humanity of the hologram. Detectives bring their chief suspect, a longtime close friend of Holdren, in for questioning, relying precisely on the normal social interaction with the entity to triumph over the imagery’s spectacle. Which it does: engaging in conversation with his dear friend causes the suspect to break down, weeping, and admitting his guilt. The human suspect turns out to be more artificial than the hologram, which is revealed through the social affect it affords. Holdren recorded her hologram for a specific posthumous purpose but, like any technology, users found a new function for it, repositioning it within human relations and expanding the potential rituals and meanings made from it.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.