In the world of social media, it can feel bizarre that potent evidence of grieving from one friend is followed so quickly by pictures of oven-fresh cookies from another.
– Paul Ford, Facebook and the Epiphanator
My father died almost twenty years ago, after an illness spanning decades. My parents had enjoyed a very affectionate, happy marriage; prepared though we had been for long years before the end came, my mom was utterly shocked and devastated when he died. A protracted gloom overwhelmed her naturally sunny demeanor. But one day, maybe a year or so after my father's death, I had a phone call from her, and she was laughing. Laughing quite hard, really.
You might say that human beings are analog creatures with certain digital tendencies
"What is it?" I said, laughing too, just contagiously.
"Oh — oh, your father was called to jury duty, and I sent the form back saying 'deceased'..."
"And they wrote him back."
"It says, 'Your excuse has been accepted.'"
The machinery of human affairs churns blindly on and on, no matter what, in a manner absurd enough to send even deeply grieving people into gales of uproarious laughter (years later, the phrase, "your excuse," etc., still has the power to reduce both my mom and me to helpless guffaws.) The system, the bureaucracy, the forms to fill out. The alarm clock rings, appointments to keep. The crazy futility of it all is a little bit sad, too, the way perhaps all truly hilarious things have to be.
That Kafkaesque sensation of tragicomic futility has now acquired a new and larger dimension of weirdness, because the seeming permanence of the Internet is so crisply, coldly digital, and therefore so entirely at odds with the messiness of real life. You might say that human beings are analog creatures with certain digital tendencies, and that the digital and analog parts of our nature are inevitably at war with one another.
Jeff Goldblum, Natalie Portman, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks all fell off the same hoax cliff in New Zealand
It's long been evident that death is liable to create all sorts of snafus online. It can be difficult to prove or even to determine on the Internet whether or not someone has really died. In the case of celebrities, TMZ and the like will be leapfrogging over one another on Twitter to be the first to announce a death; reports may turn out to be true, false and then true again. There's a continual stream of hoax reports of celebrity deaths online: Jeff Goldblum, Natalie Portman, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks all fell off the same hoax cliff in New Zealand, or celebrities can hoax-die of being stabbed in a bar brawl, as Daniel Radcliffe did.
Even for those who are not hounded by the media there is still plenty of opportunity for confusion. For instance, I have a Google Alert on my own name, so that I can keep track of any blog posts or reviews of my stuff that I might want to see; one morning last year I had an email from Google containing my own obituary, or rather, what turned out to be the obituary of another Maria (G.) Bustillos. Not that I was confused about whether or not I am alive! (Though after having seen The Sixth Sense or what have you, who can be entirely sure?)
Strategies for verification of an actual death online vary a great deal, creating more and more potential for chaos. Money can be trapped in the deceased's Paypal accounts, horrified friends and relations meet with Facebook recommendations to "friend" the dead ("People You May Know") and so on.
In 2004, Yahoo refused to provide the father of a Marine killed in Fallujah access to his son's email. It was quite sobering for me to read about this; nobody knows my passwords for Paypal, Gmail, my cell phone account — probably a dozen or more accounts that would need closing if I were to be done in by the zombies tomorrow. I thought, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to include a page with all those passwords and whatnot with your will, when you're making one. Of course, then you won't even die, and you will go and change all your accounts instead, rendering all these preparations useless!! It's such a mess.
Efforts are underway to identify the issues surrounding death online in order to make better policy. Thanatosensitivity is a term formally coined by researchers at the University of Toronto, in a paper presented at the 2009 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. It means, "a humanistically-grounded approach to human-computer interaction (HCI) research and design that recognizes and engages with the conceptual and practical issues surrounding death in the creation of interactive systems." Sounds simultaneously dry and far-out, but authors Massimi and Charise have some solid ideas:
One compelling example [...] is the recent suggestion by American and British ambulatory care units to program into one's mobile phone a contact named "ICE" (“in case of emergency”) so that rescuers can easily identify and call an emergency contact when the phone's owner is possibly dying. The need for this type of preparation crystallizes how difficult it has become to unravel the data stored in highly personalized devices.
Broad implementation of standards like these will certainly be miles ahead of the private efforts I’ve seen, such as the "electronic safe deposit boxes" on offer at assetlock.net (formerly the unfortunately-named and no-confidence-inspiring "youdeparted.com"), where you can store sensitive information to be released to designated parties in the event of your demise. Top-tier access costs $79.95 per year (or $239.95 for a "Lifetime Membership" [?!]) for "unlimited entries and up to 5GB storage." Or you could invest in a piece of paper and print out a list for your executors! Just sayin'.
Meatspace, as it is sometimes called — the analog, temporary, fleshly arena of the world — is inextricably linked with, or more like suffused with, the passage of time. We're accustomed to think of "real life" as taking place there, though for many of us, the online world and the real one have begun increasingly to blur into one another. For those who have been known to fall asleep holding a smartphone, really, which world is the "real" one?
Meatspace equals entropy. Impermanence. The fading of anger or passion is analogous to the fading of a photograph, the yellowing of old newspaper, as we've seen in a thousand movies. Through time we mend, heal, alter our convictions, learn; what burned cools, and what froze melts; both grief and delight are fated to end, sometimes abruptly, yes, but more often gradually, even imperceptibly. Entropy is our enemy, but also our friend; it defines that part of us that is changing, coming into bloom and then, because we are mortal, fading.
The contrast between the magical perfection of recordings of the past, and that past's ultimate irretrievability, is in itself nothing very new. It's something like seeing Greta Garbo or James Stewart in old films, so vividly real, their particularities so peculiarly manifest; they breathe, talk, move, their gleaming eyes and moist lips parting to speak or laugh in an inimitably beautiful way. To rage, marvel or sigh. Though their clothes and manners might strike us as strangely old-fashioned, they might still be standing right beside us. But it's a trick, and we know it; we know that in reality the remains of James Stewart (Wee Kirk o’ the Heather churchyard, Forest Lawn) and Greta Garbo (Skogskyrkogården, in southern Stockholm) are just that: dust, still, quiet, moldering for many years in the cold ground, and yet, something of them yet lives.
What are we to make of this image that can never answer back?
When someone dies nowadays, we are liable to return to find that person's digital self — his blog, say, or his Flickr, tumblr or Facebook‐entirely unchanged. An online persona will date, but agelessly, without wrinkling or acquiring dust, and unless someone removes each separate element there it will stay, to remind us of that person's favorite song, of all his minutest concerns, exactly as if he'd typed them in yesterday. Facebook doesn't fade. It just stays cyanotically fresh and crisp forever.
The digital world’s false perfection corresponds in some way to preferring a world containing certainties, where we can absolutely know answers that have been scientifically, empirically sought and found. In the practical conduct of human affairs, though, there is a stubborn tendency for complexities to arise, causing the idea of an on/off switch or a black/white answer to be at best of no use and at worst, a real impediment to progress (cf. Congress, U.S.) As Voltaire says: le mieux est l'ennemi du bien, ("the best is the enemy of the good"), by this indicating that the futile search for a black/white solution will inevitably blind us to the serviceability of the grey one. Is the desire for a chimerical "truth" ultimately the fatal flaw of the "scientific" lens through which we have tried to make sense of the world for the last few centuries?
In stark contrast, the philosophically-inclined are today quite possibly farther from Manichean certainty than human beings have ever been before. What the empiricists began, Wittgenstein and his successors completed: our understanding of reality has itself become provisional, mutable, and analog. Meanwhile, the digital world has blossomed into a global machine, reaching into nearly every corner of our lives, all-knowing, absolute and all-encompassing in a very different way. Zero and one. On and off. Black and white.
My stepson had a high school friend named Evan who committed suicide in 2007 in a very carefully orchestrated and elaborate fashion. I met Evan a few times when he was a teenager; He was a sweet kid, a little manic, a vivid, funny presence.
Evan was barely grown, just twenty-five, when he killed himself with nitrous oxide. He set up his blog to continue to send messages at odd intervals for a time after his death. And he made a seventeen-second YouTube suicide note that I was surprised to find still online. (I advise caution in visiting these links, because they are really sad.)
The aftermath of Evan's death was my first experience of the practice of online memorials, something that has become almost familiar on Facebook now. Friends came to his blog to share remembrances of Evan, and there are hundreds of comments there and on his YouTube goodbye video, as well, some angry, some sad, some wistful. What all these comments share is a certain bewilderment. What are we to make of this image that can never answer back?
The art director, lecturer and author Angela Riechers wrote a striking paper presented at the CHI conference in 2008, Eternal Recall: Memorial Photos in the Digital Environment. Reichers draws a straight line between the elaborate memorial photos of stillborn Victorian infants and the online memorials dedicated to stillborn babies today. It’s illustrated with some disturbing photographs but its argument clarified something about the subject of death online for me. Western culture generally hides from death and grieving, but eventually, it catches up with most all of us. Then there is a reckoning, a jarring confrontation apart from the ordinary texture of life.
I can't help but think we are better off taking our chances on the future's mystery than we would be to trap ourselves in amber
There is an Uncanny Valley aspect to these messages from beyond the grave, just as there is in a particularly lifelike, formal Victorian funeral portrait. They are lifelike, they may look or even sound and move just like a living person, but they are not life, and the almost-lifeness of them is entirely unsettling. Some may find comfort in holding onto these images and last ideas of those who have left us, but for me, they cause more confusion than clarity, and more pain than pleasure, for the very reason that they are so all-but-real.
Our digital part, the part that can consider changeless things, formulae and eidoi, can be almost satisfied by the digital ghosts that persist online. These representations won't — can’t — completely satisfy our flesh-and-blood longings. But there's another and far stronger reason why the digital can never be enough.
We're represented by some combination of digital and analog, both the blown flower and the glowing screen. Is death a fading away, or a flick of the switch? It's both. The digital part of ourselves, committed to a tumblr or to a decades-old blog preserved on the Wayback Machine can never change; it can never fade, erode, or die, but just as it can never decay, it can never evolve or improve, either.
That's what's so scary about the Singularity movement; Ray Kurzweil and his adherents are betting that a single life on earth, enhanced by machines, a single consciousness stretching out into eternity, is a desirable end. This strikes me as a very narrow view of what the universe might be all about.
I can't help but think we are better off taking our chances on the future's mystery than we would be to trap ourselves in amber. Maybe the real Frankenstein danger, more fearful than death itself, is an unquestioning reliance on the stasis of the immutable, digital world.
Someone has to keep paying to register domain names; someone has to pay for server space, keep up with alterations demanded by ISPs and software providers
In closing, let’s consider the tangential kind of decay experienced by online artifacts, like websites, at their interface with the physical world. Someone has to keep paying to register domain names; someone has to pay for server space, keep up with alterations demanded by ISPs and software providers. That's part of the reason it was so surprising to me to find Evan's blog still online.
I didn't know him at all well, but it saddens me a lot that such a seemingly lively, intelligent boy should have succumbed to his demons the way he did. The things that remain of Evan online are ghostly, and fiercely real, too; they are objects that evoke the sense of seriocomic futility, and pity and a terrible sadness. Also, a sense of mystery and wonder, that he should seem so near.
This mysterious part recalls the talismanic lines of Nabokov's titular poem from the novel Pale Fire referring to the possibility of a supernatural order, beyond what we are permitted to see, but just hinted at in the weird synchronicities of our world. In the story, the poet John Shade has tried in vain to make sense of a vision he had during a near-death experience, and is taunted by a misprint in the text he’d been convinced was solid proof of an afterlife (“mountain” for “fountain”):
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
I'm tempted to see Nabokov’s message coded at the bottom left of Evan's blog, where the "Recent Comments" should appear. But instead, we now see this:
Illustrations by Steve Kim.