Can We Die Online? Aspiring After Being
In the summer of 2001 – yes, the Time Before – I took a graduate course in web design. I had no real interest in the subject, but all students who took part would receive brand-new laptops, and I badly needed one. So I suffered through near-incomprehensible instruction in Dreamweaver, with the goal of creating a nifty little personal website to promote my dissertation research. I hated every minute of that class. The work was too damn nitpicky, and the rules didn’t correspond to any logic I knew. My literal/literary mind simply couldn’t figure out which files were where, or why, or what made a link “live.” I built a ramshackle website, collected my Dell, and promptly forgot the very little I’d learned.
But the internet didn’t forget. My sad little site drifted in and out of Google searches with eerie unpredictability. Sometimes it appeared right at the top; other times, idly curious, I had to search around. Due to one of many programming errors, the title of the site was a mangled fragment of code – “homesite” — instead of comprehensible text, and I never knew which page of the design would appear on my screen. The only part I was proud of (the “money shot,” as I referred to it in a presentation to visiting Ivy League dignitaries, unaware of that term’s highly un-Ivied origins) was a floor plan a bit like the game board for Clue, with the different room names linking to chapters of my dissertation. I visited the site every so often to admire my incomprehensible handiwork, and marveled that it was still out there, unmaintained, inaccessible – to me at least – the intangible ghost of a project I never saw through, in more ways than one. (I ultimately completed a very different dissertation.) What I might have done haunted me “phantom-wise,” as Carroll once wrote of Alice, hanging in the ether of what Jeffrey Rosen recently described as “a digital world that never forgets.”
But a project is not a person. It is far less disconcerting to me to revisit the Ghost of Dissertation Past than to have Facebook suggest I “reconnect” with a friend I know is no longer alive. I’m not the only one who feels this way; last week, Jenna Wortham pondered the problem of Facebook ghosts. What role, she asked, should the site play in the monitoring and possible cancellation of profiles of the dead ? She concludes, unsurprisingly, that “death, of course, is unavoidable, and Facebook must find a way to integrate it into the social experience online.” But what happens when we die to the other simulacra of ourselves that exist on the web: in blogs, online communities, even Etsy, for chrissake?
Have no fear, Silicon Valley is on the case. Thursday May 20th was the first annual Digital Death Day. Sponsored by DataInherit (“Should anything happen to you, your important digital data and passwords are preserved and can be accessed by authorized family members, partners, or trusted friends!”), Digital Death Day convened around the question: “What does death of the physical self mean for the digital self?” (The which now? ) To put it in pop terms, now that we’ve all taken the red pill, who mops up the Matrix when we bite it IRL? The answer? Lots of people! Write your digital will today! Or don’t, because it’s morbid and scares the hell out of you! But you CAN!
It’s significant, I think, that the materials for Digital Death Day carefully avoid the term “real.” With all due respect to Plato, when it comes to the internet, we’re no longer in the cave or out of the cave; the door is open, and we circulate freely between the shadows and the sun (or most of us do, anyway). Your World of Warcraft avatar may not be real, but your Paypal account sure is, and someone has to deal with it after you’re gone. And what about your blogs? Your Twitter? And, again, your Facebook? My friend S. recounted the unsettling experience of having an old friend she reconnected with after many years die just two weeks later; wall posts turned from updates on his life to grief about his death without missing a beat. Another spoke of the consolation that FB provided after her uncle committed suicide, due to the site’s efficiency for communicating information about services as well as memories. But L. raised another, less comforting issue … when the funeral is over and the sadness has been shared, should we pull the plug? Or do we let the page remain as an online memorial, until … forever?
The shadow/light dichotomy of “The Allegory of the Cave” may be too simple an analogy for the current complex interweaving of our online and offline selves. Perhaps more useful, if disturbing, is Socrates’ assertion in The Phaedo that, after death, “the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere.” For Plato, the body wasn’t merely disposable after death, as in Christian theology; it was actually an impediment to the insight the freed soul might otherwise receive. (Granted, there was an order of hemlock on its way to Socrates’ table at the time, so he may have been more inclined to bet on jettisoning the body.) Cyberpunk hero William Gibson updated Plato in a 1998 episode of The X-Files called “Kill Switch,” in which a beautiful young hacker named Invisigoth transfers her consciousness into an online Artificial Intelligence, where (when? how?) her dead lover already resides.
“Kill Switch” looks forward and back, simultaneously: back, to the days when the web seemed to some to be the last possible utopia, and forward, to a time – now – when a digital self outlasts (in more ways than one) the body that created it. Rosen’s essay focused on the internet’s endless memory as a liability to our reputations. I can’t help but wonder, though, what it means for our thinking selves, our consciousness — our souls.
Photo by mattwi1s0n
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