Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data

October 22nd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

In separate incidents in early 2010 two children in Queensland Australia met untimely and violent deaths. In an increasingly common response, relatives, friends and strangers used social media to express grief, angst, solidarity, intimacy, and community, and to remember, mourn and share condolences for the young lives that had been lost. Social media is increasingly used for these kinds of expressions. However, social media is also often used for expressions of hatred, alienation and sociopathy. Within hours, the online commemorations for both children were defaced with abuse of the deceased and the bereaved, with links to pornographic sites, and with images that showed scenes of murder, race-hate and bestiality. Outrage ensued. Virulent condemnation of these so-called ‘RIP-Trolls’ flooded both social and mass media. The Australian Prime Minister commented; the Queensland Police Commissioner promised prosecution; and the Queensland State Premier demanded an apology from Facebook. The RIP-Trolls justified their actions as critique of the vacuous and vicarious expressions of sentiment manifested in ‘click-through grieving’ by strangers; while their adversaries called for respect for the dead, the preservation of the sacred, and emotional care of the friends and family of the deceased (Kohn et al., 2012; Phillips 2011).

Hundreds of millions of people socialize in significant ways using digital media, and each year millions of these people die. As people lead more of their lives online, interactions with the living are increasingly accompanied by encounters with the deceased. These encounters can take at least two forms. First, for many people social media such as Facebook has become a significant part of their social presence in the lives of others. When users of social media die, their digital traces continue and tend to linger on. Through these persistent bodies of data, the dead retain their presence and can continue to play social roles in the lives of those left behind. Secondly, they can be encountered through the emerging, and now wide-spread, practices of digital commemoration. Individuals in increasing numbers are deploying the resources of social networking sites, crowd-sourced informal gatherings, websites, digital video streams, game sites, YouTube clips, Tweets, Flickr collections and the like, to commemorate the deceased, or indeed, to prepare for their own memorialization.

Digital practices associated with ‘death, dying and disposal’ are significant in both personal and public terms but, as the incidents above illustrate, such practices are still evolving and lack established social conventions, and so are also a source of public and personal disquiet, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of moral panic. This confluence of changing digital technologies and the refiguring of contemporary practices and rituals associated with death, dying and disposal is an extraordinarily fertile field for research, and one that should be of immediate interest to many CASTAC readers.

In May of this year Connor Graham, Lanfranco Aceti and I published a dedicated special issue of The Information Society on the ‘Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data’ (see the TOC below).  Through eight single and co-authored contributions, the special issue considers how current, emerging and future rituals and practices associated with death, dying and disposal are being refigured by digital media.

A common theme (one of many) running through all the contributions to this special issue is a concern with, not so much the immorality or resurrection of the dead, but the persistence of the dead in social life that is enabled through social media. If, in the Victorian era the dominant trope for representing and talking about the dead was one of solemn rest and peaceful sleep (Hallam and Hockey 2001), then the dead no longer slumber. Rather, they are becoming a decidedly more boisterous, lively (if you’ll excuse the pun) and continuing presence in people’s lives through ongoing engagement in social media that does not readily forget.

In this vein, Alexandra Sherlock in her contribution to the special issue discusses the ‘symbolic immortality’ of popular media figures who have died yet continue to have a social presence in lives of everyday people and suggests that new digital media offers ironic possibilities for the re-enchantment of contemporary society.

Grant David Bollmer examines contemporary discussions of the effects and possibilities of ‘information remainders’ that persist after death and shows how they are constructed in this discourse as both an ‘authentic duplication of identity’ and a ‘threat to personal identity that must be managed’.

Jed Brubaker and his co-authors examine the use of Facebook as a site for public mourning to take place and argue that rather than disrupting public mourning Facebook is used in ways that lead to its temporal, spatial and social expansion.

Similarly, Scott Church examines the practices and rituals associated with internet memorials, or ‘digital gavescapes’. He discusses an interesting mode of engagement often found on these sites: people directly and publicly addressing the dead in the second person. He suggests these public performances can strengthen communal experiences even though people are not directly addressing each other with their digital utterances.

Jessa Lingel looks at the online, public debates that have surrounded Facebook’s policies for the pages of people who have died. From these rancorous discussions she argues that ‘in the context of online grief, Facebook pages become a contested site of ownership, meaning making, and social ties.’ (p.194) She concludes that the norms and protocols associated with online grief remain unsettled and evolving with significant implications for individual and collective identities and rituals.

On a more speculative note, Denisa Kera examines recent posthumanist experimentation in the fields of art and design that poses significant questions for our notions of burial and disposal, memorialization and archiving, mortality and immortality.

Bill Bainbridge’s contribution is a provocative account of his experiences with creating what he calls ancestor veneration avatars. Using MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds he has created characters that represent and are used to enact aspects of the lived lives, as well as the hopes and dreams, of long dead members of his family.

And finally, in our introduction to the special issues we discuss the refiguring of the rituals and practices associated with grieving and memorialization. We examine how notions of personhood are extended over time and space and thus transformed through the circulation, repetition and re-contextualization of bodies and associated data through new media with implications for future forms of remembrance.

Contributions to the special issue, Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data, of the Information Society (29/3) include:

“Introduction to the Special Issue on the Death, Afterlife, and Immortality of Bodies and Data” Connor Graham, Martin Gibbs and Lanfranco Aceti

“Millions Now Living Will Never Die: Cultural Anxieties About the Afterlife of Information” Grant David Bollmer

“Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning” Jed R. Brubaker, Gillian R. Hayes & Paul Dourish

“Larger Than Life: Digital Resurrection and the Re-Enchantment of Society” Alexandra Sherlock

“Designing for Death and Apocalypse: Theodicy of Networks and Uncanny Archives” Denisa Kera

“Digital Gravescapes: Digital Memorializing on Facebook” Scott H. Church

“The Digital Remains: Social Media and Practices of Online Grief” Jessa Lingel

“Perspectives on Virtual Veneration” William Sims Bainbridge

References

Hallam, E. and Hockey J. (2001) Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg.

Kohn, T., Gibbs, M., Arnold, M., and Nansen. B. (2012) Facebook and the Other: Administering to and Caring for the Dead Online, in Hage, G (Ed.), Responsibility. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press, 128-141.

Phillips, W. (2011) LOLing at Tragedy: Facebook Trolls, Memorial Pages and Resistance to Grief Online, First Monday [Online], 16(12) (28 November)

Update on Big Data and Ethnography, Ethnography of Documents

September 16th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

Readers of the CASTC blog may recall my posting earlier in the year regarding Big Data. I offer the following comments as an update on my previous comments and in hopes of contributing further to the discussion of this topic.

My first comment is that the topic continues to be of considerable interest. Doubtless some of this follows from the fact that capacities to provide/make sense of Big Data are now an important part of corporate advertising, if not necessarily delivery of substantive benefits. Also, under more acceptable guises of things like “Data Science,” academic programs like mine in Informatics at Indiana University are moving feverishly to try to take advantage, of both the hype and any potentially real benefits. That despite the change in term, the actual concern in my view remains about quantity is revealed by the academic efforts underway to decide just what “big” implies, e.g., at least hundreds or tens of thousands?

I also think there remain issues here for ethnographers. One is clearly the claim of Big Data advocates that their tools for getting and analyzing digital data allow better (even “scientific”) study of complex social phenomena that, in some cases, we ethnographers have claimed. These include things having to do with senses of identity or motivation. In addition to finding ourselves in competition with Big Data-ers, I also think there may well be uses of Big Data tools that can usefully contribute to ethnographic work.

Out of both these motivations, Kalpana Shankar (University College Dublin, School of Information and Library Studies) and I organized a workshop on Ethnography and Big Data as part of the Social Informatics program of the Department of Information Science and Engineering at the University of Trento, Italy. In addition to clarifying the range of issues involved, the workshop also identified a number of additional relevant resources. Preparatory readings for workshop, presentation slides, and links to the additional readings are still available at: http://disi.unitn.it/~dandrea/workshop/

At the same site are posted similar materials for another workshop Kalpana and I organized. This one was on the ethnography of documents, a growing issue in my ethnography of Information teaching, both in Indiana and Trento. The topic is one about which we have proposed to write an article for the upcoming 4th Edition of the Science and Technology Studies Handbook. I of course would like to hear from CASTC members interested in either of these issues.

dhakken@indiana.edu

On Building Social Robustness

November 12th, 2012, by § 3 Comments

by David Hakken, Information Ethnographer, Indiana University Bloomington

As many of you know, I am now directing a Social Informatics (SI) Group in a School of Informatics and Computing (SoIC) at Indiana University Bloomington. The SI group is quite unique in Informatics/Computer Science/Information Studies, it that is has chosen to oriented itself explicitly to the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS, also referred to as Science and Technology Studies). I am also thinking about retirement in the next 3-5 years. Being in these situations has shaped the research agenda that follows.

My current research is all framed generally within Socially Robust and Enduring Computing. SREC is based on the notion that developing a notion of social robustness, comparable to the technical notion of robustness in Computer Science, is a goal worth pursuing. I have developed SREC with colleagues in Trento, Italy.

My main research time commitment at the moment is to a writing project on Value(s) with Maurizio Teli, a young researcher at the <ahref Foundation in Trento, where I spend a couple months every year. My interest in this area grew out of efforts to identify the forms whereby and the extent to which computing professionals are responsible ethically for the current economic and social crisis set off in finance. Maurizio’s and my value(s) project is a continuation of this work on the crisis and is linked to the project of David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years, itself a work that builds on much of the recent anthropology of value. That is, we want to give a similar account of the ways in which value and values are and should be treated and thought about in the reproduction of current social formations. Such an account is made necessary by the ways in which contemporary reproduction is increasingly detached from the prior industrial dynamics but which has not yet established a new dynamic. In our view, establishing new social formation reproduction dynamics requires identification of new values, new institutions for pursuing those values, and new means to measure especially value relating to the success or failure of establishing these new values and institutions. A major point we wish to make regards the increasingly larger role in these new dynamics we see being played by common pool resources, the focus of Eleanor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, and, until she died last Spring, a valued colleague here in Bloomington.

It is my hope that this writing will be paralleled by a research and demonstration project in Trentino on new systems, including information systems, for supporting the independent living of Seniors. This Suitcaseproject will build on my previous work in disability studies and technology, as well as more general ethnography in this region. Another aspect of the Trento ethnography is an attempt to understand what has made the region relatively hospitable to Participatory Design. PD is the focus of what I hope to and expect will be my last permanent contribution to the curriculum in the SoIC. In addition, I am working on another, related writing project, a text on Organizational Informatics, with Stefano De Paoli, another <ahref researcher. This text will incorporate much of the work behind my 2011 AAA paper in the business anthropology sessions as well as my current teaching, including my course on the Ethnography of Information.

A final areas of research, this time in collaboration with two SoIC graduate students, Nic True and Shad Gross, is on Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). In this work, we engage the current interest in Big Data, intending to show how some of the epistemological shortcomings in its standard approaches can be address when it is triangulated with ethnography. In our case, we argue that a preliminary ethnography of gaming can provide clearer direction regarding what we should be looking for in the automated analysis of large corpora of game play data. This work is directly related to the effort in SoIC to create a professional masters degree in Big Data.

Presented in this way, it should be easy to see, as I said initially, the multiple ways in which this research agenda is a function of my current position. While I have participated in the AAA meetings and CASTAC occasionally since I went to Indiana in 2004, this occasional connection has not been enough to justify systematic orientation of my research toward anthropology. Ironically, when I studied the careers of anthropologists interested in STS in the 1980s, I found a similar phenomenon; there were few if any examples of individuals who developed these interests while sustaining strong connections with academic anthropology. I should mention that my efforts to interest Indiana University Bloomington Department of Anthropology scholars in this type of work has born little fruit.

I mention these things as a warning: Interest in the anthropology of science, technology, and computing is not automatically, or even generally, a good way to build a career in anthropology. Working in and through vehicles like CASTAC should thus be understood as essential to the work of anthropologists who wish to continue to do so.

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