Distraction Free Reading

Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data

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)

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