My original intention for my DAH MA was somewhat different, although not at all unrelated to, what I ended up becoming (re)interested in. And to such a degree that I’ve decided to pursue it as a PhD topic. Memory, identity, mediation of the self – these were my original interests. I was planning to consider them through photography and gesture (the image and the language of the body being two of my great loves). Instead, I will now consider them through the telescopic lens of death.
What started as a photography project in 2011 about graveyards is now continuing as academic research, the ambit of which is not truly clear to me yet. I intend to consider death, specifically the customs surrounding it in the digital age and how this digital age is changing how we think about and perform these rituals. Memory, obviously, and identity form an enormous part of these considerations.
There is an apocryphal story about Holy Island, in Clare, where feuding family members, unable to agree on how best to memorialize one of their number, erected two separate grave stones for one of their passed members. I have thus far been unable to establish if this is true or not, however, the mere possibility that it is, reminds us how important to individuals and society the process of memorializing the dead is. Funeral arrangements and how they are made and implemented have adapted and become more personalized and fluid. Predicated on the notion that Irish funerary customs differ from those in other cultures, I intend to investigate the digital expressions of these and analyze more closely how these are changing in in response to the availability of digital platforms, wider changes in culture, and new Irish communities such as those formed by immigrants from other European and African countries.
Changes in these practises enabled by the digital include, just for a start, online announcements, the use of QR Codes on gravestones , and of course, online memorialization – websites that allow mourners to create personalized web pages. The use of social networks to grieve was the subject of a study done by Brian Carroll and Katie Landry in 2010 in which they surveyed the use of MySpace and Facebook by 100 graduate students to investigate what they termed “these new rituals of mourning”. Among their conclusions was the position that “individuals’ online selves persist after their bodies have gone, and that these surviving digital selves are managed in important ways by others”.
What does the Facebook app “Ifidie” tell us about the management of the so-called digital self and who wants, or ought to want to, control this. The cheerful voice at the start of the short introductory video tells us: “Last words – we all hope we’ll have a chance to say them. But not knowing exactly when you’re going to die, makes this a bit tricky”. Well, here’s one way to be sure, and it’s to record yourself saying these words and leave the video ready to play in the event of your death. It’s known that Facebook is being adopted by an older user, and developing a simple add-on for this enormous platform is probably two days’ work for a design team, so it makes sense that FB might provide an in-house solution to a subject that its user base may be coming round to thinking about.
This is just one example, of course. The service offered, or which will be offered once it has been fully developed, by Eterni.me is in another galaxy altogether. “…what if you could be remembered forever?” asks the catch-line on the site. What if indeed. In its own words, the creators of this platform tell us that:
” Eterni.me collects almost everything that you create during your lifetime, and processes this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms. Then it generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to your family and friends, even after you pass away.”
Big data for big ideas digging into the big past and the big present, to present a big future.
I started out by wondering (in my PhD proposal) if the omnipresence of digital portrayal / capture is so detailed that it somehow occludes the formation of the mythology – the crystallization of real lives into simple poetic narrative. By way of example, every family has its heroes, its bad boys, its black sheep, which are formed out of snippets of memories and narratives constructed partly through words, partly through photographs (perhaps) and partly through documents such as letters etc. that may have made their way into the family archive. The incompleteness of many of these stories is, arguably, the very thing which gives them their power. It is the incompleteness of, or the spaces left in the information, that allow our imaginations to fill the gaps (like water flowing between rocks?) and construct the family mythologies. At that stage I had not yet stumbled across Eterni.me. I can’t help but wonder if the use of and reliance on a far greater wealth of ‘data’ impoverishes our imaginations in some way. There are many other interesting side-effects on our increasingly mediated selves that bear consideration. Too many to explicate here, right now.
Anyway, I wrote my MA on this topic. And now, I am in the quite exciting position of being able to step back again somewhat and consider the landscape of this topic afresh. I will be doing most of the considerations publicly, for better or for worse, here. It is my site Status Code 301, named, kind of cleverly I thought, for a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code which means ” Moved Permanently. This and all future requests should be directed to the given URL”.
You may wish to have a look. I hope you will, because I do and will welcome opinions, ideas, and information of all types as I consider this wide-ranging topic in its early days.
Caroll, Brian, and Katie Landry. “Logging On and Letting Out: Using Social Networks to Grieve and Mourn.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society (2010): 341+ ibid., 348