Going back to my roots. See ya very soon BALI!” declared a jubilant 20-year-old Joshua* on Facebook, just a while before boarding the plane that would take him to his fatherland. It was 17th of July, 2014, and the plane was MH17.
“Yay, see you tomorrow!” wrote back Fien.
“Have fun!” exclaimed Jozefien.
A third friend wondered whether Joshua was ok. The hesitant trickle of people showing the same bewilderment soon became a cataract once fears were confirmed: Joshua was among those brutally perished in the doomed MH17 flight. In fact, the young man had died somewhere between Fien’s and Jozefien’s posts.
The cascade of mourners that swept through Joshua’s page addressed him in second person, many still pressing for an answer. Of course Joshua never answered but his final post sparked off a post-mortem frenzy, gathering 238 shares and huge numbers of likes on his public pictures by both friends and “die-curious” strangers alike.
The story of the tragically lost MH17 victims and those gone in a blink of an eye at the least unexpected moment serves as a good example of how social media have redefined the relationship between life and death. Hitherto digital blossom, the resting places of our bodies, cemeteries, imposed strict boundaries between the living and the dead. Cultural historian Philippe Ariès in his “The Hour of Death” states that in the 20th century the West chose to “hide death in the closet”. The “Invisible Death” was the final of a long series of changing Western attitudes towards death: from the “Beautiful Death”, to the “Erotic Death”, to the “Death of the Self”, to the “Tame Death”. The societal norms and virtues of the previous century declared death an “aberration”, a trifling occurrence unworthy to occupy the precious time and energy of the “productive”—after the necessary grieving process, that is.
The mainstreaming of the once-exclusive Internet at the onset of the 21st century, however, remodeled our way of living—and dying.
Until the aughts, most users remained anonymous “beneficiaries” of the “fresh” job and study opportunities, the equal access to the global treasuries of knowledge, the pioneering ideas spreading through Internet’s electrical circuits… At that point in time sprung up “intriguing“ websites encouraging the user to occupy few electronic bits for a personal space reflecting their offline personality. This time the reward would be unlimited networking /friendship opportunities, free from the “tyranny” of time and space. The online self needed no flesh and bones, just pixels and quantifiable sets of data. Gradually, the connections formed between different “sets of data” started being substantial, meaningful, nearly equal to those in “real-life”.
Despite the huge leaps of technology, old, “real life” still hangs around. We still need a body to live and think in and will need at least a few decades before transplanting our conscience into a holographic host, thus achieving utter disembodiment—according to the “cheekiest” death challengers. So, what happens when a person dies but their digital version keeps popping up, on the sidebar of a newsfeed in the “People You May Know” section? Where life and death co-appear, are the boundaries blurred?
“Not so much blurred, but definitely shifting,” says President of San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis, Dr. Michael B. Donner. “Technology has changed primarily the ritualistics of death in that instead of visiting the cemetery we can now visit the departed person’s account. The way somebody mourns remains an internalized process not that easily influenced by societal norms.”
The ultra-ambitious nature of the Internet, nonetheless, keeps posing new challenges, possibly requiring revisions of long-held assumptions. Look at the new start-ups of post-mortem social networking. Eterni.Me is a program that assembles all of your life’s information in an interactive archive. Friends and relatives can keep on interacting with you—your avatar—through video chats and messaging. “What if you could live on forever as a digital avatar?” Eterni.me asks on its front page.
Most of us would answer yes, wouldn’t we? Upon instinctively “squashing” the greatest existential fear of our species, would we really take a moment to think about those left behind?
The Kubler-Ross model describes five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. If a person passes away but their digital self keeps “breathing” online space, what will the effects be on the grieving process? How will closure be achieved?
In Dr. Donner’s view, closure is more about the person than the event. “Closure is dependent on the individual psychological state. If not gained, it reflects more a failure of the person to achieve it and is not that correlated with external factors.” The overall tenet of the scientist is that technology as a whole is neutral. Yet, he accepts that aggressive advances in social media can indeed delay or perpetuate grief. “We may see people “frozen” in grief, unable to let go of the loved ones,” he says.
So far, more than 25,000 people have signed up for Eterni.Me while there are other programs in line for a piece of the still-in-its-infancy, post-humous networking pie (e.g. Dead Social, an afterlife messenger, or LivesOn with the motto “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”). After 150,000 years of uneven battle with death anxiety, we now have one more asset under our belt—except the celestial refuges of our religions—to sooth down the ungraspable thought of our singularity decaying into rot. Who knows? Maybe post-mortem social networking will evolve to a point where Joshua will eventually reply to those Facebook friends’ distressed questions he left unaccounted for once he embarked on his journey.
*Joshua is a fictional name referring to a real person
Pic by Liz West, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license