Are you ready to die? What about all of those pieces of you left behind on the Internet? Are they a fair representation of who you really are?
Think about it.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on a project I started called Future140. It demands well thought out answers in 140 seconds or less. For my second micro-interview on Future140 I decided to challenge my dad, who happens to be a professor and the most accessible intellectual I know. He’s always taken a liking to the subject of death. He recently has been dabbling in social media and I thought he might have some insight into a question that had been plaguing me.
His answer opens up a lot of other questions, which in my opinion a good answer should do. One thing I should mention before discussing his answer is the fact that most of the social networks I know of will delete the content of the deceased if their family requests it be done. In other cases the site is frozen to memorialize the departed. (For more about how social networks deal with death read this article from “The Guardian”. I was thinking that most of the content we leave behind on the Internet is at times trivial and not a fair representation of who we really are, or who we really want to be. Although, I wasn’t sure.
With this consideration in mind I gathered my father’s thoughts.
In ancient China the bronze inscriptions served as micro-autobiographies. They were painstakingly engraved memorials that demanded a distillation of the ancestors life. These records served as potent reminders of life’s importance for their next of kin. It was a serious process for a serious time far removed from the simple silliness of Twitter. If someone were to tweet with the bronze-like tone of old, it would undoubtedly make followers unfollow.
If we die and leave behind trivial crap to memorialize ourselves then there is no one to blame but ourselves. Let’s just imagine that we’re dead. If you think about it, our digital lives only really mattered to the people who respected us in the real world: our families, our friends, and our co-workers. We may have been highly active on a certain forum or social network but so what? Most of the people who post their thoughts next to yours won’t care that you’ve died. We may have accumulated thousands of followers on Twitter, but if your tweets stop, most of them won’t mind. Unless what we said made sufficient impact, nobody will know, nobody will care.
Most of us don’t consider death. Most of us don’t consider the importance of what we share on the Internet. My dad mentions that that all too often on the Internet we do not know exactly to whom we are communicating. We may have some notion, but for the most part we’re lost. Most of us don’t consider the importance of our lives, and so -ipso facto- most people don’t want to hear others considering the importance of THEIR lives.
Ancient China was a bit more serious about this endeavor. Think about it. What would your bronze inscription say? Or, maybe I should ask, what would your final tweet say? Last month I asked a variation of this question on Twitter (I framed the question as if the world was going to end in 10 seconds). I got some interesting responses. Here are a few of them:
ZenMommy@ddrrnt we are not the circumstances of our lives. we ARE life. we can LOVE this day. 🙂
KJjournalist@ddrrnt no tweets, too busy telling fam love wins all
Wildcat2030@ddrrnt I lived as a free being, I die as a free being, I feel poetic, 10 seconds is an eternity
Each of these responses contain potent reminders of our shared reverence of life, love, family, freedom, and the passing of time. I think it is miraculous that traces of our living memories can prevail on the Internet. When we face the certain possibility of death, we become aware of the quality of our shared mysterious existence.
The Internet as a Living Memory
As digital technology becomes increasingly integrated into our lives we may find more and more of our lives being expressed on the Internet. There are also those of us who foresee technology becoming integrated with our bodies (transhumanism). How could our deaths impact our family, friends, and coworkers if our entire lives were recorded?
In 2004 an interesting movie dealt with this problem called “The Final Cut”. You might remember, Robin Williams was the lead, and it dealt with a future technology called the “Zoe implant”. It recorded people’s entire lives, as experienced through their eyes. Williams’ character had to edit people’s lives into a short film, after their death, called a “Rememory”.
After considering all the useless garbage I have shared and discussed on the Internet – along with so many others – I’m left wondering if we should have editors to clean up our lives in order to present our best moments. Wouldn’t you like your life to shine like bronze after you die? Will your left over Internet activity serve as an inspiring bronze inscription or an intriguing autobiography?
My dad’s parents both wrote autobiographies before they died. They were Mormons. My dad and I aren’t. I’m reminded of moments in church when leaders emphasized the importance of keeping journals and investigating the records of our ancestors. I wonder if future Mormons will be looking back on their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparent’s social network profiles?
Most religious folk tend to think about death more than the rest of us. Now that the living web has poked its head into our lives I believe our life after death will be far more honest and not just an edited representation.
On the other hand, there is also the possibility that we will begin editing out the bad parts of our digital profiles ourselves. Maybe we think nobody needs to know who we really are. Maybe we think that most people wouldn’t want to know anyway. Maybe WE DON’T WANT to know who we really are. Sharing our bordem and grievances with our online social networks reveals that there is a certain something within us that we all share: Uncertainty.
An Audience Worth Considering
What if the world did end in 10 seconds, and all that was left of humanity was the Internet? What if a highly evolved extraterrestrial found it? Let’s say they stumble across you profile. What would they learn about the human condition? As a transhumanist I believe future generations will be like extraterrestrials compared to what we are now. I think that our emotional struggles, uncertainties, and hopes will serve as a friendly reminder to future generations. I think we all want the truth, no matter how painful. So, don’t edit yourself (unless you’re being rude of course).
Now in conclusion I reply to:
@ZenMommy You’re right. We are not the circumstances of our lives. we ARE life. we can LOVE this day.
@KJjournalist You SHOULD tell your family that love wins all!
@Wildcat2030 10 seconds IS an eternity and your freedom is expressed poetically in your very being!
@stdurrant Our digital lives do matter; more than bronze inscriptions and more than autobiographies!
P.S. You should watch the beginning of this documentary. It might inspire you.