Our mourning rituals are being adapted to -- and evolving because of -- our strangely persistent online personas. In this interview, a philosopher tries to make sense of death on the Internet.
Think of how rich and deeply personal your online persona has become. Now think of what will happen to it when you die.
Until very recently, this question used to feel unusual or irrelevant for all but a tiny, ultrawired slice of the population. In a New York Times Magazine feature about online death last year, Rob Walker noted, "For most of us, the fate of tweets and status updates and the like may seem trivial." But in the 15 months between then and now, the question of online death has become inescapable: thousands of Facebook users die each day. Facebook's new Timeline begins with one's birth. There is only one logical way for it to end.
Already, the service allows grieving
loved ones to "memorialize" user profiles. These "In Memory Of"
profiles have become a new mourning space, where memorial services can
be organized, condolences can be collected, and, more interestingly,
where a distinctive version of a person can be experienced and
remembered. People can and do leave wall posts on the profiles of the dead. In this sense, a part of a person lives on online.
But what does that really mean? Philosophers have long struggled with similar questions about identity. They are, in some sense, uniquely disposed to answer
these tricky questions about what becomes of the online dead. Some are beginning to try.
Patrick Stokes, an Australian philosopher from Deakin University,
recently published a paper called "Ghosts in the Machine: Do the Dead Live On In Facebook?"
that addresses many of the issues raised by the survival of the dead
online. What follows is my conversation with Stokes about the slippery
nature of identity and the peculiar ways that we live and die online.
This is a strange and fascinating moment as we develop new rituals for the dead's social media profiles. We are drawing on established traditions, but also developing new ones that take advantage of the technological affordances of the services we use. Facebook's memorial profiles are not in an "online graveyard or cemetery," Stokes says, "Instead we just have these dead people among us."
You open your paper by noting that there is this increasing intersection of online life and offline death. What are some of the more striking examples of that phenomenon?
Stokes: Oh there are plenty of them. Think of when somebody famous dies and then there's this kind of new reaction, where everyone immediately takes to Twitter and has to post some kind of comment on it. There's this interesting kind of ritual that's developed around that, around people saying certain kinds of things about people when they die.
Another example of this intersection---there have been a number of people who have been terminally ill, and who have blogged about their experience with a particular disease, and about their decline, and then had a post deliberately set up to appear after they've died. In some sense, these people are kind of dying online, in the blog format. There are also frequent cases, and you used to see this on LiveJournal all the time, of people who would start to post about how they'd contracted some horrible disease, and then over several months they would post about all of the tragic things that were happening to them, and because there is a community built around these platforms you'd get people giving them sympathy and tips and things like that. And then suddenly it would go quiet, and a few days later a different person would post from the account and say "I'm so and so's brother or husband or girlfriend; I'm really sorry to tell you that they lost their battle with the disease last week." And then you'd have this huge outpouring of grief and sorrow, but unfortunately what was happening in a lot of these cases was that someone making the whole thing up---they were performing this kind of fake death online out of some psychological need for sympathy or validation. A lot of people were genuinely hurt by that; they were investing real emotions in these people and it turns out the whole thing was actually a complete sham.
More disturbingly there's been instances of people committing suicides on webcams and things like that, with people either not intervening or not intervening fast enough or even encouraging them. There's a strange sort of thing with the internet---on the one hand it's very immediate, you can see people's faces across enormous distances, you can interact directly with them as though they were right in front of you, and yet you can also take refuge in the fact that they're not actually directly in front of you, and that creates a kind of distance that allows people to be much more callous than they otherwise would be.
How is it that you see the dead persisting on Facebook and services like it?
Stokes: It's interesting, my impetus for thinking about this actually came from Facebook. Facebook has that panel on the side that suggests people that you might know, and in the list of suggestions that it gives me, there are at least two individuals who are no longer with us---Facebook knows that they're dead, so it's made this little notation that says "in memory of," and it's turned them into memorial pages. And I started thinking that it's kind of weird that here is my list of potential friends, of people I already know, and some of them are already dead. What does that mean, what does that tell us about the persistence of people after death? I started thinking about the fact that there's this split between the self that you experience right now, and the sort of extended physical and social being that you are otherwise.
The Australian philosopher Mark Johnson talks about this a lot, and what he says is that when you fear death, what you fear is not the extinction of this extended physical and social being, but rather you fear that the sense of self that you experience right now is going to be extinguished. And that's a split that I'm really interested in---the split between our projected first personal outlook on life and our sense of ourselves as a being that extends across time. Looking at these Facebook pages of dead people, what struck me was the way that people continue to interact with them, and that's because Facebook is one of the main technologies that we use to communicate our identity. You go to someone's Facebook page and it says "here I am" and "this is what I like" and "here's a bunch of photos of me" and "here's a bunch of interactions between me and my friends that you can see on my wall." When that person dies all of that stuff is still left there and though the profile has become in some sense unresponsive, it's still existent and people continue to interact with it. The social identity of this person continues.
How do these Facebook profiles help the bereaved?
Stokes: There evidence that they really do help them. In the paper I quote the sister of an Australian soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan as saying "it's almost like it's brought him back to life a little bit, you can hear his voice." And that is something that is useful for people, it can, to some extent, preserve something of the distinctive phenomenal presence of that person---the way they say things, what they looked like, the way they tended to communicate with people. Insofar as it preserves that, I think it probably does help bereaved people, in the same sort of way as reading old letters and things like that helps grieving people.
One of the things that we do when somebody dies is we immediately start telling stories about how they were, we immediately start swapping anecdotes about things they did and things they said, and part of what we're doing there I think is trying to preserve the distinctive presence of that person. We're trying to preserve what made them lovable; that's part of how we keep the dead alive on a moral level, and I think to that extent things like online profiles can be a very useful memory aid for bereaved people. Not a memory aid in the sense that they're in danger of forgetting the person, but a memory aid in the sense of something you can look at that will give you a rich, Proustian rush of memory, and will bring that person back to you as the distinctive person that they were.
Patrick Stokes is a philosopher from Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.
You say that the dead live on online as objects of duty---what do you mean by that?
Stokes: After I put the paper together I came across the work of a psychologist in London named Elaine Kasket, and she talks a lot about how on these online memorials people tend to talk to the deceased person in a kind of personal way, and often in a way that implies that the person can hear them. I thought that was really interesting. On one level, our online identity captured a huge chunk of our social and relational identity and preserved it, and that it continues to exist in some way. That's really important because I think that it captures the way we really have continuing moral duties to dead people even though they don't exist anymore; they exist as objects of duty. That's something Kierkegaard talks about, the fact that we have these duties to dead people, like the duty to remember them, or the duty not to slander them, and so forth. We live with this very profound ontological ambiguity with dead people: they both absolutely don't exist anymore, and yet they exist as these people that we have to love and care about.
But persisting as an object of moral duty isn't persisting as a self. If I said to you "Would you like to live on inside your Facebook profile?" you'd almost certainly say "No, that doesn't count as any sort of survival that I'd wish for." Whatever survival you achieve through your online presence is a very thin form of survival; it's still some kind of survival, and it's enough to build up a kind of community around it, and enough to serve as a focus of mourning attention, but it's nowhere near as rich as somebody's active living presence in the world. It's a radically diminished form of survival. And so there is this tension that comes up between the self that is this physical and social identity that exists through time and even after death, although in a diminished form, and your sense of the self as being who you are right now, because that self cannot survive death, unless posthumous existence turns out to be correct. Facebook lets you survive for everyone else, but you can't survive for yourself, which is disheartening in a way. It goes back to that old quote from Woody Allen: "I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen, I want to live on in my apartment. I don't want to achieve immortality through my writings, I want to achieve immortality through not dying."
And that's sort of the gut punch of your paper.
Stokes: It is, and it's sort of depressing, but then again working on the philosophy of death usually is. But there are interesting things afoot. In the paper I talk about this website called Virtual Eternity, where you can upload a photo of yourself, and fill in a bit of a script, and then the website creates an avatar of you that, with the use of artificial intelligence, can answer questions as if it were you---based on the short script you've supplied. The idea is that years from now your descendants, or whoever, can go online and have a kind of chat with you through this avatar. The technology isn't very advanced now, but you can imagine one day that it might be, and again, that's great for everyone else, because it does give you a kind of persistence, but it doesn't help you any because the person you experience yourself as being right now can't be inside that avatar.
Haven't the dead always lived on in various kinds of media, in autobiographies and wills and that sort of thing---is the difference here only a kind of democratization of this kind of media-assisted afterlife?
Stokes: You're absolutely right---the dead have persisted in things like graves and books and memories and movies and things like that. There's nothing new here. On one level you can look at something like Facebook and say this is really just a kind of diary or a photo album, but on another level it's a bit richer than that. For one, on Facebook people are consciously presenting or performing their identity, and that hasn't always been true of these previous forms of posthumous identity.
Another thing you see is that despite the warnings of philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus that the disembodiment of the internet cuts us off from certain corporeal aspects of our existence, what we're seeing more and more on online social networks is people being directly connected to their corporeality, or at least more connected to their corporeality than in other online forums---photos are a big part of that, videos as well.
I mention in the paper that there's work being done on the way that people call out other users on social networks for taking very flattering pictures of themselves by holding a camera at a certain angle, what people call the "MySpace angle." And people are policing that by saying "hey, that's a doctored photo, you don't really look that good," which is a fairly unpleasant and misogynistic way of reconnecting people to their corporeality online. An even more unpleasant and misogynistic example of this is a website---and I won't mention the name because I don't want to give them oxygen---where people submit nude photos that people have taken of themselves, and then the site connects them with their social network profiles so you can see the person's name, where they live, and the nude photos of them.
One of the things about that sort of practice is that, in a way, in a very invasive and violent way, it's connecting people with the most basic level of their corporeality, which is that we don't show our naked bodies to most people, and we have control over that. People losing control over that aspect of their corporeality shows the extent to which we do live our bodies online much more than we did even a few years ago. It's still fundamentally a disembodied space, but we're much more connected to our bodies with technologies like Facebook than we were with purely textual sorts of technologies.
But you're right that we've always persisted in these different kinds of media, and interestingly the idea of communication with the dead in modern Western culture has always been associated with electricity as well. There's a sense in which we're already primed by our folklore to accept this idea of the dead living in a kind of disembodied electronic netherworld, which in some way began with the idea of animal magnetism. It's funny when Morse went to seek funding from Congress for the telegraph, some Congressman said "this is just animal magnetism--we're not going to fund this." And there's a thread that leads from that to the little girl being sucked into the TV in Poltergeist, which is something Jeffrey Sconce has written about very eloquently---this sense of an electronic medium for the dead.
This isn't the first time we've imagined the dead living on in electronic mediums.
Facebook has elected to allow relatives to keep the profiles of departed loved ones intact, with a little notation that says "in memory of." Do you think that could be the first step towards a formalized cemetery on Facebook? I've often thought that might give Facebook a considerable, maybe even permanent, market advantage as the ultimate repository of our online identities.
Stokes: Well, online memorials have been around for a very long time. All Facebook has done is start to turn people's actual profiles into online memorials. What's interesting about it is that offline we physically create places, specially demarcated places, where we put dead people, but on Facebook these aren't demarcated---they exist side by side with living profiles. So in that sense, what we have now is not so much like an online graveyard or cemetery; instead we just have these dead people among us.
Right, but that's now. It seems to me very easy to imagine, especially with the advent of Facebook Timeline, that you could soon have this formalized, separate cemetery-like space you would go to on Facebook. Especially if Facebook ends up retaining the cultural impact that it has now over the next several decades. I'm not so sure that media entities like Facebook have that kind of staying power anymore, but if it did, at some point a decent-sized portion of its first generation of adopters is going to die, and you might think that a Facebook cemetery would be a natural outgrowth of that.
Stokes: Possibly, but the funny thing about this is---when we think about our relationships to dead people, we don't really have a kind of categorical way that we relate to them the way we do when we talk about relating to our friends or our family. It's a bit different when you're talking about dead people, because it's more of a one on one relationship. And yet, the cemetery example is in some sense valid, because, one thing Kasket found was that people are actually going back to people's memorial profiles and telling them what's been happening in the six months or one year since they've died, in the same way that some people now go to cemeteries to talk to dead people at the actual gravesite. So in that sense these profiles have become similar to cemeteries, they have become this sort of liminal space, to use a very pretentious word, a space between the living and the dead where you can communicate with them, and yet now you can do it in the privacy of your own home, sitting in bed in your underwear if that's your thing.
As I said before, the central dilemma of your paper, the gut punch of it, is this sense that increasingly some virtual embodiment of ourselves is now going to persist beyond death, but that our internal selves won't. In the transhumanist community there is a lot of discussion about the uploading of the mind. To the extent that may one day be possible, is that our only way around this dilemma?
Stokes: Yes, theoretically at least that would be a way around the problem---upload your consciousness somehow into a computer and so continue to exist subjectively in that way. But for that to work you would have to be able to anticipate having the experiences the computer would have. So there would have to be some sort of experience going on inside the computer, and it would have to be continuous with your present experience. Maybe we could meet that second condition; certainly philosophers like Barry Dainton have argued that's at least logically possible for computer-generated consciousness to be phenomenally continuous with our organic experience. But that depends on there being such a thing as "computer-generated consciousness" in the first place, which gets us into the dark territory of questions of "qualia," of the phenomenal feel of consciousness, what it's like to be a particular conscious subject. It's just really unclear, I think, whether anything going on inside a computer could count as an experience that I could anticipate having.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
Writing used to be a solitary profession. How did it become so interminably social?
Whether we’re behind the podium or awaiting our turn, numbing our bottoms on the chill of metal foldout chairs or trying to work some life into our terror-stricken tongues, we introverts feel the pain of the public performance. This is because there are requirements to being a writer. Other than being a writer, I mean. Firstly, there’s the need to become part of the writing “community”, which compels every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them. We get through it. We bully ourselves into it. We dose ourselves with beta blockers. We drink. We become our own worst enemies for a night of validation and participation.
Even when a dentist kills an adored lion, and everyone is furious, there’s loftier righteousness to be had.
Now is the point in the story of Cecil the lion—amid non-stop news coverage and passionate social-media advocacy—when people get tired of hearing about Cecil the lion. Even if they hesitate to say it.
But Cecil fatigue is only going to get worse. On Friday morning, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, called for the extradition of the man who killed him, the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Muchinguri would like Palmer to be “held accountable for his illegal action”—paying a reported $50,000 to kill Cecil with an arrow after luring him away from protected land. And she’s far from alone in demanding accountability. This week, the Internet has served as a bastion of judgment and vigilante justice—just like usual, except that this was a perfect storm directed at a single person. It might be called an outrage singularity.
Most of the big names in futurism are men. What does that mean for the direction we’re all headed?
In the future, everyone’s going to have a robot assistant. That’s the story, at least. And as part of that long-running narrative, Facebook just launched its virtual assistant. They’re calling it Moneypenny—the secretary from the James Bond Films. Which means the symbol of our march forward, once again, ends up being a nod back. In this case, Moneypenny is a send-up to an age when Bond’s womanizing was a symbol of manliness and many women were, no matter what they wanted to be doing, secretaries.
Why can’t people imagine a future without falling into the sexist past? Why does the road ahead keep leading us back to a place that looks like the Tomorrowland of the 1950s? Well, when it comes to Moneypenny, here’s a relevant datapoint: More than two thirds of Facebook employees are men. That’s a ratio reflected among another key group: futurists.
Forget credit hours—in a quest to cut costs, universities are simply asking students to prove their mastery of a subject.
MANCHESTER, Mich.—Had Daniella Kippnick followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of millions of students who have earned university degrees in the past millennium, she might be slumping in a lecture hall somewhere while a professor droned. But Kippnick has no course lectures. She has no courses to attend at all. No classroom, no college quad, no grades. Her university has no deadlines or tenure-track professors.
Instead, Kippnick makes her way through different subject matters on the way to a bachelor’s in accounting. When she feels she’s mastered a certain subject, she takes a test at home, where a proctor watches her from afar by monitoring her computer and watching her over a video feed. If she proves she’s competent—by getting the equivalent of a B—she passes and moves on to the next subject.
During the multi-country press tour for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, not even Jon Stewart has dared ask Tom Cruise about Scientology.
During the media blitz for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation over the past two weeks, Tom Cruise has seemingly been everywhere. In London, he participated in a live interview at the British Film Institute with the presenter Alex Zane, the movie’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, and a handful of his fellow cast members. In New York, he faced off with Jimmy Fallon in a lip-sync battle on The Tonight Show and attended the Monday night premiere in Times Square. And, on Tuesday afternoon, the actor recorded an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he discussed his exercise regimen, the importance of a healthy diet, and how he still has all his own hair at 53.
Stewart, who during his career has won two Peabody Awards for public service and the Orwell Award for “distinguished contribution to honesty and clarity in public language,” represented the most challenging interviewer Cruise has faced on the tour, during a challenging year for the actor. In April, HBO broadcast Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear, a film based on the book of the same title by Lawrence Wright exploring the Church of Scientology, of which Cruise is a high-profile member. The movie alleges, among other things, that the actor personally profited from slave labor (church members who were paid 40 cents an hour to outfit the star’s airplane hangar and motorcycle), and that his former girlfriend, the actress Nazanin Boniadi, was punished by the Church by being forced to do menial work after telling a friend about her relationship troubles with Cruise. For Cruise “not to address the allegations of abuse,” Gibney said in January, “seems to me palpably irresponsible.” But in The Daily Show interview, as with all of Cruise’s other appearances, Scientology wasn’t mentioned.
An attack on an American-funded military group epitomizes the Obama Administration’s logistical and strategic failures in the war-torn country.
Last week, the U.S. finally received some good news in Syria:.After months of prevarication, Turkey announced that the American military could launch airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria from its base in Incirlik. The development signaled that Turkey, a regional power, had at last agreed to join the fight against ISIS.
The announcement provided a dose of optimism in a conflict that has, in the last four years, killed over 200,000 and displaced millions more. Days later, however, the positive momentum screeched to a halt. Earlier this week, fighters from the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group aligned with al-Qaeda, reportedly captured the commander of Division 30, a Syrian militia that receives U.S. funding and logistical support, in the countryside north of Aleppo. On Friday, the offensive escalated: Al-Nusra fighters attacked Division 30 headquarters, killing five and capturing others. According to Agence France Presse, the purpose of the attack was to obtain sophisticated weapons provided by the Americans.
The Wall Street Journal’s eyebrow-raising story of how the presidential candidate and her husband accepted cash from UBS without any regard for the appearance of impropriety that it created.
The Swiss bank UBS is one of the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the world. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton intervened to help it out with the IRS. And after that, the Swiss bank paid Bill Clinton $1.5 million for speaking gigs. TheWall Street Journal reported all that and more Thursday in an article that highlights huge conflicts of interest that the Clintons have created in the recent past.
The piece begins by detailing how Clinton helped the global bank.
“A few weeks after Hillary Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state in early 2009, she was summoned to Geneva by her Swiss counterpart to discuss an urgent matter. The Internal Revenue Service was suing UBS AG to get the identities of Americans with secret accounts,” the newspaper reports. “If the case proceeded, Switzerland’s largest bank would face an impossible choice: Violate Swiss secrecy laws by handing over the names, or refuse and face criminal charges in U.S. federal court. Within months, Mrs. Clinton announced a tentative legal settlement—an unusual intervention by the top U.S. diplomat. UBS ultimately turned over information on 4,450 accounts, a fraction of the 52,000 sought by the IRS.”
Members of Colombia's younger generation say they “will not torture for tradition.”
MEDELLÍN, Colombia—On a scorching Saturday in February, hundreds of young men and women in Medellín stripped down to their swimsuit bottoms, slathered themselves in black and red paint, and sprawled out on the hot cement in Los Deseos Park in the north of the city. From my vantage point on the roof of a nearby building, the crowd of seminude protesters formed the shape of a bleeding bull—a vivid statement against the centuries-old culture of bullfighting in Colombia.
It wasn’t long ago that Colombia was among the world’s most important countries for bullfighting, due to the quality of its bulls and its large number of matadors. In his 1989 book Colombia: Tierra de Toros (“Colombia: Land of Bulls”), Alberto Lopera chronicled the maturation of the sport that Spanish conquistadors had introduced to South America in the 16th century, from its days as an unorganized brouhaha of bulls and booze in colonial plazas to a more traditional Spanish-style spectacle whose fans filled bullfighting rings across the country.
Some say the so-called sharing economy has gotten away from its central premise—sharing.
This past March, in an up-and-coming neighborhood of Portland, Maine, a group of residents rented a warehouse and opened a tool-lending library. The idea was to give locals access to everyday but expensive garage, kitchen, and landscaping tools—such as chainsaws, lawnmowers, wheelbarrows, a giant cider press, and soap molds—to save unnecessary expense as well as clutter in closets and tool sheds.
The residents had been inspired by similar tool-lending libraries across the country—in Columbus, Ohio; in Seattle, Washington; in Portland, Oregon. The ethos made sense to the Mainers. “We all have day jobs working to make a more sustainable world,” says Hazel Onsrud, one of the Maine Tool Library’s founders, who works in renewable energy. “I do not want to buy all of that stuff.”