Finding Time: A Response to Rob Walker on the Digital Afterlife

Over the years several deaths have impacted me significantly. The random, violent, or statistically improbable way in which these lives ended meant they often made the news. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a perpetual episode of Six Feet Under rather than in the real, non-fiction world.

One person I could discuss this with was my friend Mac Tonnies. He was, like me, mesmerized by the strange and unusual. Mac Tonnies was 34, a non-smoker, and vegetarian who walked every day. On October 18, 2009, he sent me a message on Twitter, went to bed and never woke up. His life was taken swiftly by an undiagnosed heart condition in his sleep. He became one of the bizarre deaths on my list. This time, I couldn't talk to him about it.

Now, posthumously, Mac himself has made the news, featured as he is in the January 9 New York Times Magazine piece, "Cyberspace When You're Dead" by Rob Walker. I was interviewed for the story and quoted discussing Mac's death and what it means for the world we all share and the digital afterlife that follows. In the article, Walker pulled out the core beam of my philosophy: "If people thought about dying more often, they'd think about living differently."

Mac's parents, Bob and Dana Tonnies, never owned a computer until his death and thus had not been familiar with their son's digital self while he was still alive. (I, on the other hand, didn't know him in the context of the odd jobs he worked in Kansas City to feed his writing habit.) Nevertheless, now that they've become acquainted with their son's alter-ego as an interplanetary man of mystery, they recognize this persona as a match for the real-life son who showed up each Sunday to have coffee with them, not as a radical departure or someone they don't recognize.

"Oh no, it's him," Dana Tonnies told Walker about Mac's extended digital self and reading his extensive online writings. "I can hear him when I read it."

I was first introduced to Mac in 2004 by my friends Dr. Clifford Pickover and Patrick Huyghe, Mac's editor at Simon & Schuster (publisher of Mac's book, After the Martian Apocalypse) and then Anomalist. After an email exchange, Mac and I started regularly chatting via a mix of digital mediums that evolved over time as the Internet did, eventually leading us to our favorite, Etherpad. We talked mostly about writing. I was a journalist at the time, moonlighting as a writer of novels. I've been writing a manuscript for a novel every year since I was 12, and Mac was an ardent supporter and critic.

Over the years, many of our discussions also centered in some way on the relationship between technology and consciousness. We spent hours considering issues of how or whether we'd live long enough to extend our lives through technology. I can't help but feel outraged that had Mac been given but a few more years, he might have lived to see at least some of his predictions become manifest, particularly with regard to the blurry merger between humans and machines.

In 2006, when I started my company, Dancing Ink Productions, I no longer had the time to channel novels that more or less wrote themselves. I was forced to take up another method: wistful planning for the novel I dreamed constantly of writing. Instead of letting the characters surprise me by the things they said and did, I started taking notes, mapping out the overlap of motivations and motifs.

Mac was concerned that the planning process was taking too long and my novel might never get written. His concern was heartbreakingly prescient but misplaced, as he himself died a week after completing the first draft of his manuscript, The Cryptoterrestrials, which was posthumously published by Anomalist with a blessing from his parents.

Shortly before his death, Mac asked to see part of my novel. I braced myself for the fact that the excessive planning might have changed my prose and that Mac would no doubt point this out. Instead, he told me he loved it and that I should get serious about finishing it.

"I don't have time," I said.

"Find the time," he replied.

National Novel Writing Month started a couple of weeks after Mac's death. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is a mammoth task. I turned my grief into a novel, pulling all-nighters as if cramming for final exams while still working with clients. Even after I caught someone breaking into my house and spent a traumatized week dealing with bars, cameras, sensors, and an alarm being installed, I kept my word count up. Even after my father called to tell me my grandmother had passed away, adding another body to the death count, I kept on writing.

By day 24, I crumpled in a heap at the keyboard as my count went over the 50,000 word mark. Since then I've added another 30,000. A year later, however, I'm coming to terms with the fact that it's time to get serious about another draft.

I knew this a few weeks ago when I came back from NASA Langley, where I'd been discussing a Mars mission, among other things. A package awaited me from the charming Dana Tonnies, Mac's mother, with whom I've become friendly in the months since her son's death. Inside was a copy of Mac's book, Illumined Black and Other Adventures, which covers NASA and the Mars mission. Dana had no way of knowing that the gift would be a double coincidence. Not only was there the NASA synchronicity, but it arrived on my grandmother's birthday, the first that she was not alive to celebrate.

Since his death, Mac's own grandmother had returned the out-of-print books to Dana, thinking that someone else might enjoy reading her copies if they couldn't get their own.

"To Grandma," Mac wrote. "Hope you enjoy it! Yours, Mac."

And now, being quoted about life and death in Walker's tour de force about the digital afterlife brings into stark focus the fact that I have to find the time again to finish what I started.

"If we can escape the boundaries of death," Mac said, "maybe we'll be O.K."

Mac Tonnies is a meme that isn't ready to die yet. If you want to get to know him, search. He's still around. Me? I'm getting back to writing my book.