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Death in the age of the Internet

Updated Tuesday, 19th August 2008

We all lead digital lives now - but does that online archive of our doings mean we'll also have a digital afterlife?

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I am wondering what is happening to the concept of death in the age of the Internet. We know that we are finite beings. Death, we say, is a fact of life. To deal with this fact, or in other words, to deal with our knowledge of our finitude, we are told, we aspire to leave traces in this world so that our afterlife continues. Every major religion and belief systems has something to say about the afterlife. As we understand our finitude, we are drawn to leave traces of ourselves such as doing good (or evil) deeds, create (or destroy) works of art and science, or produce and raise children.

To leave these traces is a reflection of that understanding of finitude. By giving meaning to life, which remains forever mysterious, we deal with that mystery and leaving traces of ourselves is a way of doing that. To put it in another (perhaps in a lighter) way, we not only constantly engage in ‘reputation management’, as consulting spinners might put it, in this life but also after our own death.

One might object to this idea of being human as either ethnocentric (i.e., Western) or an ideology of the creative classes. For millennia many humans came and went without a trace, one might say. But that doesn’t negate that their understanding of their finitude has always driven humans. The ways and means of leaving traces are unequal but always present. In fact, social historians have been working hard to recover the traces of those ordinary men and women who did not have the means or ways to preserve or maintain traces of their lives. The Internet provides new ways and means of leaving traces. I don’t know how many millions of people are on it. But quite a few are leaving traces via various ways and by now well-known means. There are rapidly increasing traces of lives on the Internet. From wedding and travel pictures, diaries and video clips to announcements and just about anything else you can imagine traces of lives are being recorded. People move from site to site, avatar to avatar, identity to identity and keep expanding their traces in texts, audio and video.

Without prejudice to the quality or meaning of such traces it is good to remember that the ways of leaving traces about oneself was for long limited to mostly educated or wealthier (sometimes both) classes.

But the Internet may change all that. I am curious about the traces that we leave on the Internet because it is fairly new and because the generation that participated in its creation and formation is relatively young and is yet to experience finitude. As such the number of dead people on the Internet is small and so to are the traces that can be investigated.

Once in a while when an exceptional or unusual death occurs many journalists and others turn to these traces to assemble together some meaning about the life that has just disappeared. It is not even correct to say that it has disappeared. The person may be deceased but life on the Internet remains through its traces. All those texts, videos, images, and audio begin to take on new meaning now that their creator has deceased. Beyond assembling together a meaning from these traces I am wondering how will this experience affect our concept of death? The posthumous fame or infamy that awaits us on the basis of traces we have left is a curious thing. I wonder if the newly emerging sites such as Internet memorial walls and Internet cemeteries are early responses to assemble our own traces to be made available upon our death—a kind of Internet autobiography?





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