Death, taxes and our digital afterlife Melanie Baker September 17, 2015 Columns, M-Theory Hop into this time machine with me. It’s a couple of hundred years ago. You live on a farm or in some small village. There’s always been too much work to do, so you’ve never had much formal education. Who needs to read and write to milk cows and harvest crops? You have a circle of family and friends, pretty much made up only of other people who live in the local community. When you die in your early 30s (which is typical), word spreads quickly. You are mourned, ritual is observed in some way, and perhaps some of your closer mates swap tales about you over a flagon or two. Your imprint on the world is limited pretty much to the memories of those who cared about you. Tangible evidence that you ever existed? Well, aside from any offspring you may have had… nothing, really. Remember, this is before photography was invented. You couldn’t write (and probably couldn’t afford the accoutrements anyway), so you didn’t leave behind any letters or anything. You weren’t wealthy or powerful, so it’s not like you commissioned oil paintings, or your words were collected into imposing bound volumes. How times have changed. Canada’s literacy rate is 99 per cent. With cellphones, photo ID, and traffic and security cameras – among other things – the odds of no photos of you existing are quite low. And with near-universal formal education, social networks, Christmas cards, email, video, Post-it notes, etc., it’s likely there are piles (physical or digital) of things you’ve said or written out there. On the flip side, preventing creation of evidence that you exist, or expunging it, has become quite difficult, and generally very expensive. Oh, and life expectancy is over 80 years here now, so you have plenty of time to spread bits of personality all over the place, in myriad formats. Death hasn’t changed. It still happens to us all, sooner or later, sometimes expectedly, sometimes not. We still perform rituals for the deceased and those left behind. Swapping stories over pints still happens, too. But wrapped around and tangled into that now is usually a net of technology that, for better or worse, has added considerable complexity. And, one could argue, regardless of your belief system, has created a digital afterlife. A month ago I looked up funeral visitation for a family friend online. It never occurred to me to buy a newspaper. This past weekend I learned of the death of an old friend via Facebook. I don’t recall the last time I learned of the death of anyone famous other than via Twitter. And almost 11 years after another friend’s death, those who still miss her continue to post the occasional message on a special memorial page on her birthday, anniversary of her death, etc. There are quite a few sites and tools to manage one’s online presence, communications, etc. after death. Some of these are to update or shut down existing accounts once you can no longer do so yourself. Others are to create memorial spaces and opportunities for those who miss you. Still others are for you to send messages to friends or family posthumously. A couple hundred years ago I doubt anyone thought of having an executor not just for their estate, but also for their continuing and indefinite digital existence. These online spaces enable the bereaved to share memories in multimedia. Photos, anecdotes, music, videos, poems – memories you might have created, or never seen before. Nostalgia in ones and zeroes, impervious to organic memory’s faulty decay. The connection, community, and visible expressions of caring from those who knew the deceased can be a great comfort. It can demonstrate to the immediate family and others just how broad a loved one’s reach and impact have been. It can make the world feel a little smaller and closer. However, the additional outpouring of attention that online communication brings can also make the post-death silence that much more deafening. You know how it goes. First there’s the announcement and spreading the word, followed by the condolences, cards, and casseroles. Then, after the funeral or whatnot, for others, the death is “over.” But for those closest to the deceased, and who need to tidy up that person’s life, estate, etc., the administrivia won’t be over for some time, nor will the grief. So, now there are two social fronts where it seems everyone’s moved on but you. Of course, when you’re gone you no longer control who peeks into which corners of your life. Sometimes death brings surprises, and outs your secrets. Maybe just to those closest to you. Maybe to half the planet (usually depending on how public a figure you were). I know multiple people who have agreements with friends to do a clean sweep of their possessions and hard drives should they fall victim to an untimely demise. Some things Mom never needs to know… And of course, since it’s The Internet, the coin has another side. There is also the incomprehensible cruelty of RIP trolling. And apparently there’s enough of it that it’s been studied academically. From bullied teenagers who committed suicide to CEOs and celebrities, death and grief are fair game when there are lulz to be had. In many cases, given what the family and friends of the deceased have already been through, to call that adding insult to injury would be a monumental understatement. It’s a confluence of two sometimes perplexing, sometimes horrifying, seemingly inevitable, and, perhaps, very human online phenomena. One is online disinhibition effect (simply: how you act when anonymous online). Or, more colloquially and NSFW: this. The other is a certain “pile on” effect when a major event occurs, like a natural disaster, the death of someone famous. A “me, too” syndrome. As the linked Gawker article outlines, those with ultimately zero connection to the event or person will express significant grief, use hyperbolic descriptors, saccharine sentiments, florid musings, etc. When your entire Twitter or Facebook feed fills up with such things, especially on multiple occasions, yes, it can cause your eyes to roll nearly out of your skull or tilt you toward serious cynicism. That said, it’s still a big leap from muting topics and biting your tongue to actively trolling those who may genuinely be grieving. And one could argue that the latter isn’t just bad judgment, but rather sociopathic behaviour. It’s fascinating to think about. Our hyper-connected world has developed so many channels to process grief and memories. Does it really help ultimately? Really, nothing is more human, or honest, than death. It many ways it lays bare those who are gone – their lives, actions, impacts. (And yes, secrets.) But as participants, it also exposes those remaining to a significant degree. We are exposed at a personal level, and, in aggregate, it seems Life is also exposed. And Humanity. In all its facets. Does that make Death, itself, a troll? I bet Terry Pratchett would know… Photo: BSOD Stop c218 by Justin is licensed under CC BY 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.