On Gord Downie and dying digitally Melanie Baker May 26, 2016 Columns, Featured, M-Theory Photo: The Tragically Hip – The Kee | Bala by David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. It’d be nice to promise not to write any more about death after the Prince piece the other week, but man, this year… And every time it comes up, there seem to be interesting new ways it intertwines with tech. My work week started with learning that Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip has terminal brain cancer. First notification was an email from my best friend. Followed by posts of the CBC articles, Hip videos, and snippets of lyrics filling up my Facebook feed and Twitter. This is standard procedure now. Death used to be a slower-moving process. People had to wait for a knock on the door or letters or phone calls or telegrams or newspapers. (Yes, I realize Downie is yet among us, but the rituals and reactions have begun all the same.) Remember the days when a 3 a.m. phone call meant something Really Bad? Still would, I guess, but I can’t remember the last time I got a 3 a.m. phone call. (My phone doesn’t ring much, period. Blessedly.) Generally, I like to learn about things as soon and as much as possible. But at the same time, the race to get information out first can lead to misinformation, erroneous assumptions and hurtful rumours. Digital media is the fastest, and sometimes messiest, of all. When we don’t know enough, what we tend to get is regurgitation of those few scant facts, accompanied by the abovementioned filler. Frustrating, and tends to make me feel ghoulish to try and find out more of substance. Of course, the news cycle never slows down, so there’s little chance to process, grieve or muddle in nostalgia. You can try, certainly, but being connected will constantly push you to click ever onward. Our Internets are designed for narcissism and navel gazing, not reflection or introspection. People used to leave the dead in the parlour for days so everyone could gather and pay their respects. We don’t welcome death at home so much anymore. And the ways that technology enables us to distance ourselves from death while still feeling that we’re observing all the necessaries continue to evolve. To memorialize online for any length of time now you’d need to “pin” the person or event like a digital butterfly. Life and death online do go a lot deeper than just the notifications, but so much of it is… administrivia. Digital legacy, making arrangements for online property, an afterlife online. A few years back, my grandpa’s funeral was recorded for several relatives who were unable to be there. Since then I’ve heard of a number of times where funerals have been live-streamed for online friends and others who can’t be present in person. I admit I’m still not entirely comfortable with that idea. But I’ve also seen families make official statements that funerals won’t be streamed, for privacy. That’s certainly recent. But then, publicity as something you have to opt out of has become more and more the standard. In the past, when someone died, over time they would fade, thanks to the unique engineering of the human mind. Before recording methods like photography, there would be no tangible representation left. Even with photos, you’d only have frozen facial features – no voice, no mannerisms, etc. Now we take 50 selfies to get the perfect one. Video is snippets of Christmas, birthdays, that one funny moment. Even with endless capture, “life” is still curation, selected reality. Then buried on discs and drives, poorly archived and bitrotting, increasingly distant from the vitality of actual people. Ironically, perhaps, never have we been able to record so much so cheaply in such high-definition, but with such frequently low fidelity. But even still, memory and life fade. Digital memory is… flat. The uncanny valley sends up red flags despite what we seek. I’m not sure this is something we should “solve,” though. But this is why we gather. Circling the wagons to freshen the memories. Remembering and reliving along with the added context of others who were there. A fuller picture exists for a time, but we can’t stop the fade, or digitize a “complete” reality. Immediately after my friend sent me the link to the Downie announcement, she messaged again and said that we will be getting tickets for this last tour. Damned right we will. Because, tellingly, our experience of The Hip is personal and in-person. She used to see them play at The Spoke at Western when they were an unknown band doing Pink Floyd covers. My friends attended Another Roadside Attraction I don’t know how many times. I’ve seen them in concert in arenas and concert halls and standing in a field. Nautical Disaster at twilight, man… I’ve heard them at parties and cottages and have sung along in my car. I don’t need those old CDs anymore. Their music is on my computer, my phone and online now. And yet we never turn down a concert opportunity. The expense, traffic, crowds, noise, garbage, waiting – none of it matters. Perhaps one day these losses will send us into the Internet to remember, to share, and to mourn. Writers like William Gibson were imagining phenomena like digital-only pop idols decades ago. So certain experiences will only exist online. But imagine digital… Woodstock? Yeah, no. Social gatherings, particularly with music, are more or less as old as our species. A fundamental need we have for community and connection. For now, this need and these experiences send us out. Away from bits and screens. Into our memories. Among friends who share them. Outdoors. Because really, Bobcaygeon needs to be enjoyed through tinny old boombox speakers. Ideally lakeside. (We shall return to regularly scheduled tech industry snark next column. Promise.) 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.