Life after death in the Age of the Internet

Authors: Aaron Marcus
Posted: Mon, December 29, 2014 - 11:45:47

We all have limited shelf-lives. We all arrive on earth stamped with an expiration date or a “best used before” date in our genes. It’s just that most of the Internet, most of the Web, most mobile products/services, most wearables, and most of the creation/discussion of the Internet of Things, created by and for younger people, just don’t seem to notice the clock ticking...

I do.

Some of my childhood friends have recently died. My parents (may they rest in peace) are dead. My younger brother (may he rest in peace) died 15 years ago. I don’t say “passed” or “passed away.” I say “died.” The real deal. No euphemisms. Just reality.

Many of the greats of the Internet world (only around, say, since the explosive arrival of the Web in 1994, or maybe a decade or two earlier if you count the technical origins), many of the greats of the design world (say, for the past 60 years of the post-World War 2 era) have already died. Every one of them will, eventually.

This awareness/knowledge does not necessarily lead to depression, lethargy, or enervated mind-wandering. This awareness/knowledge can sharpen and focus attention, to decide about what one can, must, and should do with (as for me) about 350 million seconds left. There is even one wristwatch that offers a death clock to remind one of the countdown. This awareness/knowledge can lead one to jettison many frivolous commitments and objectives (unless one decides to devote oneself to frivolity, of course).

For me, it has led to observation and internal speculation on what to do about death, or life-after-death, in the age of the Internet. Some comments/observations follow.

Life-after-death management systems (LADMs)

I have a website, Twitter account, Facebook account, email account, LinkedIn account, and many other accounts, so numerous that I cannot even keep up, remember, or contribute to them. What will happen to them? What should I do with them? Who will care for them? Should they just all be properly triggered now to expire when I do? How?

Clearly the Internet business startup community must create a death management system, in which one can set up the proper termination, or continuation of all these accounts, including a means to fund them for, say, a 100 years maximum, or at least 10-20 years, by which time, society will have so changed that one cannot predict whether the continuation of any of these will be usable, useful, or appealing at all.

A few other life-after-death on the Internet possibilities offer themselves as likely products/services of the future.

Authentic, guaranteed, “eternal” websites or social-media platforms 

OK, you’ve worked a long time to build up a website and a social-media platform, perhaps managed with Toot-Suite. What happens when you die? Not all of us have Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley organizations to manage our legacy. Clearly, we shall need a place to gather our thoughts (before death), as well as videos or audio recordings to collect them and to have them be available in perpetuity, provided we have paid the right maintenance fee, just as one pays a cemetery a fee for maintaining a funeral plot. Only the possibilities here are more complex and exciting. Imagine being able to deliver messages, emails, thoughts on current and future events composed from documents and data you have prepared while still alive, to communicate to your friends, your family members, and your enemies, or for the general public. For 100 years, or more you will live on, including “your” reactions to future events, based on clever algorithms that intuit what you might have done or said in the future. This gives What Would Jesus Do? Or Say? a new significance.

Digital attics: Authentic, organized (or less expensive, disorganized), eternal

In past millennia and centuries, only very wealth or famous people could collect, preserve, and guarantee the availability of their belongings, articles, diaries, etc. Now some centers preserve the physical legacy of publications and objects of a select few artists, writers, philosophers, government and political notables, etc. 

In the future, we shall all have the challenge and the possibility of preserving our own collections in digital attics, whether organized or not, presumably authentic. In them, one will be able to purchase “guaranteed” storage of all digital, scanned, or generated media and artifacts: email, photos, videos, drawings, recordings, business cards, other memorabilia, scrapbooks, diaries, journals, collections of business cards, and other ephemera and memorabilia. Our descendants may (or may not) examine these items. Others, scholars or detectives, or interested professionals, may search among the artifacts (for a fee no doubt) to look for sociological, anthropological, design-history, historical, political, or other patterns of information that may be of value. 

If you think this ridiculous, recall that the famous Geniza (Jewish) collection in Cairo, Egypt, was a place where people placed religious books that were no longer being used, for a thousand years, as well as laundry lists, and other seemingly mundane messages, which gave scholars unique insight into societies of earlier centuries when they were discovered a thousand years later. Naturally, wealthy and/or powerful people will have the most elaborate and extensive of these archives or attics, but digital media, servers, etc., offer the chance for everyone to preserve almost everything...if they choose to do so, and someone can pay for it forward in time.

These collections of your digital things would carry on after you die, and would offer guaranteed storage of all digitized, scanned artifacts. Of course, wealthy people will have the most thorough collections, just as we were able to pour over King Tutankhamen’s belongings 4000 years later. Today, such collections are available to a few at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas/Austin, to those who archive their stories in NPR’s Story Corps collection archived at the USA’s National Library, or to those photographers, like Walker Evans, who was able to retain a collection of anonymous people from the southern USA in the 1930s. Tomorrow, anyone who wishes can (for the right price) preserve a digital legacy. 

Growth of professional archivists

With all this preserving going on, it seems there will likely come into being a fleet of professional archivists who will help “vacuum” data and scan artifacts, and undertake interviews with selected family members and friends. To some extent these people already exist, but in the future, with the legion of people preserving all of their past, this seems a profession likely to grow in numbers worldwide. Pre-death data gathers would guarantee confidentiality and quality results, so you can say what you want, to be released only after your own death and/or the death of all whom you mention specifically. There might even be a Pre-Death Data Gathers Society, with annual conventions at which they discuss their techniques and methods.

Pre-death funerals

Some years ago, I invented what I thought was a unique phenomenon: the pre-death funeral. One could arrange for this in advance, perhaps at a time when one knew there was little time left. Then, one could send out invitations, have speakers, ceremonies, rituals, foods, and publications, as appropriate. Imagine being able to enjoy the accolades (presumably people would be thoughtful, kind, or at least funny, as in celebrity roasts on TV/the Internet), rather than being just a silent, somber, stiff participant at normal funerals. 

Here is what I wrote, but never published, in 2011:

Today, 23 March 2011, television and radio announcers interrupted the regular news (of the Japan post-earthquake and tsunami nuclear reactor meltdown plus the announcement of double-dose radiation in Tokyo that endangers babies, and the ongoing Libyan battles for overthrowing Qadaffi plus other protests throughout Middle-East countries) to announce that Elizabeth Taylor died last night at the age of 79. 

I am 67. Her death and the television video clips of her life, especially in the last decades caused me to consider. She had accepted a special Academy Awards honor for her fight for AIDS. The audience applauded long and loudly. She seemed thrilled at the acclaim. What a wonderful experience she must have had to receive the respect, honor, love, and acknowledgment for her achievements. How many of us have such achievements? How many of us have been celebrated in such an event? A few members of the human race. 

Some organizations sponsor lifetime achievement awards, like the National Design Museum, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Business Forms Management Association. However, these are usually fairly brief affairs, sometimes with multiple persons being so honored.

Some people have the benefit of retirement ceremonies at their place of employment, but as the movie “Schmidt” (featuring Jack Nicholson) showed, these may be somewhat routine, tentative in their seriousness, and mixed in their success, often with the anxiety of the change that is currently taking place as the employee leaves the company, with perhaps a watch or a small trophy after decades of work.

Of course, there are also the “roasts” of the Comedy Central satellite/cable network. However, these are something else: some praise and acknowledgment of achievements, but heavily mired in insults and disrespect. Hardly a replacement for the Academy Awards acknowledgment ceremony.

How many of us would like to be respected, honored, loved, and acknowledged for our achievements, for our contributions to bettering the world, of our lives, even if modest in scope? Probably every one of us. However, society has not developed a system for such lifetime honors and ceremonies. Except one: the eulogy at someone’s funeral. Alas, that person eulogized is not “present” (except as a corpse in a casket) to hear the words, to accept the praise, to enjoy the company of family and friends.

I have a modest solution to this problem: the Pre-Passing Ceremony or the Pre-Death Funeral. 

This event would take place late in someone’s life, perhaps at the age of 65, or whatever age was deemed appropriate, unless they were already officially notified of a lethal disease that, unfortunately, predicted an early death. Of course, if they somehow overcame this medical/legal situation and went on to live a long life, they might qualify for two such celebrations. 

Who might “authorize” such celebrations? I am not sure, but the organization of a national or international government or NGO, which we might call the Pre-Passing Ceremony Commission, like the organizations that assign Internet domains, would help to make things orderly, official, authorized, and more significant. 

That organization might also handle post-death maintenance of all Internet-related properties such as Facebook pages, blogs, etc. This organization might also make arrangements for pre-death interviews, post-death email messages and video/phone calls to family and friends, to help keep the dead person’s life and memory ever-present among selected family and friends. But that is another story. 

Back to the Pre-Passing Ceremony…

Mortuaries, churches, synagogues, mosques, social groups, and business organizations might all be interested in sponsoring such gatherings. Why? Because of the possibilities of selling tickets to attendees, and being repaid for the expenses of organizing, publicizing, recording, catering, and managing these events, including Lifetime Books and Lifetime Websites. The event might be simulcast to other locations so that people not able to attend could take part, just as there are ‘round-the-world video connections for the Oscars and New Year’s Eve celebrations. This might expand the audience, participation numbers, publications, PR…and budgets.

The fund-raising, as well as the spirits-raising possibilities are numerous. One might find a use for nearly empty movie theatres that desperately offer their locations for business events before they succumb and close their doors. 

All of these events and publications do not preclude a post-death funeral or memorial service, which might take advantage of previous existing documents, contacts, and events that can be repurposed as appropriate. They might even help generate the structures for ongoing anniversaries or “yorzeit” celebrations as they are called in Judaism.

Perhaps this ceremony would start in California, ground-zero for new ceremonies, new cults, new chips, new technology, and new social media. Are you ready to start celebrating a lifetime…before it is too late?

Alas, I discovered that someone earlier in the 20th century had already thought of this idea and even staged his own funeral, and Bill Murray, the comic actor in the movie Get Low in 2010 had been inspired to consider the idea. I am not speaking of merely pre-funeral arrangements, nor merely “ celebrating the life of X,” but something with the awareness of pending mortality.

Well, in any case, there seems to be a lot of life left in the idea of pre-death rituals and after-death Internet/social-media virtual you’s. You’ll get used to it...

Posted in: on Mon, December 29, 2014 - 11:45:47

Aaron Marcus

Aaron Marcus is principal at Aaron Marcus and Associates (AM+A) in Berkeley, California.
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