Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The internet and the future of death

Sadly, I couldn't make it to this year's Obituary Writers' Conference, and due to lack of internet and lack of time, I didn't even manage to get my essay sent in time to make it into the brochure (sorry Carolyn!). Did you all have fun? Did you miss me?

Anyway, due to the wonders of the interwebnet, I can post my slightly flabby piece on here for you all. It's a development of a piece I wrote not long ago about the objects we leave behind. And hopefully it might get a few people thinking.

All thoughts, replies, comments gratefully perceived.


The internet and the future of death

Within three generations, people start to disappear.

A century and a half from now, there will be no-one who remembers first-hand what anyone now living was like. They will exist as faint traces from the past, appearing only randomly in whatever mementoes journalism, sheer luck and bureaucratic documents create.

What remains in your home now from 1856? Or even 1906? If you’re lucky, perhaps a pile of faded photographs, a few sticks of furniture, the detritus of heirloom – medals, coils, lace tablecloths. Personal correspondence, wrapped in string or ribbon; handwritten names inside the front covers of books; savings books, registered at long-disappeared addresses, in denominations that no longer exist.

And then there is the official, where names are inscribed and given wider context by an official seal. Public records of birth, marriage, divorce and death. Housing deeds. Wills and testaments. Changes of name. Royally bestowed honours. Formations and cessations of companies. Planning permission. Just the facts, on the record, and names there for anyone who wants to find them. It’s not our most important life moments that live on – it’s the ones that are most legally significant. And then there's the added colour of self-appointed officialdom. Those publications that, by common consent, offer their own barometers of societal participation. The OED. The Guinness Book of Records. Who's Who. Hansard. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wisden. Insert your own cultural equivalent here.

What does this have to do with obituaries? An awful lot, as the nature of this detritus is changing – and what it is changing to will have an enormous impact on the research methods of the next generation of obituary writers.

Firstly, we don't tend to hang onto useful objects for as long as our great-grandfathers did - increased commerce, marketing and wealth have helped our tastes to change, quickly and almost constantly. Furniture lasts perhaps ten years, not generations. The few objects that will remain from us are rarely useful as anything but emotive hand-me-downs.

Secondly, who is to say that our legacy will exist through physical objects? Think of your grandmother’s yellowing love letters, your childhood photographs – or those of your subjects, that have helped you in your research. Who now aged under 30 handwrites a letter? How often do digital photos actually get printed? (And even when they are, modern inks and papers are known to be less durable.) Where once we wrote, now we make phone calls, where meaningful words and significant moments vanish along the line and into the ether as suddenly as they are called into existence.

Will any of our correspondence, our photography, our private, tender moments be available for our grandchildren? Will emails last that long? And will they even be available to journalists of today, as passwords and computer failure keep us from accessing the finer details of their lives. As more objects, from books to photographs, become virtual, so does the quantity of data at our disposal.

If we do assume the constancy of data (groups like the internet archive are fighting to store as much as they can), then what are the consequences of this? The obituarists and, in turn, our great-grandchildren will read our blogs and our messageboard postings, see our online photo streams and watch our videocasts, as the archived caches of Google Past make it into classrooms and universities.

The concept of webpage as historical document is a sobering one. Self-promotion and overexaggeration in the online public arenas are not new phenomena, but for the first time, it is not our carefully chosen words but the wider, poorly phrased public arena that will outlast us. Finding out usernames, working out passwords, scraping antique hard drives for all but useless personal information will become a socially useful art in itself. Hackaeologists will appear as the new society’s historians.

And who will the virtual obituarists be? Online social networks are already changing the nature of friendships, of who your neighbour is and how people know each other. A familiar face around town is just as likely to be a familiar face in the online group. It can surely only be a matter of time before MySpace or LiveJournal appoints its own obituary professional, sensitive to the unique bonds that form over time in virtual public spaces, talking not to relatives but friends about their memories of people they have never met, on the other side of the globe. One obituary for meatspace, one for virtual space. I suspect that the people they will document may often appear markedly different in each.

Just as personal relationships and what we understand of as society is changing thanks to the internet, so will personal histories and obituary writing. Already, an online world called Second Life has its own embedded journalist, whose weblog is seen as the communty’s newspaper. And where there are communities and there’s a newspaper, there’s always a need for well-written, well-researched obituaries. The skills and sensibilities of their writers will be the same, but the tools markedly different.



Jade Walker said...

More than 300 entries currently appear on the Livejournal community - . It's a lovely place to post death notices of recently departed LJ members, and read comments from their friends. It also serves as an excellent way to remind all bloggers that even in death, your journal will last forever.

Alana Baranick said...

I missed you, Andrew.
And I've just posted my report on the 8th Great.

steve miller said...

The future people are going to know a heck of a lot more about us than we will about them

Amy said...

I like that, Andrew.

Andrew Losowsky said...

Thanks Jade/Alana/Amy. I knew that LiveJournal was being used already as an archive of thoughts of the deceased - I didn't realise that there were more than 300 in one community of them.

As ever online, what's most interesting is that this has been created spontaneously by the community, rather than put in place by the makers of LJ. Open tools are always better than Closed categories.

Anonymous said...

Nice paper, Andrew, and yes,
we certainly did miss you.

willson said...
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