Resurrecting Louise Withers Sloan: Methodology
What happens when you die in the digital age? Can someone really die in the digital age when so much of any given individual’s life is published and lived on the Internet? These are two of the central questions we have asked ourselves in the class Digital Studies: Death in the Digital Age. Whether we are talking about someone’s Facebook page or a Wikipedia article that is tethered to resources outside of the page, not much has changed about death in the real world but it is becoming increasingly more difficult to cease existence on the Web. For instance, my 93-year-old, deceased great-grandfather—who never used a computer in his lifetime—has an incredible amount of information about him on the Internet.
Every day, physical data like letters, census records, and books are being digitized and held on the seemingly infinite virtual space that is the World Wide Web. Servers are updated and information is stored securely. Physical archives are no longer the most secure or efficient places to hold human-produced data. But like all human curated things, even the Internet cannot fully store and secure absolutely everything produced by everyone. People are written out of history and privilege, class, gender, and race play a huge role in the amount of data produced by each individual. Yet in spite of all of its issues, the Internet represents a new space of solid and consistent permanence for people who are experiencing great changes and loss in their lives. In this vein, the Internet is becoming a digital place of mourning in rather innovative ways. People have used these resources to resurrect, cope, and continue bonds with the deceased using the virtual reality of web user interfaces. People have used everything from video games to Facebook Memorials. Digital presence brings us closer to the dead and allows us to say goodbye to the physical individual and encounter them in a new light: a digitized shadow that is his or her virtual presence.
Lex Berko’s article “Death on the Internet: The Rise of Livestreaming Funerals” pays homage to the first step in the increasingly digitized mourning process. According to Burko, an increasing number of people are saying goodbye to loved ones via a personal webcam. While we might be tempted to think of the Internet as a tool used to create distance between the subject and the user, this use of technology rejects the notion that the distance the Web affords is always a bad thing. For those who are unable to attend a loved one’s funeral, webcams offer those who are grieving the ability to be there in a virtual sense. For those who are watching the funeral, it offers a sense of closeness and proximity instead of skipping the funeral all together. Technology does not always achieve the aura of what would be the actual funeral but it does bring about a sense of closure when it would not have been achieved otherwise.
While these virtual spaces create intimate plots for remembrance and mourning, some people are also using these spaces for deep, continued bonds by using human data to digitally recreate loved ones. In Stephen Totilo’s article “In The Virtual World, His Fiancée Never Died,” he chronicles the virtually sparked, then real-world romance between Jon Jacobs’ (aka Jon Neverdie) and Tina Leiu. So much of their real-world life was spent playing video games on the Internet together in the same room that when she passed away suddenly Jon hoped that her spirit would move into the virtual world they shared together. While this seemed like a far-fetched idea even to Jon, it sparked a way for him to properly mourn the woman behind the famous avatar, Island Girl. Jon Neverdie decided to play her avatar every now and then in the game “Project Entropia” and then eventually create his own game with her famous avatar. While the gaming community responded negatively to his decision, for Jon, this was a way for him to mourn. The Game was a method of representing and continuing bonds with his fiancée. Like this website for Louise Sloan, Neverdie’s game is more about the method of representing the individual than recreating an actual individual.
Unlike this website’s interests in “resurrecting” Louise Sloan (which does not include a literal recreation of the individual), some people have other ideas. In Ray Kurzweil’s article “On Genes, Memes, Bemes and Conscious Things,” he discusses a new unit used to represent people called “bemes”, essentially “units of being-ness,” that are “analogous to memes (culturally transmissible ideas) and genes” but something that goes far beyond how either can accurately reinterpret an individual. Bemes represent thoughts and the complexities of an individual mind instead of a group. Used together, these beams can recreate an individual or create a new person with an equally complex mind as the original.
Some people go further than bemes and actually think that one day, human beings will be able to fully resurrect themselves. They will be the Johns and Janes of the world who literally “neverdie.” Again, Ray Kurzweil proposes another unusual theory. As an inventor and theorist, in the article “Is Futurist Ray Kurzweil Playing God?” he proposes that one day and sometime very soon, both computers and humans will merge together. Kurzweil claims that the advancements of smart phones will “one day help him talk to his dead father and eventually eliminate death all together.” While this is theoretical in so many of its aspects, it is perhaps another way to remember and mourn his father. Throughout these readings, we have seen a through line that technology brings us closer to death and brings about new ways of interacting with those who have died in new ways beyond “ghosts” or religious notions. While these might seem like radically new and innovative ways to think about our relationship to the dead, this is not a novel idea. Nevertheless, new ideas about representing the dead are not always so unusual or forward thinking.
In Denisa Kera's article "Designing for Death and Apocalypse: Theodicy of Networks and Uncanny Archives," she unpacks how technology and design work together to form "unique responses to human mortality and possible apocalypse." While the likelihood of an apocalypse seems less realistic than her responses to mortality, Kera makes connections (in both veins of her argument) to how humans interact with technologies to explore death. She cites the ways people have created "uncanny archives" of the dead to represent them or continue to represent them in the world today; like trees, biotechnologies, and blending of smaller organisms with human remains. These methods combine digital and technological functions with the human aspect. In this website, I am attempting to blend the physical artifacts from Louise Sloan's life with digital tools.
Rather than using bits of complex thoughts from Louise's letters to create a "beme" or some radical tool, I have chosen to display her letters at face value and map their route through physical space using a digital tool. The maps and letters speak for themselves and hold a lasting, permanent paper and digital record. With this map, I have attached the letters to their initial and final destinations. Today, these letters could be sent to and from these same addresses, though they would be received by drastically different individuals. Together, they do not necessarily give us a complete image of Louise but they do recreate an original story of her life on a new web-based interface. Using bits of the data she received or produced in her lifetime, I have combined old and new techniques to reveal how data can be used to radically convey a person's life, years after they have died.
All citations are in the text. Click on the hyperlinks to learn more about the literature on Death in the Digital Age, or check out the course blog at http://courses.shroutdocs.org/dig215/calendar/