Life, death, and the Internet in between

I came across a couple of posts this weekend that have me thinking about the nature of living, and dying, in a networked world. In the TED talk above, Adam Ostrow contemplates a future where we continue to exist in our digital archive. He started thinking about this when he saw Derek K.Miller’s final blog entry, posted posthumously by his family after he died from complications of stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer. I saw Derek’s post in May, and spent the better part of a morning learning more about his battle with cancer as I backtracked through his entries. I found reading his blog very moving, especially his final entry where he reflects on the passage of his life and leaves messages for his wife and daughters. I can only imagine how many times they have read and re-read that post, and the comfort it brings to them.

More than a year ago, a friend of mine died unexpectedly. A facebook page was set up as a tribute to her, and continues to have people making contributions. I looked at it tonight, and was touched by the effect this woman had on people. Again, it made me think that this must bring a great deal of comfort to her family, if they do indeed, look to see what people are posting. I wrote a post about her passing, and I see it listed in Google results when you search her name. I hope it was a fitting enough tribute to her memory. It’s become part of her archive too, you see.

All this reminded me of Dave Cormier’s 2009 post about his brother Stephen, who died 24 years ago when he was 14. In that very moving post, he reflected on how his brother was alive in his memories, but no digital archive of his life existed because he never had a digital life. His post was, as he described it, “a flag in the ground for my long lost brother.” Dave made these comments in his final paragraph, that really ring true for me.

“There is a longer, more human thing at work here that I’m reaching for. There is a sense in which we are storing the memories of ourselves, of our friends, of the ways that we are all connected to each other. Of our love.”

I keep reading articles and books about the dehumanising influence of the Web on our lives, but I can’t help but hear the niggling words of Dave’s in my ear. When I think of this blog, I am beginning to have a greater understanding that this is not just a professional space where I share my thoughts about teaching and the impact of new technologies. Traces of me are here, my voice is here. If you read enough of it, you will have a sense of me and the things I hold dear. I’m realising that my ‘School’s out Friday’ posts may very well become the connective tissue my family members would hang onto, because that is where I often post the more personal details about my life. I suppose I’m realising that this space is a place where I am storing not only information, but memories too.

So, what will happen in our future? Will online spaces like facebook and individuals’ blogs be the digital archives of peoples’ lives? Somehow, I can’t bring myself to call such spaces digital graveyards, a term I have heard people use. I suppose they would, and do, fulfill a similar function though. They are spaces that allow people to reflect and remember, much like a graveyard or memorial garden. What will happen when they are not tended? Will the Web be scattered with unused accounts forever more? Who will make decisions about deletion? Will family members be consulted, if any can be found? Will we see sites like facebook talk of ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ accounts, and include such detail in their statistical data? I certainly don’t know the answers to questions like these, but I do think we will ponder them as we see our populations embracing social media.

And perhaps we will see real world graveyards make greater use of QR Codes (a barcode with embedded data such as text, or links to video or web pages), to provide a visitor with more detail than that written on the person’s head stone. Here’s what’s happening in the United States.

“A company in Seattle is offering to add a QR code to the head stone of the deceased person. When family or loved ones scan the QR code, it reveals additional information about the person including photos, videos and text about the life they lived.”

The title of the post was, QR codes on headstones in graveyards: Is it brilliant or creepy? I have to admit, my initial reaction was that it was creepy, but then I got to thinking about how important data like this could be for families in years to come. TNW’s post added this thought,

“Added to people that died in wars or long ago could be a valuable way for teaching new generations about wars or other ways in which people used to die that have long been forgotten.”

Other than the fact that I think TNW should do some serious proofreading of sentences before pressing publish, I think they make a good point about how a QR code could be used in a meaningful way. Right now I’d say the majority of the population, most who have no knowledge of what a QR code is, would think the whole idea rather creepy. Maybe, as our level of comfort with new technologies grows, we will see something like this become the norm.

Lots to ponder. As my parents grow older, it has me thinking. You would find no trace of either of them right now on the Web. In years to come, they will exist in my memory and in old photo albums. I don’t know if that’s enough really. I want my childrens’ children to know more than a potted history of their existence and some photos that may not hold up to the ravages of time. Perhaps it’s now up to me to archive their stories for generations to come. Adam Ostrow talks of sites popping up now to help us do just that. 1000 memories is one he references, and I’ve spent some time tonight looking at it. It’s free, claims it will never charge fees, and some of the memory sites are truly beautiful collaborative portraits of people’s lives.

There’s a lot to think about and discuss really. I’m pretty sure I don’t want a hologram of a person who has passed away roaming my loungeroom, as Adam suggests will one day be possible in the TED talk that begins this post. But I do want to see people understand the potential of digital archives as a means of remembering those who may have shared our lives, or came before us.

2 Replies to “Life, death, and the Internet in between”

  1. Hi Jenny,

    I love your blog! I have visited a few times over the last year & it always gives me lots to think about and really useful links to other sites which I have used in my discussions with other teachers to stimulate their thinking. Thanks for all the work you put into this site for others to benefit from! Spurred on by this post, I have just started a new blog about my own reflections on teaching. I have included a link in it to this site – I hope you’re OK with that (if not please let me know & I’ll remove it). I’m still learning about the etiquette of blogging.

    1. Hi Kerri,
      Thanks so much for this comment. I’m going through one of those stages where I’m wondering if what I am doing here is making a difference for anyone but me, and you have brought tears to my eyes reading this. I wish you all the best on your own blogging journey, and think it’s wonderful that this post has spurred you on to start. By all means link to this blog on your site; it’s good form in blogging circles to acknowledge the people you read and gain motivation from.
      Jenny. : )

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