We're reaching a point where most of us have personal experience of some kind of intersection between death and the digital world. People may hear about the loss of friends and family via social media. They may struggle with online platforms for control over or access to information about their loved ones' digital legacies. They may use a friend's Facebook site for mourning and memorialising them after they are gone. They may wonder what will happen to their own online material after they die, and some may even decide they'd like to maintain their social lives from the Great Beyond.
Through June of 2018, I'm finalising a book for popular audiences about all of these phenomena. It's called All the Ghosts in the Machine, and it's being published by Robinson/Little Brown. If you have a story that you'd like to share with me, I would love to speak to you about a possible interview for inclusion in this book. Please do reply to this post or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also speak frequently about this topic to various audiences, including the public, psychological practitioners, and academics. You can hear examples of these on the Events section of my website. If you are a journalist, producer, or representative of an organisation that would like to discuss death and the digital with me, please feel free to get in touch as well.
For more about the book, read on! (This is an extract from the original proposal, which described what All the Ghosts in the Machine was going to be about.)
This is a book about unintended consequences. Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues launched Facebook to connect students at Harvard, not to create a mixed-use social networking platform and digital cemetery. Skype was designed to enable us to chat to one another, not to live stream funerals. In short, when the whiz kids of Silicon Valley created the technologies that we now use to capture, store and share massive amounts of data, it was the living consumer that they had in mind. And yet here we are, the dead and the living, still segregated in the corporeal world, but mixing and mingling like mad in the digital sphere. That situation is tantalizing and comforting to some, surreal and horrifying to others. Whatever one’s gut reaction, though, those who think that this phenomenon does not directly affect them will be surprised at the number of ways that this assumption is untrue. We are at a tipping point of awareness: more of us are realising that one day this issue will prove personally meaningful to us, but most of us have no idea just how complicated and multifaceted this issue is.
In the realm of death, as in much else, the digital revolution changes everything. It has been said that we are not truly dead while our names are still spoken. In a technological landscape where it is more difficult to forget than to remember, the dead are still spoken about a lot - in fact, they may continue to “speak” themselves. The ability to stick around in digital form holds out the prospect of a kind of immortality. Through making connections with our dead easier than ever before, these very modern technologies may draw us back to quite ancient ancestor-veneration practices; our predecessors’ presence is more apparent and actively influential in society than has ever been the case before. Realizing that it is not just the great and famous who may have their legacies preserved, but all of us, do we make different choices in our lives? How do we respond to the persistent echoes and reflections of deceased loved ones online, or otherwise in digital form? Knowing that one day we will be one of them, how do we manage our own data? What happens when corporations compete with us for control of those data? And could the phenomenon of technological obsolescence eventually prove that a granite headstone memorial was the better option all along?
This book is about all levels of this fascinating and thorny territory: psychological, sociological, practical, legal, spiritual, ethical, and commercial. It will tell the stories of people who have confronted unexpected and complex dilemmas at the many junctions where death and life meet online, help readers with their own confrontations with these challenges, and explore the implications that these fascinating new developments hold for all of us.