As humans, we move through life casually casting aside detritus we find along the way, shedding it off of our being like the many shells of a molting arthropod. When we die, we shrug everything that is left off at once. All the objects we simply had to move into our new apartment are suddenly worthless. In one fell swoop, we leave without anything we deemed important enough to carry with us along the way, including of course the bodies that served as our vehicles for the entire journey.
Over the course of history, we are able to understand much about distant cultures by the way they parcel out the belongings of the deceased. The most obvious example that comes to mind would likely be the Egyptians. Breaking the backs of their slaves over the course of a lifetime of work erecting monumental pyramids, Pharaohs competed with their predecessors for the crown of most impressive egotistical exclamation point. Ancient cultures all across the continent of Asia erected impressive shrines and temples to honor countless Emperors and deceased leaders. Some cultures such as the Mayans have escaped the scope of our written history until they had already passed us by, leaving only physical remnants for us to haphazardly put together after the fact.
All of these peoples put aside physical preparations for the deceased in a way that was designed to guide their journey beyond this life, as well as allow those still living an avenue for remembrance. In today’s society, taking care of the legacy of the dead is hardly as grandiose as some historical examples, yet we still find ourselves breaking new ground in the field of informational etiquette. The custody of one’s digital legacy is rapidly becoming a topic of interest as more and more people who live semi-public lives on the Internet pass on to the next level of existence.
Why even consider the parts of the estate left behind that are merely information?
The interconnectivity of the web has progressed to become a giant mixing pool for all of us to spew minutia back and forth, with little order to the hierarchy that was previously given to strata of information.
Before everything we ever needed to know was readily available on the open informational market of the internet, one had to know what book to pick up from the local library in order to gain information. Books were categorized by topic and academic importance. The Encyclopedia Britannica was necessarily placed on a different shelf than Mad Magazine.
The internet has leveled the playing field so that the useless drivel shelled out by a blogger typing away in his mother’s basement is merely a click away from the next great work of American literature, Mariah Carey’s Twitter feed, or a stimulating and innovative New York Times article. Any random search result may return a list of web pages spanning the range of informational credibility, all listed in direct relation to one another.
The painter Chuck Close once described the Internet as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” These days describing the internet as a mile wide might be a bit of an understatement, but something about the internet as an inch deep seems right on the money. The digital sphere is a constantly evolving oceanic expanse of largely unregulated information that, for the most part exists on an equally weighted level.
I guess this should come as no surprise. We are busy flattening time and space. We cover gem-like moments over in the dust cloud of electronic experience. The murky instants float by unattended as we stare into our personal ‘communication’ devices. We cruise through Internet information as if we were tugboats in the night, passing through miles of water, churning up phosphorescence in our wake. This disturbance we leave behind is an informational trail of our exchanges and interactions, old online profiles, email addresses, and forgotten tweets. These things are displaced by our persistent movement forward, only to float behind us into our internet viewing history, often never to be seen again. In this densely interwoven electronic age of pared down, typified interactions of multiple uses, we dilute experience by assigning appropriate responses to one another’s coded expressions.
My feelings about the cheap nature of electronic interaction have recently been turned on their head due to the passing of a colleague. It just so happened that for the first time in my adult life, I experienced the passing of a peer who also had an active Facebook profile.
Seemingly a trivial amalgamation of personal minutiae, and often regurgitative excrement, Facebook now served as the perfect venue for people to pay their respects. Loved ones were able to reconnect with tenuous relationships they probably would have held more dear — if any of the parties involved had realized the brevity of their abruptly closing interaction window.
More than ever before, the words and thoughts of our loved ones are cached somewhere deep in their online histories. Going back to peruse the layers of informational residue left in the wake of a lost friend or family member can be a painful but eventually cathartic experience. In cruising through what was once trivial minutiae — old online profiles, public posts, text messages, and blog entries, one finds a renewed connection to the life of the deceased. Even emotional shorthand such as a simple emoticon or search-streamlining hashtags hold embedded meaning when viewed in retrospect. This is especially poignant when we realize they were created by someone who will not be typing even the most concise of responses ever again.
Returning to archived pieces of personal information with a renewed sense of importance, maybe the increased focus with which we can see everyday interactions becomes less of a distraction from real experience and more of a silver lining that will pull us through our moments of grief. Maybe it’s in re-opening these interactions that we can actually get to the vital fluid that we are so hurriedly pushing away in our electronically-clouded daily hustle.
Often we are so fixated on planning the future as to neglect the happenings of the present. It takes a jarring halt in our regular routine to snap our cognitive focus back to the fragility and importance of each passing moment. Judging each occurring second’s importance while one is still experiencing it is a fool’s game that we all fall victim to. One never knows what will later seem to be the pinnacle moment defining a passage of time in our hurried lives.
It is in turning over the seemingly trivial stones of web interaction that we can assign fresh meaning to moments that at first float on beyond the reach of our comprehension. Death gives us a needed reprieve with which to truly absorb all this. An undeniable break from the constant run of contemporary life, the passing of others into the infinite void forces us to look up from our iPhones and Droids in order to deal with the emotional reality a loss of life presents us with.
Although we can’t control the way our lives are perceived once they are released from our manipulation, at least virtual sounding boards such as Facebook allow others opportunity to grieve the loss of the dead. Even if the process of emotional repair happens in the privacy of our desk chairs, at least we know we can log on at any time; free to post an adoring message on her wall each and every time we hear that Whitney Houston song that yanks at our heartstrings.
Fortunately for all of us who are still here waiting for our time to come, there are now many young entrepreneurs who are thinking ahead to a time when the preservation of one’s personal Internet trail will be big business. As thoroughly discussed in an article by Rob Walker in the New York Times Magazine in 2011, Companies such as Legacy Locker, DataInherit, and Entrustet are all young businesses who are steadily gaining clientele who feel the need to have someone else in charge of their post mortem online personas. These companies will keep the information you want preserved for the foreseeable future, giving your online avatar a shot at immortality.
Getting in at an early stage might be one’s best bet, at least to my mind, as there doesn’t seem to be any slowing of the internet profile age. Looking in to having someone else preserve your digital legacy may seem like a trivial and unnecessary expense right now, but just think of the people you hold dear. Aside from the end goal of a perpetual web afterlife, the collection of your informational trail can be a helpful tool in repairing the void your death leaves behind.
This life is delicate and our grip on health and vitality can go from strong to tenuous in one unfortunate moment. Wouldn’t one want friends, family and loved ones to have everything they need to fully remember you by? Even if the weird conversation you just had on G-chat seems trivial and insignificant right now, you never really know the effect it may have on the person on the other end of your keyboard.
Communication from beyond the grave might be impossible to bank on, you may never really come back to say ‘hi’, but at least preserving your digital action has the potential to present an opportunity for others to interact with your informational ghost.