In May of 2013 the journal The Information Society published a special issue called Death, Afterlife, and Immortality of Bodies and Data. I just discovered this, thanks to a post by the Centre for Medical Humanities (@mdiclhumanities). The post announced an upcoming research symposium on ” the digital mediation of dying, death, mourning and personal legacy.” The intent of the symposium: to discuss “how online connectivity is changing how, when and where we engage with death.” When I followed a link to the Death Online Research site, I found the special issue, plus a fairly substantial bibliography of publications on the subject of death online.
This special issue poses questions concerning death, afterlife and immortality in the age of the Internet. It extends previous work by examining current and emerging practices of grieving and memorializing supported by new media. It suggests that people’s lives today are extended, prolonged, and ultimately transformed through the new circulations, repetitions, and recontextualizations on the Internet and other platforms. It also shows that publics are being formed and connected with in new ways, and new practices and rituals are emerging, as the traditional notions of the body are being challenged. We argue that these developments have implications for how people will be discovered and conceived of in the future. We consider possible extensions to the research presented here in terms of people, practices, and data. First, some sections of the population, in particular those who are the dying and populations in developing countries and the Global South, have largely been neglected to date. Second, practices such as (online) suicide and sacrilegious or profane behaviors remain largely uninvestigated. Third, the discussion of the management of the digital self after death has only begun. We conclude by posing further questions concerning the prospect of emerging cities of the dead.
Shortly after Yahoo confirmed its plans to purchase Tumblr for $1.1 billion, Charlie Rose interviewed 26-year-old Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp. Karp was wearing his signature gray hoodie. Rose sported a purple tie. I was struck by what Karp had to say about advertising.
Here’s the set-up:
Rose: What excites you the most? The building of the business or creating the product?
Karp: So, we have this … ah … look. The product is why I got into this. I have to tell you that the business end of this has become such an interesting, exciting, fun challenge for us, because we’ve got this thesis that we can build a business that not only does not compromise everything that is special about Tumblr – makes it such an incredible home for these incredibly talented people – but actually makes Tumblr a better place. In the same way that, you know, if you ripped all the ads out of Vogue, one, it would be half the magazine, but two, it would actually lose a lot of the great content. The way we’ve approached advertising doesn’t look anything like advertising across the rest of the Internet today. So much of …. There’s a lot of nuance here, but, you know, so much of …
Rose: But explain it to me,
Karp: Sure, sure, sure.
Rose: … because it’s the essence of what you’re trying to do.
But here’s where it gets really interesting (my emphasis added) – where Karp expands on what will make Tumblr a “better place.” Read more
I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
Have human beings always had a self? Has there always been an “I” who reflects on a “me”? We’ll never know what it was like to be alive at the origins of self-consciousness, but that doesn’t keep us from speculating.
Charles Taylor imagines the following scenario in Paleolithic times: As a hunting group is closing in on a fierce woolly mammoth, the beast suddenly charges at Hunter A. In that moment, Hunter A thinks something like “Oh no, I’m really in for it now.” At the last moment, however, the beast changes course and kills Hunter B. Hunter A then experiences a mixture of relief for himself and grief for his companion.
Julian Jaynes, author of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, would have a somewhat different take on the situation. For Jaynes, Hunter A would not have thought “I’d better run for it.” He would have heard a voice from the left side of his brain saying “run for it,” and his right brain would have interpreted this as a message from the gods. Read more
What follows was originally published in 1981. (You can tell from the sentence “Would it be worth getting an answering machine?” Yes, folks, not only was there a time when not everyone had a cell phone. People actually used to talk to each other on the phone rather than send a text message.) See the posts Something I wrote a long time ago and More thoughts from the past.
For the most part, the events of everyday life appear intelligible. We’re able to deal with almost any situation, no matter how inconvenient or confusing it may seem at first, in a manner that’s sufficient to satisfy our immediate interests. But since socially constructed worlds are inherently unstable, and our knowledge of everyday reality is essentially inadequate, anxiety is inevitable. We don’t experience anxiety as a problem of knowledge, however, but as a problem of who we are. We’re concerned about “me.” What will happen to me? What does this mean to me? What am I doing here? What will I do next?
“Who we are” is not only a matter of the externally obvious job, marriage, address, appearance, and acts of charity, but of the unseen life of the mind. What we think and feel depends on where the mind spends its time, as in “his mind is either in the clouds or the gutter” or “I can’t get it out of my mind.” We are what we think, that is, we are what occupies, invades, crosses, and rests on our minds in the course of a day. Read more
Identity and self-opinion are acquired through a series of personal relationships. Our impressionable natures come under the influence of others and we respond by adopting new ideas and opinions or by resisting pressures to be more industrious or prompt or truthful. The situations created by personal interactions create facets of our personality that weren’t there before. Gradually we pick and choose which traits to keep and which to reject, sedimenting and consolidating this unpolished gem into an identity we can call our own.
Our need to maintain a belief in the underlying constancy of our identity often blinds us to the process by which we actively and willingly change ourselves. It’s not flexibility itself that we deny as much as those wholesale binges we go on when we incorporate someone else’s viewpoint. We recognize plagiarized traits more readily in others than in ourselves, as when a friend with a new mentor displays novel opinions, vocabulary, and mannerisms that he wears like new clothes before they’ve become his. Read more
As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.
I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.
The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.
Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more