Monday, April 9, 2012


By the time you read this I may no longer be alive.

Okay, it’s a fairly slim chance. I’m posting this Friday for Monday, so it’s just a matter of my surviving the weekend. But it could happen. Besides, of course, every text has a steadily increasing chance of surviving its author over time. Suppose you stumbled upon this page in one year, or ten years. How about fifty years? Or I could have scheduled it to be published later than that to begin with.

The old Blogger interface, which is in the process of being phased out, allows scheduled posting to take place no later than 31 December, 2031. I’d be sixty years old then. But the new interface has no such limitation. It is a little laborious because you have to click manually through the calendar as opposed to typing in the date, so it takes about five minutes to schedule a post one hundred years from now. This would be, needless to say, an optimistic gesture. Would my Blogger account still exist in a hundred years? Would the Blogger service? Would Google, that owns it? Would the internet? And even supposing that all those things were still in place, who would be alerted to the publication of this post? Would the RSS feeds of old, faithful, dead readers register the update for the benefit of nobody at all?

A more likely answer is that machines would read the post. Search engine crawlers, if such things still exist, or whatever has come to replace them. And then, eventually, if the internet operates more or less the same way it does today, somebody would chance upon the post and perhaps even read it. Then, and only then, would the post become posthumous.

The question of what happens to what lawyers call your ‘digital assets’ after you die is a vexed one and a regular topic amongst the publications most keenly interested in the lifestyle of the digerati, such as Mashable. One of the currently debated questions is: who should get your passwords? Facebook thinks nobody should, and, at least until such time as legislation currently under discussion might force it to do otherwise, only allows for the account of a deceased person to be turned into a ‘frozen’ memorial page. To put the issue in perspective, according to the latest estimate I was able to find there were five millions Facebook accounts belonging to dead people in 2010. At the rate that the site is growing I wouldn’t be surprised if that number had doubled over the last two years.

However – and this should come to no surprise whatsoever to anybody – there are people out there who resent the idea that a trifling nuisance such as the end of life might interfere with their social media schedule. Enter If I Die and a host of other applications and services designed to either memorialise your digital oeuvre or allow you to continue posting on your favourite hangouts from beyond the grave. Helpfully, Mashable explains that
Wilook, the Israel-based company behind [If I Die], built the app because nobody really knows when death will come.
Clearly this not-knowing-when-death-will-come business constitutes an entirely new kind of problem requiring equally innovative solutions, of which there has indeed been no shortage. I documented for my PhD some services that offered to create permanent online memorials on the web – for a fee, naturally – and that greatly validated my research by going out of business while I was still in draft. In a similar vein, MyWebWill, a precursor of the If I Day app created in 2010 by two young Swedish entrepreneurs, nowadays greets its visitors with the following message.

Leaving aside the rather delicious albeit possibly coincidental detail that the service was discontinued on the day of the dead, there is reason to doubt that If I Die will be around until you’ve actually had time to expire. And besides much of what the application offers is redundant: if the problem is letting your online contacts know that you have died, the same friends who would act as nominated trustees for If I Die could take care of posting the necessary messages, or post future-dated material on your wall. And the likes of Blogger (as discussed) and Twitter allow scheduled posting with a minimum of fuss.

So as a footnote to the great digital immortality project, this business of social media ghosting seems a little ridiculous, just as mildly pathetic is the thought of wanting to stick around and chat some more – like a morbid attachment to the rhythms of the feed, to the ennui-inducing certainty that it will tick over soon with more updates, more mentions, more reactions. Except this time at least you’d have some actual news to share. Guess what, I’m dead! And to think you might still be good company then, if not better company, is the final step in the zombification of the social ritualised daily in a series of semi-compulsive, automatic gestures as you cycle through Twitter, Facebook, email and back again.

Proper posthumous writing, by contrast, is best understood as a post-social activity, something to do not when you are dead (because you aren’t, or you wouldn’t be writing) but rather when everyone you know is dead. What would you write, and how, to a readership of reliable machines and the odd person one hundred years from now? What about three hundred years from now, when half the planet might have become uninhabitable? Or ten thousand years from now, when your language may no longer be spoken, or when writing as we understand it may no longer be practiced and barely be recognised?

These aren’t entirely idle thoughts. Consider Stewart Brand’s notion of the long now, the institution of the 10,000 year library, and his suggestion that we should write the year in dates using five digits, to train ourselves to take a longer view and expand the duration of the future. There is no reason why some of these ideas, which are primarily employed at the service of environmental causes or cultural conservation, shouldn’t inform the practice of writing: not for now, but for later; not for the people you know, but for the people you don’t; not reflecting – therefore reinforcing – the social and political structures that exist, but open to the near-infinite possibilities of their reconfiguration; finally, not relying on language as it is, but speculating as to what it might become.

I intend all this as a mental exercise, as a strategy for questioning our assumptions concerning rhetoric, but just to be literal – because I love being literal – I wrote such a post. It is scheduled to be published at midnight on April 9, 2112.


Taramoc said...

I can see at some point a law that declares a person dead if he/she hasn't posted in any of the "accepted" social sites for more than a set amount of time (ten years maybe?).

Or at least that gives that person a deadline to prove that he/she is alive, maybe bringing back that deliciously absurd "Certificato di esistenza in vita" (loosely translated "Certificate of living existence") part of the maze that was Italian bureaucracy until not more than 20 years ago.

James Butler said...

A slight acquaintance of mine died last year, quite possibly by suicide. I had never been her friend on Facebook, but after her death the uptick in activity on her wall - people posting tributes, commiserations etc. - apparently woke some algorithm from deep in the bowels of the beast, and Facebook started suggesting I should be friends with her every time I logged in. Thanks Facebook, a lot of good it'll do her now.

David K Wayne said...

I suspect deaths have occurred with certain blogs that suddenly cease publishing but...

I've wondered why more blogs haven't ended with scheduled suicide notes. I don't know of any that have, and surely they would be reported if they did? It could be a 'dormant' genre waiting to happen under current economic conditions.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Taramoc: the certificato di esistenza in vita still exists, and it's still not enough to turn out at the council's office and say look, I'm alive. You also need to give them 15 euros.

Ben Wilson said...

>Or ten thousand years from now, when your language may no longer be spoken, or when writing as we understand it may no longer be practiced and barely be recognised?

Maybe translation devices will be close to perfect, so it won't matter. The hard part probably won't be the language, it will be the meaning, as always. Without a deep knowledge of our current preoccupations, it would be pretty hard to get what we're on about, a lot of the time. Writing has had pretty long legs. Ten thousand years is only twice as long as it has already been around.

Mind you, reading things from the ancient world, I'm as often surprised by how little we have changed as by how much. For a 2500 year old joke to still make sense suggests our transcendence of our humanity is slow work. Or perhaps writing itself helped to slow it, anchoring us back to the past. Or both.

Carien said...

I've fought being digitised for 20 years, but after reading this "posthumous" conversation, I'm seriously considering investigating Facebook et al. I've been completely delighted, a great giggle, and sheer pleasure at the perceptions going on here.

Like "....somebody would chance upon the post and perhaps even read it. Then, and only then, would the post become posthumous." in the original post/blog.
Like. a thought is only a thought when it's been and gone. You don't know you've had a thought until you can look at it, so obviously it's been and gone.
Similarly with death, obviously
you won't know you're dead until you can come back from the dead. Only other people "know" you are "dead".

Which brings me to the words and language longevity. I'm flat out hearing the language of my 20-something grandchildren, less than 50 years of language change, never mind ten thousand years.

And yet I'm quite thrilled with the fact that humanity hasn't changed enough not to enjoy a 2500 year old joke.