A Conversation with Dorothea Lasky
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Dorothea Lasky has emerged over the last few years as one of the most important poets of her generation. Her bold, unmistakable voice, both on the page and in person at her booming public readings, somehow brings together the comic and demonic, wonder and horror, sincerity and irony. Underneath the seemingly artless, accessible surface of her poems lies a sophisticated play with speaker and audience.
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Darkroom Alchemy: The Photographic Art of Studio Manassé
In 1934, an entire edition of Muskete, a humorous magazine known for its caricature and pictorial jokes, was confiscated by Austrian censors because the Wlassics, a husband-and-wife team of photographers who operated Studio Manassé in Vienna, had failed to remove in the darkroom all traces of pubic hair on their nude cover photo. The image was one of their “photographic jokes,” a genre of work popularized by picture postcards of the early twentieth century that employed trick photography to depict whimsical images such as pretty girls growing on trees, the cherubic face of a loved one appearing in a wreath of pipe smoke or a lithe young woman hanging seductively from a businessman’s necktie.
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The Blood Old and Strong
When they lost the first calf it was April, and Waldreve knew even then what it would all come to and that it wasn’t just any coyote they were after but a big male this time. Its track was larger than any Waldreve had seen before, printed in the muddy creek bank where they found the first calf stripped to cage bones and hide, and the dog that made it was not alone. It kept a pack of at least a dozen others. All that summer, Waldreve spent his nights on the porch and listened to them howl the moon down as they tore calves right from their mother’s teat, the alpha dog’s voice bolder and louder than the others. He knew then that he would kill the coyote and all of his offspring.
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Jesus commands us to visit the sick and pray for them when they die. Judith seems to remember hearing this from someone, a voice from the past, maybe even someone from her Indiana youth. Raised by atheists and never going to church, she would have had to be told. Or maybe she picked it up as she wobbled toward a C in the required Sacred Studies course at her Seven Sisters college, although she is unable to recall a specific text. Still, whoever or whatever the source, she clearly remembers that Jesus, in all his various versions, does not just make a suggestion. He firmly commands, and that command is what has floated up into her brain today. It’s been two weeks, and so, instead of going over to Brookings for lunch with everybody else on the magazine staff, she gets her car out of the lot and drives to Georgetown to visit Alicia.
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Facebook of the Dead
Speaking to us from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud tells us that death isn’t just the end of life but a force that gives life its shape and texture. Regarding the physical world, Freud’s observation shows merit. Take the cemeteries in the centers of Paris, London, New York and Rome, for example, each an emblem of the way cultures grow out of shared responses to death. To look back in time in search of the earliest evidence of human culture, you would have to look beyond the earliest pottery, made in southern China, and past the cave paintings at Lascaux to the first burial sites, in modern-day Israel, where the dead were tucked into the earth in a fetal position, exiting the world just as they’d entered. When applied to the world online, however, Freud’s argument seems to miss. Internet culture is the one exception—that is, the richest and most expansive culture in history is the only culture not founded by death.
In the beginning, Facebook’s founders were nearly immortal. Ten years ago, the site was exclusive to college students, a demographic whose leading cause of death is “accidents” followed by suicides, then murders, which is to say, you hardly die at all in college. Looking at the U.S. Census’s line graphs for death rates sorted by age groups, you see the line swing low toward the X-axis after our vulnerable infant years, then stay low, hovering a hair above immortality, until our midthirties, where heart disease and cancer wait. It was in this Neverland that Internet culture was conceived, was born and reached maturity nearly in the same breath.
As a site designed and populated exclusively by college kids, Facebook had little reason to make accommodations for its users’ mortality when it was launched in 2004. However, over the past ten years, Facebook has been given, or has taken on, a role that couldn’t have been imagined even by ambitious Mark Zuckerburg. (His first run of business cards, which read, “I’m CEO … bitch,” reminds us that even at Harvard a sophomore is still a sophomore.) It’s important to recognize Zuckerburg’s website this way, as a college contact book stretched far beyond its original purpose.
Facebook now exists as the capital city of the Internet Age. America spends more than a tithe’s share of its time online on Facebook. (Surprisingly, most countries that use Facebook use it even more than America does.) That’s significantly more than the time given to Google sites, which include YouTube, and more than double all the hours spent on Amazon, eBay, Tumblr, ESPN, Wikipedia and Twitter combined. The Facebook of today, designed by immortals for immortals, exists as the backdrop for life in the twenty-first century. As Justin Timberlake, in the role of Napster founder Sean Parker, says in The Social Network, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, now we’re gonna live on the Internet.” But lacking any accommodations for its citizens’ mortality, Facebook is ill suited as a domain where a real culture of real people may thrive.
Internet culture, with its denial of death, is a product of the twentieth century, which saw death grow more abstract and more distant from lived experience. A century ago it would have been unusual to come of age without having witnessed death firsthand, when criminal executions were public holidays across Europe and when deaths mostly took place at home, with friends and family standing around the sickbed. A rapid change in western sentiments came at the turn of the twentieth century, when criminals were executed privately or not at all. As health care modernized, people increasingly died alone in hospitals, away from home and familiar faces. With the advent of sulfonamides and penicillin around the 1930s (these were the first drugs really to cure anything), doctors increasingly felt that it was their job to eradicate death and their fault when patients died. More than simply denied the opportunity to take part in death rituals at home, today’s dying often don’t know they’re dying. A sociological study done in the 1960s describes the modern tendency of doctors and family members to keep the dying ignorant of the seriousness of their condition. Whether better or worse for the patients, this amounts to a radical change in attitudes toward death, and therefore toward life, from the ideas of all previous generations of humans. No longer a natural and inevitable part of life, death in the twentieth century began to be regarded as a failure, one of the body’s embarrassments. In these ways death became more abstract but also taboo to a degree it hadn’t been before. It was at the culmination of the last century, which radically shifted attitudes toward death (and therefore life), that the Internet was born, a medium where we engage with one another most often as identities disembodied.
Death’s unfixedness online suggests we don’t quite yet live in an Internet culture, though we say we do. The Internet Age won’t truly have arrived until social media accommodates the whole of human life, of which death is a fundamental part. But the small and strange ways in which death does appear online permit us a glimpse of what a real Internet culture may look like when it comes. What follows is an unfamiliar history of the Internet, one that tracks death’s so-far limited influence on online culture. Through this history, we can glimpse the future of social media, a future in which death makes room for itself in a culture that failed to make room for it.
In the early days of the web, people most commonly understood cyberspace as an alternate, virtual world rather than a digital map of our own world. The developer Jaron Lanier, who helped shaped the course of computer science in the early ’80s, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, describes a question laymen commonly asked about these “strange technologies” he helped to develop: “Would they be trapped in it, unable to escape back to the physical world where the rest of us live?”
Naïve as the question sounds to us thirty years later, it helps illustrate the essentially paradoxical nature of the Internet. On one hand, we can view the web as most of us view it today—simply as a medium like telephones or radios. On the other hand, we still speak of the Internet as a place we “go” to. And no matter how often we go there, there is still something otherworldly about it.
Twenty years ago, the town of Blacksburg, Virginia, lived in a Web 2.0 world, five years before Darcy DiNucci coined the term in her 1999 Print magazine article titled “Fragmented Future.” Web 2.0 refers to interactive, collaborative and essentially social interpretations and applications of Internet technology. This stands in contrast to Web 1.0 technology, characterized by static web pages that envisioned a monodirectional broadcasting kind of application of the net, emphasizing the individual rather than the social.
Ten years before Facebook, the town of Blacksburg designed and implemented a citywide social network—the first in the world. The Blacksburg Electronic Village, as it was called, connected Blacksburg residents online to “[foster] the virtual community that has been created to complement and enhance the physical community.” Very early, Blacksburg demonstrated a vision of an Internet integrated with the world rather than conceived as separate from it. It could have been foreseen that Blacksburg would become a place where the digital and physical worlds became more integrated, but sadly the reason that it did fulfill that promise wasn’t Blacksburg’s early vision of a Web 2.0 world. Absurdly, it was a random act of violence and a social network’s secretive policy change that brought the virtual and physical realms together more than any technological effort had done. The shootings could have happened anywhere, but they happened in the town honored by Guinness as “the most-wired community in the world.”
Today We Are All Hokies
It was not until Facebook’s fourth year that the mortality of its users became at all visible. In 2007, the incident at Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, claiming thirty-three lives, became the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Tributes proliferated across Facebook even as the unidentified gunman marched through Virginia Tech’s campus with a semiautomatic in each hand. A national disaster was unfolding, and for the first time it unfolded online rather than on the cable networks. As people all around the country followed the events online, they also witnessed Facebook transforming into something new. College students around the world, in a display of solidarity, changed their profile pictures to Virginia Tech’s logo—the letters V and T leaning forward in thick red block script. The rising death toll was broadcast in Facebook wall posts from behind the doors of barricaded classrooms and dorms across campus. Amanda Dawn Toth was visiting Virginia Tech with her high school art club, which took refuge in a computer lab in Shanks Hall where she updated her status:
22 people are reported dead and 25 more are reported injured. They say that the shooter is dead, but we are unsure if there are more shooters.… so yeah I am freakin out right now … well so is everyone else … but I’m gonna try to keep this up-to-date with what’s going on down here … this is being reported as the worst school shooting in U.S. History … wow … I honestly can’t believe I’m here while this is taking place … absolutely unbelievable.
Amid this confusion, other students created “groups” including one called “I’m ok at VT” that encouraged students to join so others might know they were safe. Within twenty-four hours more than 500 groups sprang up on Facebook, formed not only by witnesses but by onlooking students around the world who wished to rally support for the Virginia Tech community and keep updated as more information became available.
Major national newspapers competed to reveal the victims’ identities but were stymied by authorities who withheld the names. Surprisingly, it was a VT undergraduate writing for the campus paper who got the scoop. Twenty-year-old David Grant managed to identify the victims by their Facebook walls, which stood out because they were already covered with remembrances. His editor, twenty-one-year-old Amie Steele, insisted he confirm the names before she would run the story. But here they recognized an ethical dilemma. “We didn’t want to call parents on a day when they had already lost their children,” Ms. Steele later explained to the Wall Street Journal. But again the problem was solved using Facebook. The pair of young journalists sat down to contact the victims’ Facebook friends, whose contact information was readily available.
Judging by their profile pages, the victims were unaffected by and unaware of their own deaths. Their expressions were unchanged, and their sensibilities—their likes and dislikes—survived intact. They recommended the same books, demonstrated the same taste in music and spoke of the same hobbies. This corner of Facebook appeared to be caught between life and death. Within a day of the shootings it became clear that Facebook wasn’t designed for mortals.
“Until the Virginia Tech tragedy, we had a very simplistic policy in place,” explained Facebook’s then director of corporate communications Brandee Barker in an interview with USA Today weeks after the shooting. Prior to Virginia Tech, Facebook simply marked profiles for deletion whenever notified of a user’s death. Because of inconsistencies in Facebook’s statements, it isn’t clear whether profiles were deleted thirty days after a user’s death or thirty days after Facebook was notified. However, in that interstitial period, a profile would be “memorialized.” Memorialization meant that a user’s log-in information would be deleted to prevent any tampering; his or her contact information, no longer useful, was deleted; and status updates were deleted for “privacy reasons.” On the other hand, photos and posts would remain visible, but only to “friends” of the deceased. Then, after the thirty-day mourning period, the page would be deleted. Rather than coming to terms with our mortalities, the policy simply disallowed death. However, given the low death rates of Facebook’s youthful clientele, this happened very rarely. So a simplistic policy worked well enough.
But when the Virginia Tech shooting brought the Facebook Generation’s mortality into plain sight, Facebook’s obscure policy came under close scrutiny. To the friends and families of the victims, it suddenly seemed insensitive or possibly reprehensible to delete a user’s profile. At Virginia Tech, students campaigned, protested and petitioned against Facebook’s policy. “That event made us reevaluate,” Ms. Barker explained. Facebook seemed to recognize the importance of mollifying the local protest before it grew larger. By acting quickly, agreeing to stop its practice of deleting dead users, Facebook was able to forestall an interminable and controversial national dialogue about what to do with the digital dead. Instead, Facebook’s response to the protest, and the protest itself, almost entirely escaped media attention, except for the single article quoted above, in a small blog several cursor clicks away from USA Today’s main page.
What transpired after the shootings amounted to much more than merely a secretive change in policy. Facebook’s decision to open its doors to the dead meant that the website was fundamentally transformed. Since Facebook’s birth, it had been a society without any enduring practices for dealing with death. But as a result of the Virginia Tech shootings, Facebook gained its first real death customs, a cultural milestone. Lacking these customs, the hub of Internet culture had all the while been lacking the most basic requirement of culture. Now Facebook users were permitted their messy mortality.
Still, despite becoming suddenly more reflective of the real world, Facebook remained an essentially unnatural place. Now that the dead were acknowledged, allowed to be visible, it was alarming how lifelike they appeared. In every way, the dead looked indistinguishable from the living, except, as in Neverland, they never aged.
The Widening Gyre
During that same academic year as the Virginia Tech shooting, Facebook had earlier experienced another fundamental change. In just under four years, Mark Zuckerburg’s company had “graduated” from college. Facebook was in the process of moving beyond the walls of the university into the real world. In a short time, the site changed from an environment for college kids to an environment for all. As Zuckerburg put it, he aimed to create a map of human connections around the world the way cartographers had mapped unexplored lands centuries before. Over the course of one year, Facebook had opened a series of floodgates, the first of which extended the site to high school networks and the last of which extended the site to anyone at least thirteen years of age. To the surprise of many, Facebook found its largest market among not teenagers but their mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers.
At that time, the New York Times ran a story about the creepiness of old folks on Facebook. The article describes a female college student whose mother had friended a young woman online. The girl explained to her mother, “You have to tell your friend you’re forty because that’s creepy on Facebook.” Facebook’s adoption by older generations was awkward and embarrassing at the outset. Seeing parents engage with their children’s new toy looked too much like midlife crisis. But even though Millenials had already been redubbed “the Facebook Generation,” it quickly became clear that Facebook was for everyone. Suddenly multigenerational, “The Social Network” began to resemble a real society. Today it’s no longer remarkable that fifty-, sixty- and seventy-somethings use the site. Still, it is surprising to learn that the average Facebook user is now forty-one. In just over five years, Facebook’s average user has aged more than twenty years.
Now that the average user is middle-aged, death on Facebook has started to look more like death in the real world. Given his advancing age, the average user’s leading causes of death also have changed. They’ve begun to align, though not completely, with the nation’s overall leading causes of death. For Joe Facebook, heart disease has become a greater threat than suicides or murders. His largest threat is no longer accidents; it’s cancer. Facebook’s death rate—at twenty-five deaths for every 10,000 individuals each year—is now three times higher than that of college students. So, of Facebook’s one billion users, we can estimate very conservatively that .0025 percent of them will die by today’s date next year. That’s 2.5 million people—as many as live in major cities like Paris or Philadelphia. Although this is a staggering number, the small percentage (a quarter of one hundredth percent!) reminds us that it is still a very low rate. Forty-one-year-olds are still young, after all, so Facebook’s death rates will continue to rise each year as users mature and grow more susceptible to other leading causes such as strokes and diabetes. In this way, little by little each year, social media will more accurately reflect social ills, and in real time.
As Facebook’s population grows, it’s more common to hear people speak of Facebook as a nation. Now at one billion, the Facebook nation ranks third in population behind only China and India. Facebook is three times as large as the next country on the list, the USA. Thinking of Facebook as a nation is a worthwhile tool—since so many people already speak of it this way—but it isn’t utilized nearly well enough. There are other statistics we use to measure nations that suggest the quality of life of their citizens and reveal a nation’s vital stats. Considering population is a good start—after all, there’s much in that word. Facebook’s clientele really is more like a “population” than a mere “demographic.” Its users now encompass all ages, classes and races. But ordinarily we stop there.
Looking beyond population to Facebook’s “birth rate” is telling, for example. Although Facebook continuously grows deeper into our lives, it’s a little-known fact that Facebook’s population is actually leveling out. In 2012, the website’s growth was reported at its lowest recorded rate. Last June, it experienced an actual drop in its population in America. At one billion, Facebook has attracted just about everyone it can attract. For further growth, or even to sustain its current numbers, Facebook will increasingly rely on being able to attract new users who are just coming of age.
To Facebook’s great displeasure, then, it’s the oldest crowd that immigrates to the site at the highest rate. According to Nielsen, Facebook’s fifty and older demographic—which, of course, has the highest death rate—is growing at a rate that’s double the website’s total growth. As the website transforms into a country for old men (and women)—and dead ones—it will have greater trouble attracting the youth that it needs to sustain its population. So as Facebook ages rapidly, we can expect it to be still more difficult for it to find young users to replace the dying ones. And if it can’t, Facebook will stagnate very quickly into a book of the dead.
The likelihood of this prospect is supported by a glance at Facebook’s death rate (another population statistic worth looking at), which is climbing sharply. With about .0025 percent of its population dying each year (as I’ve already mentioned), Facebook’s current death rate is fantastically and unsustainably low. By comparison, the USA has a death rate about average for a developed country, about .0085 percent per year. (Perhaps it’s even on the low side—Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Germany, Greece and Austria all have death rates higher than .01 percent per year.) In other words, although Facebook’s death rate has already tripled since it left college, we can fully expect it to triple or quadruple yet again as its age spread continues to fan out, looking more and more like that of a normal population. So, to understand Facebook as a nation is to understand a six- or sevenfold increase in death rate as a plague. The most important difference between a nation and Facebook will become painfully clear: on Facebook, the dead never go away.
Facebook’s situation presents a population paradox: Even though its death rate outpaces its growth, its total population will only rise and rise—a situation experienced by no nation except ever-crowding heaven and hell. Although this situation obviously poses significant coding problems, it presents theological problems that affect Facebook more deeply. Mark Zuckerburg will have to decide, as only God knows, What happens to us when we die
Designing for Death
Unable to distinguish the living from the dead by any technological means, Facebook relies on users to notify them of dead friends so they may be properly memorialized rather than appearing simply to lie where they fall. Facebook has experimented with automated methods of finding out who’s dead—such as word triggers related to bereavement—but no technical solution has shown much promise so far. The low-tech solution proves still to be the best one.
But even two years after Virginia Tech, Facebook had not made any public statement about its “memorialization” policy. Therefore, most users had no idea of their responsibility to alert Facebook to dead users. For more than two years following Virginia Tech, countless users must have died (probably more than three million), but the vast majority went unmemorialized, simply receding into Facebook’s dark corners, out of sight and out of mind. This arrangement seems to have been fine with Facebook—it continued not to make any public statement to promote memorialization. As long as no one protested, Facebook had little reason to draw attention to a potentially upsetting topic. During this two-year period after the Virginia Tech massacre, the situation must have appeared to Facebook to be under control.
In October 2009, however, Facebook introduced its new “suggestions” feature, which intended to create more connections between users but had the unforeseen effect of making it very visible just how many users had died and gone unmemorialized. The algorithm behind the Suggestions feature identified unconnected users with large numbers of mutual friends, a situation that suggests two users may know each other in the real world. The ultimate motivations of this matchmaking feature focused on less active users and prodded them into more engagement with the site. But targeting these most inactive users, the feature had the unintended consequence of rousing the dead from their hiding places. Facebook might suggest you “Get back in touch with Sean!” and there would be deceased Sean’s face. These encounters were all the more haunting because Facebook launched the new feature just days before Halloween, so pictures of dead friends were conjured up beside other pictures of carved-up jack-o’-lanterns and living friends dressed as ghouls and zombies.
The public responded with a backlash commensurate with their horror. Within days, Facebook decided finally to make its first public statement about memorialization. The message, however, read like a rebuke and emphasized that it was the public’s responsibility to alert Facebook to dead users.
We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those who are no longer with them, which is why it’s important when someone passes away that their friends or family contact Facebook to request that a profile be memorialized … By memorializing the account of someone who has passed away, people will no longer see that person appear in their Suggestions.
Although the policy had been in effect for two years, the Great Halloween Fiasco made it clear that the public hadn’t known about memorialization. Ghosts had appeared all over Facebook because users hadn’t known their responsibility to alert Facebook to dead users, a direct result of Facebook’s reluctance to publicize its problem. Even major news sources, including CNET, mistook Facebook’s statement for the introduction of a brand-new policy. The Telegraph ran a story titled “Facebook Introduces ‘Memorial’ Pages to Prevent Alerts About Dead Members,” unaware that these pages had existed ever since Virginia Tech. Time magazine’s Dan Fletcher was possibly the only journalist to correctly report that the policy was not new.
Now Facebook has been publicizing its policy for several years, but all indications show that the public is still largely unaware of “memorialization” and their role in it. Articles regularly appear in magazines and newspapers alerting us to all the ways this or that new feature Facebook has recently introduced seems to animate the unmemorialized dead. For example, there is the torment of birthday reminders of loved ones, whose artificially increasing ages provoke annual occasions for painful what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Facebook’s chat feature is also affected. A good friend of mine who passed away last year eternally shows up on my chat list but is perpetually “unable for chat,” as Facebook puts it.
Facebook is right that all these problems would be alleviated if profiles were memorialized. And to be fair, Facebook has made the process very easy. Any friend of the deceased, no matter how obscure the offline relationship, can initiate the memorialization process. Facebook’s one-page form requires only a link to the profile in question and another link to an obituary or any article reporting the user’s death. The process may even be easy to a fault. With a little effort, mischievous users can dupe Facebook and “send their friends down the digital river Styx,” as Times‘s Dan Fletcher reported. This sort of mistake (or mischief) happens often enough that it is prominently addressed on Facebook’s help pages: “If you are unable to access your personal account because it is in a special memorialized state, please contact us.” These help pages that refer to memorialization are characterized by the same insistence that users have been given ample tools to solve these problems and that the responsibility lies with users to mitigate their own distress. Describing an important limitation of its face-recognition software, which assists users in tagging friends in pictures, the help page announces regretfully: “Unfortunately, we do not have the technical ability to determine whether the person shown in the photo is deceased,” adding as a corrective, “As always, you have the option to delete any photo that you have uploaded to Facebook.”
The language of Facebook’s current help page reveals its frustration that the problems continue even after years of messaging about memorialization. And the frustration is understandable. Why do so many profiles still go unmemorialized, like every one of my own late friends? Two explanations are available. Either Facebook’s efforts to publicize its policy haven’t worked, or else the public is resisting. Probably it’s a lot of both. That is, most users haven’t considered the problem, and those who have don’t like their choices.
Craig Alberghine, whose son Vincent died in a canoe accident in December 2011, has given a voice to those who find the policy excessively forceful and/or lacking. When Vincent’s profile was memorialized in 2012 without his prompting or his permission, Alberghine created a petition against Facebook’s memorialization process. The petition argues that Facebook’s universal policy is too blunt and fails to consider that individuals might have different preferences regarding the preservation or disposal of their digital remains. Alberghine and his family were troubled that the outpouring of condolences and tributes on Vincent’s memorialized page could only be viewed by his Facebook friends. Therefore, even close members of Vincent’s family who had created Facebook profiles after Vincent’s death were barred from participating in his online memorial. Photo albums containing pictures of Vincent were also out of some family members’ reach. And they couldn’t write posts or even read the eulogies that others posted to his wall.
Mr. Alberghine’s petition has garnered support around the globe. One signee from California expresses a sentiment shared by many: “I want to memorialize a friend on FB but not shut out friends/family not on her friends list. FB’s current policy needs to be changed!” Other signees express that Facebook’s policy is too limited in other ways. Many would like their own profiles to be viewable by the public after their deaths, but this isn’t an option. Facebook will process “certain” special requests, including requests to delete a deceased user’s profile. But these special accommodations do not include leaving the profile willfully unmemorialized, nor do they include the option of delegating control of a profile to the next of kin. Whatever special requests are granted require “proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased or his/her estate.” Additionally, you must upload a death certificate and (for some reason) a birth certificate of the deceased. (I would have thought a death certificate alone would be sufficient proof of birth.)
So the public has a complicated relationship with the dead online: we protest Facebook to let us keep their memories alive, but then we’re disturbed by their appearance online. From all angles, death is unsatisfactory. No matter how the dead may trouble us, it seems their natural right to exist online. Amy Fought, a medical student at Virginia Tech at the time of the shooting, lost her son Blake to a hospital medical error in March 2007. Therefore, Blake’s profile was among those deleted before Facebook changed its policy in early May. “I begged them,” said Ms. Fought. “You’re tearing me apart. I just lost my son, and now you’re taking another piece of him away from me.”
For now, Facebook faces alone the arduous task of creating new rites and rituals surrounding death for the digital era. “I’m sure that our policies will continue to evolve,” said Ms. Barker in her 2007 USA Today interview following the Virginia Tech shooting. “Oftentimes we rely on our users to help educate us and to understand what the right thing to do is.”
As Facebook knows, a digital world raises new problems. To be sure, Facebook made a mistake not considering enough the mortality of those who would use their product. But to be fair, when have inventors or designers ever had to before? Think of other classic American brands—Ford or Coca-Cola, for example—whose products are not so intimately linked with their customers’ fates. Cokes and cars are disposable or easily transferable after death. But Facebook, whose product is your own identity, deals in an individualized item that’s nontransferable after death. A Facebook profile is like nothing else but a tomb—except that tombs are created with death in mind.
Death in Public
In its clumsy, ad hoc way, Facebook has brought death back into the public sphere in a way death hasn’t been for more than 100 years. But while death might be more visible in our young century, it is still more abstract than ever. Online rituals proceed entirely without regard to the body, which is now more likely to be cremated than it was twenty years ago (still more evidence of death’s disembodiment). The improvised memorial services taking place on a deceased person’s Facebook page have effectively replaced “viewings” of corpses, another tradition that has fallen out of favor during the last century’s abstraction of death.
But again, the public responses to death that take place on Facebook are clumsy and ad hoc. These new traditions have little to do with Facebook’s design and everything to do with users’ ability to improvise new rituals for death in the twenty-first century, often working in spite of or against Facebook’s memorialization policy. Over five years after Virginia Tech, Facebook hasn’t yet made adequate accommodations for its users’ mortality. Though natural and inevitable, death seems still to be regarded as abnormal and exceptional by Facebook’s programmers, who should understand—in light of the deaths of nearly three million users this year—that death is a common human passage.
Death is a problem not only for Facebook but also for all the major landmarks of the Internet landscape: Google, Twitter, Amazon and Yahoo, the last of these being the only company in that list to include a death clause in its “terms of service.” Though the U.S. government encourages every citizen to create a “social media will,” the concept of digital executors is a legal gray area generally not recognized by law. Only one state, Oklahoma, has passed legislation allowing one’s legal executor to lawfully access one’s online accounts. And even for Oklahomans, to bequeath your Flickr password to your next of kin, for example, is technically illegal—as it violates Yahoo’s terms of service contract. Though criminal, it is currently the only way to preserve your online photo albums after death. Across the pond, Europe’s highest courts are currently hearing important cases regarding le droit à l’oubli—or the “right of oblivion”—that will decide the extent to which individuals determine the fate of their online identities. More broadly, the legislation will help the world determine what it means to “be online” and whether one can ever leave the Internet once one steps foot inside.
Our “Internet culture” will earn its name only when users and developers (and lawyers, philosophers, theologians) come together to ask these questions. Culture can’t escape online without expecting death to follow. The degree to which the off- and online worlds still remain to be integrated is evident in the cultural richness of one of these realms and the superficiality of the other. Meanwhile, until death is allowed to exist naturally online, the Internet will grow more plagued by the problem of our mortality, making it richer, stranger and more complex. The Internet will become more like real life and lose much of its allure.
Alexander Landfair’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, The Boston Review and The Spoon River Poetry Review. He lives in New York, where he is assistant director of the Writing Center at Columbia University.
Poetry Feature: Rose McLarney
Featuring the Poems:
- How History Would Have It
Poetry Feature: James Davis May
Featuring the Poems:
- A Lasting Sickness
- Portrait of the Self as Skunk Cabbage
- Someone Takes a Pine Tree Apart
- Critique and Rebuttal
- Smerdyakov with a Guitar
City of Mary
Simon started to tell Anny about the suitcase, but then they were stopped in the street by the Holy Mother carried on the shoulders of twenty men. Every old church in Seville had an icon, and Simon knew that the icons were carried around the city during the springtime Feria, but it was a surprise to meet one on a mid-December evening. Men in red velvet robes embroidered with gold led the procession carrying tall elaborate silver staves topped with crosses and candles. Members of the church came behind in a silent crowd. Then more men in robes. More candles. Censers thickly smoking. Boys in brown tunics like friars. More candles. Then a platform upheld by ten men on each side, with a life-size Virgin kneeling atop in ornate regalia.
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The notion of transcendence is by definition paradoxical. The Latin transcendo means to climb above or pass over, which begs the obvious question: rise above or get beyond what? However the word is used—whether in reference to religion, philosophy or literature—it is associated with its opposite, the immanent world with all its failures and blessings.
The Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau borrowed much from German philosophy, Swedenborgian Idealism and English Romanticism. Yet on a simple and practical level it represented the first important flowering of literary emancipation in a recently formed nation. At least among a certain group, the Boston of the 1830s offered a new openness and sense of hope. “We will walk on our own feet, we will work with our own hands, we will speak our own minds,” said Emerson in “American Scholar.” He concludes the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness based on idealist philosophy.
The Transcendentalists were among the earliest Americans to have been born on the other side of two centuries of religious constraint, political turmoil and financial scarcity. It is no insult to say that they were the first generation to have the luxury of being as hopeful about human experience and literature as their immediate forbears had been about politics. They sought to rise from the drudgery of ordinary life through a new attunement of the human mind to all of Nature. By opening oneself to that powerful and mysterious dominion we could “build therefore” our own world.
American Transcendentalism was both derivative of the English Romantics and German Idealists and at the same time thoroughly rooted in its own time and place. It is no accident that it was born in the place where the American Revolution had been conceived, summoning a second revolution in which the power of the mind might exceed the stifling conditions of the mundane. This is of course a very old dichotomy—older surely than recorded thought. It is part of the urge that decorated Neolithic cave walls as well as a key impetus of religion. In literature, philosophy, art and religion, the transcendental impulse suggests the mystery and power of a larger world as well as orders of meaning that we can participate in but not fully understand. It also calls for there being a gap between the known and the great unknown which can infer a sublime sense of wonder. Yet the desire to rise above or pass beyond, in whatever form it takes, comes from and in some sense contemplates its opposite–the ensnarement, predicament and mortal quagmire of normal human existence.
The old split between the known and the unknown is reflected today in scientific discussions about the human mind. Called the last frontier because of how little is understood despite recent advances, neurological theory falls generally into two camps. One holds that it is only a matter of time before we have the brain dissected, understood and perhaps even replicated through artificial intelligence. The scientists directing the President’s new Brain Initiative hope for this, although they are quite frank about how little we know about the brain at present. The other side believes that no matter how much neural mapping we do, for reasons biological and also ontological, we will never fully comprehend the human mind. The brain contains some hundred billion neurons connected in ways that are currently little understood. Also, the brain is more flexible than it was even recently assumed it to be. Regardless of which side is closer to the truth, few disagree with neurologist David Eagleman, who compares human consciousness and the full mind to “a stowaway on a transatlantic steam ship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.”
Fiction in this issue includes Alan Rossi’s story “Unmoving like a Mighty River Stilled” about a group of men who have sought sublime experience for years through extreme climbing and parachuting. The protagonist, Kieran, feels that the group has become too addicted to talk and publicity and as a result has lost interest in the “thing itself.” Their quest for hazardous adventure reaches a scary climax as they climb through a snowstorm to make one last dangerous jump. Alex Taylor’s “The Blood Old and Strong” is another harrowing tale. Waldreve, an aging patriarch and cattle farmer, is a bit feral and intolerant of any weakness, particularly what he sees in his sons’ suburban lives. Perceiving himself as having “blood old and strong,” he seeks one last prise de fer with a chosen enemy, a virtually supernaturally alpha male coyote that his sons have trapped but which rises above all traps.
Nick Arvin’s “City of Mary” describes Simon, a husband and father of one grown son who is doing research in Seville, while his wife, Anny, who has come along on the trip, is unhappy with the place and apparently no longer very committed to their marriage. Simon, while witnessing a celebration of the Virgin Mary, thinks about his own ideas of religion, which hover between agnosticism and atheism. Yet in the course of the story he experiences not one but three remarkable experiences, which incite his amazement at the paradox of life and death, as well as his sense that things are far less knowable and predictable than they appear.
In Jane Gillette’s remarkable story “Visiting,” Judith and Alicia have been friends since childhood. Alicia, wife of an Episcopal priest, is dying of cancer, and Judith goes, guiltily, to visit her in the hospice. She remembers hearing that “Jesus commands us to visit the sick and pray for them when they die,” and though she’s shaky in her feelings about religion, she feels a moral imperative. To make Alicia happy, she fabricates an anecdotal tale about an impromptu affair with a man who’s engaged and who she vividly and believably describes as the best lover she has ever had. Alicia is captivated, while Judith is still a bit guilty for creating such a fiction, yet the story’s conclusion takes both the incident and narrator a step beyond in suggesting the power and even exigency of creating the perfect story.
The poems in Claudia Emerson’s “Infusion Suite” also concern a person facing mortality, as they depict the dreadful but humanizing experience of chemotherapy. James Davis May’s poems speak with a candid and yet strong sense of faith in nature, love and art, weighed against what “shouldn’t fall but will.” Rose McLarney’s new poems are obsessed with the problems of representation and the institutionalized illusions of unity and mastery. McLarney is charmingly distrustful of our usual “familiar, comforting likening.” She seeks to challenge the standard division between the personal and historical, passion and intellect, by speaking just to the side of what we have been taught to say and in some way finding a more authentic voice.
Joe Miller’s essay “The Black Saint and the Best-selling Writer” describes his effort to write a book about American Pentecostalism in the wake of publishing a best-selling book of nonfiction. As his subject, he settles on a black single mother, Jackie Story, member of a Kansas City Assemblies of God congregation. Jackie, along with many of her chuch members, is trying to beat poverty and get “easy money” through a church-sanctioned sales endeavor that’s virtually a Ponzi scheme. Miller is sympathetic toward Jackie, whose belief seems real enough, but who is misguided and taken in , along with a lot of others ,by the hope for an easier life. It’s an ironic look at religion and how seeking some kind of transcendence can be co-opted by opportunists for profit. Alexander Landfair’s culturally smart and funny essay “Facebook of the Dead” points to what the author sees as a rather notable difference between virtual existence and real life: the virtual world hasn’t yet figured out how to dispose of the dead. He writes, “Death’s un-fixedness online suggests we don’t quite yet live in an Internet culture . . . and we won’t until social media accommodates the whole of human life, of which death is a fundamental part.”
In her feature “Darkroom Alchemy: The Photographic Art of Studio Manassé,” Kristine Somerville delves into the work of husband-and-wife photographic team Olga and Adorján Wlassics, a cosmopolitan Viennese couple who in the 1920s and ’30s supplied commercial magazines throughout Europe both with sublime female images and with “photographic jokes” such as diminutive naked women being fished with a silver teaspoon from a china cup, smiling sweetly from behind the bars of a mouse cage or standing alongside a neat line of cigarettes in a gold, monogramed case. The couple’s unique cinematic styling and darkroom techniques made them popular with stage and screen stars, and their photographs populated the pages of fan the magazines of the day.
In Jason Koo’s interview with Dorothea Lasky, the poet talks about her idea of self in poetry: “This self I’m talking about is very different from the self that is tied up in the identity of the everyday.” She describes it as not a “body, or identity in that particular sense” but a “self [that] pushes through time and space in a way we can’t perceive” as well as a “wildness beyond” even when times are rough.
Unmoving like a Mighty River Stilled
Blake’s SUV wound along the highway, and in the distance the Sierra rose gray and snow-specked against the horizon. Blake was driving, rarely watching the road, and talking about the new helmet camera he had bought. Kieran sat in the backseat and watched the back of Blake’s long, ponytailed red hair, wondering if Blake noticed how often he was correcting for left of center, while Blake continued talking about the helmet cam, his head bobbing while he spoke. Kieran occasionally glanced at the back of Ian’s head, shotgun, a clean-shaved-bald head, to see how he was responding to Blake, if he was as annoyed as Kieran. He didn’t think Ian was. Blake was going to use the helmet cam on the climb up the Dome, he was saying, correcting left of center, and then hop into a canyon right behind Kieran with the helmet cam on to record the entire thing, POV. Ian could take the pics, but Blake wanted to hear the fear, is how he put it.
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