Magazine article Cross Currents

Pixels Perpetual Shine: The Mediation of Illness, Dying, and Death in the Digital Age

Magazine article Cross Currents

Pixels Perpetual Shine: The Mediation of Illness, Dying, and Death in the Digital Age

Article excerpt

"I like to think that something survives after you die," [jobs] said. "It's strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures."

He fell silent for a very long time. "But on the other hand, perhaps it's like an on-off switch," he said. "Click! And you're gone."

Then he paused again and smiled slightly. "Maybe that's why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices."

Walter Isaacson, Steve jobs (1)

I received an email from my mother recently. My sister's birthday was coming up, and my mother had set up a reminder on her email account more than a decade ago that has faithfully let me know a month before each of my siblings' birthdays, presumably so that I can plan in advance to feel guilty should I forget one or another of them anyway. The thing is, my mother died in 2005, so this automated guilt-inducer now has an eerie beyond-the-grave quality that, on the one hand, vaguely creeps me out every time it happens and, on the other, prevents me from blocking "annal121" from my account out of a sentimentality that I cannot quite sort out. I know the email is not really from my mother, and yet I can fully imagine her pecking away at a mystical keyboard in whatever sweet by-and-by she now inhabits.

Such of course is life--and death--in the Digital Age, our identities extended from physical to digital space, from whence we can never fully retrieve or otherwise control them and where they live on long after our own departure. In Your Digital Afterlife, John Romano and Evan Carroll explore the practical implications of the massive quantities of digital information that remains after death. From family photographs to email to financial accounts, Romano and Carroll offer helpful advice about how to protect your "digital legacy." As one might expect, there are now a full range of online sites--Romano and Carroll's perhaps the best known of them--and a growing army of consultants to help secure sensitive personal and financial data, provide a digital trail for one's heirs, and, should it be necessary, delete a porn account. (2)

Putting one's digital affairs in order for the afterlife is certainly all to the good, but it is not the concern that comes to mind every time I get an email from my late mother's apparently eternal Yahoo account. The questions here are more pointedly spiritual, more robustly theological. I am not thinking specifically about mortality, immortality, and the chaos at their intersection that animated the short-lived futuristic series "Caprica" and bedeviled the freakishly undead characters of the BBC's much more successful "Torchwood" science fiction drama. (3) But these popular works, along with the proliferating number of vampire- and zombie-themed television programs and movies, do seem to represent the extremes of a re-mediation of end-of-life illness, dying, death, and bereavement that is increasingly influenced by our participation in social networking communities like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs.

My own, less fantastic questions have been more focused on how new digital media, as they have begun to restructure day-to-day communication practices and, in turn, social relatedness, reform our understanding of modernity's dichotomized relationships between illness and wellness, living and dying, the living and the dead, and the now and the hereafter. If, as I argue in what follows, digital social media are inviting a dissolution of metaphorical and experiential boundaries between these states, what is the attendant effect on Christians' understanding of God's presence in illness, dying, death, and bereavement and on concepts such as "eternity" and "salvation" that are subject to radical restructuring in postmodern, digitally integrated culture?

As much of our everyday life unfolds in social networking sites (SNSs)--nearly 60% of adults in the United States belong to at least one SNS (4)--what death means both to the dying and to those who attend and grieve them is bound to be changed by the experience of living in a time when much of what we know of ourselves and each other is never really, once and for all, gone. …

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