Authors Note: As always, this is a work in progress and I would love to hear any feed back, comments and especially discussion or criticism of the points raised here, if you loved it or hated it.
The pdf of this article is available here.
P.J.G. Stokes 28 November 2008
The Internet way of Dying
Originally this paper was to be called, To Living and Dying on the internets, using a grammar common among my site of research. However, “living” online is too large a subject for me at the moment. Dying online, massive as it is, can be shrunk to a number of examples for fruitful discussion. What can we safely say about dying online if we haven’t figured out how we live online. Well, it is my intention that through looking at the process and finality of death online will reveal much about how we live online. That is to say, precisely because death has no “finality”, that it is a process, a rite of passage even, that we can explore how one lives online – with out the corresponding “real” or “flesh” life – it becomes apparent how the online dimension “lives” – it reveals the Zeitgeist.
To clarify; this paper looks at the process of dying, being dead and how morning creates a social presence online (just like in the off-line dimensions). As we work through this we will find a precise site of research, we isolate the created, generated, ubiquitously interconnected (aetheral?1) self that we are interested in right now. Albeit a “dead” one. With this in mind we can look at “life” online with more clarity.
Death; flexible taxonomies
Death has a variety of meanings, and just like every other meaning it has morphed through time and across cultures. From various spiritual incarnations, undead states, pre dead states, social death, etc. In the “west” we pretend to take “medical” death as the real time of death. The medical time of death was once when we appeared dead (resulting in scrape marks on the inside of coffin lids when comatose patients awoke only to find themselves underground), to not breathing, to no pulse, to brain death, etc. In reality, death is not a point in time but a social process.
On types of death Dancy and Davis give us the following;
“The first is social death, which represents the symbolic death of the individual in the world he/she has known. For the person dying and for the survivors, socially and interpersonally, the world as it was known begins to shrink. A second type of death is psychological death. This refers to the death of aspects of the dying individual’s personality. How dying persons move through the grieving process and deal with their losses may bring about changes in the person’s personality. [...] Psychological death may precede biological and physiological death and may be one of the several death losses the bereaved suffer. A third type of death is biological death. With biological death, the organism as a human entity no longer exists. [...] Physiological death takes place when there is a cessation of the operation or function of all the vital organs.” (Dancy & Davis 2004)
Further, Trish Williams gives a very candid account of her father’s death;
“I had an unusual “death” experience with my father, who was physically still alive. The unusual thing about my relationship to my father was that I had lost my father, he was “dead” in many respects. He no longer functioned as a father, he did not communicate, I had no response that indicated he even knew who I was. This went on for 11 years. On the other hand, his body was alive, yet I felt that my father had died.” (Williams 2005)
Williams then quotes Doka “We can refer to psychosocial death in those cases in which the psychological essence, individual personality, or self is perceived as dead, though the person physically remains “alive.” (Doka 1989)
Death, in the United States has been chronicled as having some of the strangest practices, from The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford (where this article takes its name) to Jack Hitt’s New York Times article in 2002;
“One reason is that America as a culture has changed how it deals with death publicly, and these changes now inform that specialized architectural structure called a memorial. At some point, America decided that the meaning of a person’s life can be honored only by never forgetting the circumstances of death. Modern memorials invite us to relive the sensations of the dying and the hideous moments for the survivors on first learning of some tragedy [...]One reason is that America as a culture has changed how it deals with death publicly, and these changes now inform that specialized architectural structure called a memorial. At some point, America decided that the meaning of a person’s life can be honored only by never forgetting the circumstances of death. Modern memorials invite us to relive the sensations of the dying and the hideous moments for the survivors on first learning of some tragedy.” (Hitt, 2002)
Taking all of the above perspectives into consideration some interesting insight into death across the techno/media/self scape comes from the following video, then we can relate this whole notion of death to the late Abraham K. Briggs and hopefully shed some light on how it is to live and die on the internet;
Video: Dr. Shirley Steinberg “Culturologist” on MyDeathSpace.com
Note on Abraham K. Briggs Jr
The story of Abraham K. Briggs Jr is shockingly sad, just like all suicides. But what is shocking here is how blunt, how public and how graphic the whole thing is. My condolences to his family and friends. As I have said previously, in no way do I aim to trivialise this topic. I hope that we can learn from this terrible event.2 I followed the CandieJunkie story from early on, as such, there was always a question about the legitimacy of the event – was it a hoax, a “troll job”, a cry for help. I take issue with post-mortem diagnosis so I’ll leave it there. What ever it was, it was fatal. What I am concerned with here is the point at which CandieJunkie was considered dead or if he is indeed dead at all.
The following image was captured from the bodybuilding.com “Misc.” section. This is where CandieJunkie originally posted his intentions and where most people followed the event.
This thread, entitled “CandieJunkie Case Closed. Confirmed Dead”, showed a screen grab of one of Abraham Briggs’ friends Myspace pages. On it here “status” was set to “distraught” and her quote was “r.i.p Abraham, i love you and know you’re in heaven smiling down”. (The red outlines were added to the screen grab by the original poster)
A couple of things can be taken from this. The first is that “proof” was garnered from an “In real life” friend of Abraham’s. The second thing is the point of this article, that the point of death, as anthropologist and sociologists have long been aware, is a social moment.
CandiJunkie died when the connections, links and relationships started to shift towards acceptance of lose. CandieJunkie did not die when he took the pills, he did not die when people watched the cessation of his breathing on webcam, he did not die when the emergency services burst into his room on cam. For those who were connected online, he died when the links fell into place.
The argument for this is that the friend’s myspace was accepted as “true” when everything else up to that point was considered a potential hoax. Importantly, it wouldn’t matter if it was a hoax at that point, once social (socially networked) death had occurred he was dead. Or at least in the process that is death. Arguably Briggs now has more life online, he “lives on” with the massive amounts of links, articles, blog entries, videos, connections, virtual tombstones, etc. that exist for him now.
Only when those start to fade, like the engravings on some ancient tombstone will CandiJunkie be dead – the cessation of online life.
This all relates to how we live online. Our online “lives” (and therefore our “virtual selves”) are made and remade by the connections, the social network, the webs of significance that develop around us. This “virtual” self (as I discuss in previous articles) is just a dimension of our full self and as such feeds into how we live, who we are, in the broadest sense.
Death is always associated with life, living on, new life, rebirth, resurrection, the life cycle, reincarnation, the after life. Virtual death in this instance prolongs virtual life and makes the architecture behind online life explicit to us as researchers. Of course other questions arise;
Why do people need to share their most intimate moments online?
How much of the online social construction affects the whole social self?
Who is in control of our online selves?
And many, many more issues around safety for young people online, mental health and the internet, and what public suicide will do to psyches and selves elsewhere in the world.
Again my condolences for everyone touched by this tragedy.
Benschop, A. 2005 Immortal in the Web
Dancy, Jr. J & Davis, W. 2004 Family and Psycho-Social Dimensions of Death and Dying in African Americans from An intellectual discourse derived from The Last Miles of the Way Home 2004 National Conference to Improve End-of-Life Care for African Americans
Doka, K.J., ed. 1989 Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. New York: Lexington Books
Hitt, J. 2002 Ideas & Trends: Rest in Peace; The American Way of Death Becomes America’s Way of Life The New York Times, August 18 2002
Manet, Édouard 1877-1881 Selbstmörder.
Williams, T. 2005 Losing Tom, A Documentary Film by Trish Williams Death, Dying and Grieving
Dr. Shirley Steinberg “Culturologist” on MyDeathSpace.com
1Aetheral – I use this term to consider the connections through all of human space. Where the hardware is considered ubiquitous (everyware) I am interested in the network that flows through everything. Like the concept of Aether as a medium element aetheral here, for me, refers to the complete interconnection of all people (in my field of research – not my grandmother, but arguably everyone could be included)
2For more on this event please see http://cyberanthropology.wordpress.com/2008/11/20/sets-and-overdose-suicide-and-the-technomediaself-scape/
© 2009 Pearse Stokes