afterlife & death in a digital age

afterlife & death

afterlife & death

in a digital age

in a digital age

1 day seminar at the National University of Singapore (NUS): Saturday 17th April 2010

What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?
One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.
What remains of Tomas?
An inscription reading he wanted the kingdom of god on earth.
What remains of Beethoven?
A frown, an improbable mane, and a sombre voice intoning "Es muss sein!"
What remains of Franz? An inscription reading a return after long wanderings.
And so on an so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
Kundera, 1984


As emergent technologies increasingly pervade people’s lives they are also increasingly a part of dying and of hopes and illusions of immortality and possible afterlife. These technologies can even form part of actual deaths. Facebook and MySpace pages are transformed from a viscous, ‘living’ portrayal of self in restless personal social networks to digital memorials and components in more inert structures for someone who was. Online virtual worlds are transformed into communities of the living and the dead in which new mourning rituals are developed and new death cults invented with digital sarcophagi and special capsules for eternity becoming applications of distributed computing and examples of other Internet developments and trends. For example, digital photographs and video clips not only document and represent life but also become a way to remember, commemorate, preserve and define various forms of digital immortality. As we hurl out personal digital fragments (Plummer, 1983) through text messages, Web pages, social networking sites, blog comments and so on, we feed a digital doppelgänger, forming an identity that promises to linger through these shards of ourselves. However, as bodies decay and decompose after death, so do these digital fragments of the deceased slowly ossify and become fixed yet fragmentary traces of the life that once was, uncanny shades of the living in a digital underworld that is often out of centralised control, like ghosts haunting the living. These “digital life documents” are not only dependent on the producer and their immediate connections but also become supportive of connections that remain after the producer is no longer alive, part of larger ecologies of interests and exchanges where rules and customs are still evolving. They move from being part of the milieu of simultaneity (Jaureguiberry, 2000) to the property of history and “glacial time” (Urry, 2000).

As people spend more time at keyboards, there’s less being stored away in dusty attics for family and friends to hang on to…The pieces of our lives that we put online can feel as eternal as the Internet itself, but what happens to our virtual identity after we die?
Faure, 1984

Attention has recently turned to how social networking sites can become a form of memorial and how emergent technologies can define some new forms of immortality and afterlife (Fletcher, 2009; Faure, 2009; Kera, 2009; van den Hooven, 2008). Indeed, the care with which certain service providers have articulated their policy and the problems and criticisms they have faced (e.g. Faure, 2009) illustrates the currency of the themes we wish to address in this workshop. However, there is a certain irony in the most fleeting and ephemeral that can be produced and published so easily subjected to whims, stolen or fabricated to deceive becoming the most lasting projection of self and, like a physical cadaver, being subject to rules and rites, display and burial, preservation and decay, reuse and oblivion. Despite this irony there is, as in demonstrated by the quotation above, something of a temptation to apply what we know of the analogue world to the digital and argue, as with paper and offices (Sellen and Harper, 2002), that digital media will simply replace the physical stuff of rituals, ceremonies and ongoing remembering.

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Our interests in this workshop extend beyond issues of remembering and commemoration to include:

Some questions we wish to address through this workshop include (but are not restricted to):

These issues promise not only to stretch our analytical approaches and tools but also our methods, methodologies and ethical frameworks.

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Please submit a 300 word abstract describing what you propose to present and discuss. We will require successful authors to submit an extended abstract of no longer than 2 pages in length that should conform with the CHI extended abstracts format before the seminar. Please submit all abstracts to Connor Graham: onecalledconnor [at] gmail [dot] com.

Appropriate submissions include:

The 300 word abstract should clearly describe the nature of the work to be discussed, the kind of submission it is (e.g. initial report from the field) and how the work relates to the seminar themes. Extended abstracts should develop this further and include points for discussion after the presentation and any references participants should read before the seminar (3-4 will be sufficient). The extended abstracts and a reference list will be made available to all participants before the seminar.

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Please submit your abstract on or before 1st March 2010. We will indicate the acceptability of your abstract before 5th March and provide brief feedback by 19th March. Extended versions of abstracts should be submitted before 2nd April.

The seminar is free to attend we will provide refreshments (e.g. coffee) on the day. More information is available from the the 'details' page.

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Faure, G. (2009). August 18, 2009. How to Manage Your Online Life When You're Dead. Available online [,8599,1916317,00.html]. Accessed November 2009.

Fletcher, D. (2009). What Happens to Your Facebook After You Die? Time. October 28, 2009. Available online [,8599,1932803,00.html ]. Accessed November 2009.

Jaureguiberry, F. Mobile Telecommunications and the Management of Time. Social Science Information (Information sur les Sciences Sociales). 2000; 39(2): 255–268

Kera, D. (2009). Death and Apocalypse in Emergent Art and Design Practices: Between Technological Sentimentality and Posthuman Experience.

Kundera, M. (1984). The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc.

Plummer, K. Documents of Life: An Introduction to the Problems and Literature of a Humanistic Method. London: Allen & Unwin; 1983

Sellen, A., & Harper, R. H. R. (2002). The Myth of the Paperless Office. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

van den Hoven, E., Smeenk, W., Bilsen, H., Zimmermann, R., de Waart, S., and van Turnhout, K. (2008) Communicating Commemoration. In Graham, C. and Rouncefield, M. (2008) Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Social Interaction and Mundane Technologies (SIMTech’08). Lancaster University.

Urry, J. (2000). Sociology beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century, London: Routledge.


This seminar is supported by the following National University of Singapore groups: the Science Technology & Society Cluster, the Asia Research Institute and Communications and New Media. The following National University of Singapore research project within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is funding this project: "The Use Of Geoweb Applications and the Mobile Internet For Environmental and Heritage Sites". This research is exploring the liminal space and time that occurs in the interaction between physical location and information, individual experience and global knowledge, everyday situations and timeless archives. The goal is to integrate various technologies in the creation of a natural interface to the cultural and environmental past enabling users to discover and build personal knowledge and relationship to their environment. This integration animates and revives what is hidden and forgotten and transforms the technology into a time machine.

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