“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” — Peter Steiner, New Yorker cartoon
Call me cyber-morbid, but few things intrigue me more than death, the Internet, and the increasingly confusing intersection thereof.
Maybe because it’s 2011, which feels more like the future than anything Marty McFly ever visited, and because our identities are increasingly constructed and disseminated and perceived in a wholly online universe (and no, I’m not just talking about Facebook, although yes, I am definitely talking about Facebook), and because I’m a blogger and—well, what will happen to my Last.fm profile and my emails and the forums I’ve posted on and, um, this blog post if I die tomorrow? In short: if a double-decker bus crashes into us, who, if anyone, will manage my “online estate”? To blog by your side: such a heavenly way to not die.
Such is the subject of Rob Walker’s cover story for The New York Times Magazine this week, which, entitled “Cyberspace When You’re Dead,” provides a rich glimpse at what one site has dubbed “The Digital Beyond”: the varied ways in which more and more Americans are taking the time and thought to manage what happens to their online identities—passwords, tweets, blog posts, whatever—after death, appointing “digital executors” and signing up for digital estate-management services like Legacy Locker. And there’s a lot of “digital litter” to be managed.
From this fascinating array of anecdotes the story eventually arrives at the alluring if somewhat horrifying notion of a “cybersoul”:
[…] cyberspace had become a new kind of place, where alternate (or at least carefully curated or burnished) identities could be forged, new forms of collectivity and connection explored, all outside the familiar boundaries of the physical world, like the body and geography. It’s not such a long journey to follow those assertions to the “view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body but by an information code,” as Wertheim wrote. “This is the belief that our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” She called this idea the “cybersoul,” a “posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die.”
It’s a weirdly tempting idea, I think—”life’s essence reduced to captured data”—but Walker ultimately finds it as problematic as I do to posit that your worldly essence lies less in your bodily existence than in your douchey ACB posts.
You can (and should) read the whole story here (you’ll probably have to register at NYTimes.com, which is free); and if, when you’re done with that, you’re still starved for compelling and fascinating if a bit heavy-handed features analyses of web culture, check out “Internet as Social Movement: A Brief History of Webism”—an excellent n+1 article I discovered today, which, as its title suggests, posits that the digital revolution is less a technological concern than a revolutionary social movement comparable in sweeping scope and democratization to the Russian Revolution. It even quotes Wesleyan alumnus and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow ’69 in the process.