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Culture, Reality

Ghost in the Machine

by Nolan Stevens / Illustration by Colwyn Thomas / 25.02.2013

Warning: This piece is going to be a little heavy. Something happened towards the end of 2012 that left my social circle in disarray. A mate passed away. Whilst having to deal with any death is at best difficult, for the first time I was confronted with the compounded complexity of having to deal with a loss of someone twice. The second, being the death of the virtual existence. My mates and I were in a state of flux at what the appropriate response was when dealing with Simphiwe’s virtual death, after all most of us had heard of her passing; funeral arrangements and so on, via posts on her Facebook page. There was for some of us, and particularly for me, something ghoulish about tagged photographs, updates and other random posts from Simphiwe emerging after her passing. I am still unsure if it would be appropriate to just delete her profile. It seems an undignified way to do a way with a life in a sense. And for many, the Facebook profile of the departed can become a living, breathing online shrine to that person. A nexus point for a group of friends and family’s memories and mourning. But to the friends of friends, the acquaintances and the Facebook friends, it can be a little disconcerting to see that so-and-so has just been tagged in a post or image when you know they died more than a few years back…

The truth of the matter is that death; least of which the death of our virtual lives, is something we do not ever give much thought to. Largely because, for most of us, it is too much of a downer.

So due to this, our in-built downer avoidance mechanism, the finer details surrounding our virtual deaths remain largely ambiguous and undecided upon. However, dead friends on the internet are fast becoming a reality that most of us are finding increasingly difficult to ignore, and to deal with. Gone are the days of taking solace in the everlasting nature of cyberspace. This need to sort things out before we kick that virtual bucket, has prompted the emergence of start ups the likes of Legacy Locker; who promise to manage the details of your digital death this includes the storing of various passwords and your wishes for who gets what. This previously untapped market is growing at such an alarming rate that in 2012 over 20 000 people in the US had reportedly signed up for ‘digital estate management’. The continual growth of this industry has recently seen the development of an entire Swiss Bank division (DSwiss) dedicated to ‘information assets’ like your pins, passwords, Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Our second lives in cyberspace have truly become more than just binary coded sequences on a screen, but have evolved (or is that mimicked us) into something far more lifelike. When that happened? I’m not sure. But I am not sure if South Africans, with our incredibly fast take-up of smart phones, are ready to have to grapple with the concept of a digital will. I do think however, that if we were better prepared for Simphiwe’s digital passing, we wouldn’t have had to keep an eye on her social network pages waiting for some form of message from the ghost in the machine, or its proxy behind the keyboard.

*Illustration © Colwyn Thomas.

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