By Magenta Sheridan
After coming in from the cold of Federation Square I was ushered into the dark quiet of ACMI Cinema 1 for my second Melbourne Writers Festival session of the day: ‘Death in the Digital Age’. Radio broadcaster Vanessa Toholka was to lead discussion between Elizabeth Tan, author of the puzzling but brilliant Rubik, Simon Longstaff, executive director of The Ethics Centre, and Michael Arnold, associate professor and head of discipline in the history and philosophy of science program at The University of Melbourne.
I settled into my seat as the session began with a reading from Tan’s novel, Rubik. The book begins with titular character Elena Rubik’s sudden death, how her Facebook friends discover news of her passing, and how they then mourn her passing online. The reading set the tone for the discussion to follow and I began to wonder, as I’m sure most of the audience did, what will I leave behind online when I die?
Granted, at 22 I’m hoping I don’t have to think about this seriously for some time, but I can’t ignore the fact that the online selves we curate will live on long after our biological selves disappear. When the time comes, my online self will likely be more complex and multi-faceted than today, if the current pace of advancement in technology is anything to go by. Discussions such as these will certainly increase in importance over time, coming to shape our personal experiences of death and mourning.
Michael, Simon and Elizabeth went on to discuss the decision-making process that loved ones go through when a family member or friend dies, particularly with regards to their Facebook page. He also mentioned the complexities of passing along his digital assets to his children. Where tapes, records and CDs allow for a music collection to be willed to descendants, how do you pass on a playlist to your children if it is held in a subscription service? Michael’s small granddaughter was in the audience, playing at his feet for much of the session, highlighting the depth of the discussion to him personally.
Michael also spoke about an automated program that, upon failing to confirm by reply email that you are alive every few weeks, will send out pre-written emails to family and friends. The purpose is to pass along information such as location of a will document, passwords to online accounts etc., but ultimately this program allows for a kind of digital haunting. Spooky.
Simon summed up the session well with his comment that ultimately, digital technologies are assisting us to further and further extend the gap between when we die and when we are forgotten. Technologies such as chat-bots that mimic a person’s style of online messaging, and screens built into gravestones to deliver recorded messages, allow for an extended mourning period that is entirely different to past generations.
I emerged into the sunlit, busy atrium after the session and watched the hustle of the festival bookshop: people rushing to buy and then excitedly deliver books to be signed by the authors at the tables outside. Although technology is changing everything, it’s certain that Melbourne in 2017 still appreciates a good flick through the pages of a book, and an inky message and signature from the authors they admire.