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Book review: ‘Online Afterlives’ by Davide Sisto

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Immortality, memory and grief in digital culture.

The idea that you continue to exist digitally after you’ve physically shuffled off this mortal coil is in some respects quite subtle. As anyone who has experienced receiving social media updates from someone you know to be dead can attest, it can be an unnerving experience. This is because in the digital age, there’s another layer to death quite unlike any society has experienced before.

‘Online Afterlives: Immortality, Memory, and Grief in Digital Culture’ (The MIT Press, $19.95, ISBN 9780262539395) is philosopher Davide Sisto’s valiant attempt to explain the phenomenon of cyberspace as the biggest graveyard ever created, in which “countless acres” are taken up by photographs and videos, as well as the thoughts and memories of those that have shared their last status updates. ‘Online Afterlives’ essentially deals with digital ghosts.

But the concept can be quite blunt too, and when Sisto reminds us that while Aristotle, Shakespeare, Mozart and Rembrandt are literally dead “as physical human beings” – a phenomenon he labels “ordinary mortality” – they live on through their creations and we’re left wondering in what sense ‘extraordinary’ mortality in the digital space might be different.

Again, it’s a split decision, because on the one hand there is overwhelming trivialness (screeds of old emails, prescriptions and pdfs), while on the other there is the quite important point (to philosophers at least) that the digital world has somehow shunted the discourse from the embarrassed silence of something that’s ‘not talked about’ to the braying and bragging of the social media pile-on in which every opinion is valid as long as you agree with it.

Put like this, ‘Online Afterlives’ could seem to be a justification of the unimportant and the obvious which, to his credit, Sisto seems to acknowledge from the start. But where he really earns his pay cheque is in his discussion of a macabre sci-fi dystopia that he assures us is really (or nearly) here. Our biological demise may be inevitable, he contends, but there’s no reason why our digital immortality can’t be guaranteed by Facebook tributes, chatbots programmed to speak in the voices of the dead and, just in case all of this isn’t tasteless enough for you, QR codes on your gravestone that will let the pale horseman passing by download your selfies accumulated over a biological lifetime of digital narcissism.

You could also visit websites that publish people’s last tweets, send a WhatsApp message to someone who has died, or instigate a ‘digital cremation’ by ceremonially deactivating the social media accounts of a loved one.

Because we’ll be able to mingle with the departed in cyberspace, Sisto warns that we may find that in future it will be harder to differentiate between the quick and the dead. Which may all sound like nonsense, apart from the fact that anything that gets society to come to terms with mortality – digital or otherwise – will ultimately make us more balanced as humans. Fascinating and eerie.

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