I know you were expecting a Part 2 for Remember Me: Human Revolution, and you’re going to get it. But, not today, and, you’ll shortly understand why. You see, among the things stewing in my brain is an ongoing fascination with our digital lives. There are so many aspects to it that aren’t readily apparent. For instance: a lot of the things we say hang around longer than we realize. Pictures we put up, videos we up-load. Comments we make. At one point, I almost lost a job over a frustrated post about bureaucracy in the work-place. Many people have lost jobs because of the aforementioned. There are many famous cases, you can look them up at your leisure, but just take my word if you’re not privy to it all. (If you want phrases to Google, go with “teacher fired for” or “woman fired for” and you’ll find your controversy)
Just the other week, I watched a Twitter snafu develop between two individuals over a new comment on an old, old Tweet. Totally understandable, I’m not here to judge one way or t’other, but I will note that it has to be incredibly jarring having someone comment on something from over three years ago, especially if social media is second nature to you. You get used to just tossing thoughts into the aether when you think they’re worth sharing. So, this situation would be as if you were approached in the street by a stranger and questioned about an off-hand comment you made in a bar one time, word-for-word. I’m not sure if we have any etiquette for that sort of thing, but we might consider starting a conversation about it somewhere. Or, joining in on the on-going one, whatever’s your style.
That right there was going to be the heart of a discussion I was going to post next week about how permanent a lot of the stuff we throw into the annals becomes when computers are involved. There are pictures of me drinking absinthe in a questionably smokey room floating around on-line somewhere. Not incriminating in the least, but if I were to be competing for an important office, you know someone would dig it up. There’s more out there than your voluntarily posted stuff. Google Search Histories, old e-mails, posts in random forums from when you were 14, off-handed remarks from the early days when Godwin’s Law was hammered out… Some of it’s still out there.
We don’t tell children this enough; we don’t tell adults this enough. The internet being a fairly new thing, it’s hard to tell exactly what the long-term ramifications are going to be for our culture and, quite honestly, our very being. How you understand yourself is morphing as you use the internet. Don’t worry, your understanding of yourself morphs all the time, so it’s nothing new. But, it is important that we consider how we’re changing, not just acknowledge that it’s happening.
All this would have been fascinating conversation fodder, but something else came up just last week. A good friend of mine, an incredibly creative, unquestionably kind man, died of a gun-shot wound outside of the town where we met for the first time, many years ago. Now, I have to approach this thing from another direction, because I can’t think of anything else. I’m going to try to keep this light so it can escape the black hole that my heart has become. That’s not to say I don’t have one; it’s just pretty heavy right now. Bah-ZING! Don’t go off on me about density and weight being different things; now’s not the time to look for the truth in puns.
I discovered that this terrible tragedy had occurred via the internet. In fact, we had done most of our interacting through the internet over the past few years. We’d both moved around a lot and only saw each other about once a year. Your standard long-term Facebook Friendship. You know, the people you keep around because they’re too precious to lose, but your life is too insane to comfortably accommodate. I went to his page, because I felt I had to confirm what had happened. It was immediately strange; it held the muted calm of a graveyard in brightly lit text-boxes. It had become a shrine.
The life that my friend had lived had come to pay its respects. Pictures and videos poured in from people that had known him. They posted their favourite memories and said their farewells. It was touching. I kept scrolling, a tear fighting its way through the mounds of cynicism and unreality that were protecting me from realizing that he was actually gone. That is, until I scrolled down far enough to reach his final post. It was a link, posted two days before his death, to an album he’d just uploaded to sendspace. I finally felt his death with his final post, and, yes, that’s the link to the album. Dead men tell no tales, I’ve realized; dead men drop beats.
It made me reflect for a minute on all of the things we leave behind. The great works left for us by fantastic masters of craft. Lives bottled in miniature. Books that let us see with fresh eyes the days long past. Music that sums up swathes of human history. Movies had hold in a suspended mixture the essence of a moment. Games, like SH2, that let me stalk the streets of my fondest memories. Each life leaves something behind, though, even if it never leaves a discernible mark on our social fabric. I know it can be hard feeling heard on this massive planet, but we do have voices. And, now, we all leave echoes.
What happens to our Facebook accounts when we die? How long should they be maintained? Do we pay to preserve them like a memorial in a graveyard? More disturbing… to me, my friend’s life was revealed through an on-line profile that came to represent him. Now, he’s gone, but the profile remains. His life, to me, at least, has left a distinct stamp that I can still access. Everything about it for the last year has been shared with me digitally. All the information about his life and death were represented in a similar manner. I have no proof of that life one way or the other, except his Facebook profile. Which says to me that it’s a pretty important part of life.
How many MySpace pages exist in this fashion? How many memorial pages persist in the annals of Facebook’s digital library? What is Facebook’s responsibility here? What do we do with those pages, as a people? On the one hand, they’re a disturbingly visceral reminder of the past, like having a corpse you can visit from your screen. Unmoving, dead. On the other, it’s alive with the memories of the people who can visit it. Because, when someone has moved on from this life, a digital symbol is as valid a representation as a physical one, albeit, arguably less sacred. Don’t believe me? You have on-line banking, don’t you? You should really get it. Memories locked in vines? True enough for me.
If there’s this much of you left on the internet, the record of your life, and, if the internet can destroy something as fundamental as your livelihood with its digital memory, then we must conclude that the internet, and Facebook in particular, is an integral part of your life. But, it is unlike any other part of your life. It leaves a trail of the changes you make, unless you unmake them. Information that you’ve completely forgotten existed is in an old e-mail somewhere or on a weird back-woods forum. How do we deal with the implications of this? Do we put a statute of limitations on these things? You change a lot in five years, but the words you wrote then are just as fresh and accessible as they’ve ever been. Albeit, inconvenient to find, unless stumbled upon accidentally. Which happens, because internet.
People discover old works by artists that were posted over five years ago, and, if questioned, how should the artist be approached? That’s a long time in a life, really. Hell, when I was 13, I thought I was assembling a harem. As it turns out, I was just cheating on a load of people at once. But, if you questioned me, now that I have a brain more in control than my testicles, I would say that I acted like a complete prick. I can’t go back and change that, or anything that shook out of that, but I’m a better person now. Although, if we’re being 100% honest, I’m going to leave you doubting that that story ever happened. There, that’ll do it. Let’s say it did, though.
If I was doing it on-line, there’d be a record of it. People could come by later, see it for the first time, and judge me all over again. They don’t know me; they haven’t been privy to my life so far. As far as they know, today, I’m a pimp in Paris dealing cards at a mob game. Worse still, what if I was being rhetorical? Or joking? Taken out of context, the Sochi Problems meme seems really arrogant. Just first-world people complaining about first-world problems. What about the people who have to live under these conditions? What about the lives that go on within Russia that have to deal with these problems first-hand. Tainted drinking water isn’t a first-world problem; it’s an everyone problem.
Then, you realize, that that’s the purpose of the Sochi Problems meme. How do you get people to pay attention to something on the internet? You make fun of it. Make it cute, marketable and readily understandable, and hope it catches on. With the attention of the global community focused on Sochi, it was going to catch on. Russia is a country that’s a massive player on the world-stage, and maybe we need to pay it more attention than we have been.
And that’s what I’m kind of doing here. Reminding us to pay attention. My friend was a really good person. To me. To everyone I’ve ever seen him interact with. I don’t know what happened to him exactly. I don’t know what his life has been like for the past few years. All I have are the things I saw and the life I let slip by me. Maybe I should have spent a little more time with him, but that’s a regret we always have. So, I put forth, maybe we should concern ourselves with the physical problems masked by the Sochi Problems. I don’t know; I’m not a politician.
What I do know is that the life we create on-line is non-trivial. Even a punk like me leaves a mark, but what happens when I’m gone? How much of me is even real to you? With over a hundred posts on this site, you could, theoretically, re-live my entire blog for a long time before you ever had to face the fact that I wouldn’t be writing any more. I may be here, right now, typing in a room, but there’s a lot of me out there, too. To you, that might be all I am. Surely, each line is infused with a bit of my essence at the time it is written, but I am not that man any more than I’m still the child who soiled his diapers. What happens when those servers go dead? Do I die with them? No, but what if I’m already gone? Do I live in those pages or just in the memories they evoke? For how long?
Do I die with my history? Does my history die with me? Does silencing my history kill a portion of the living person? If you destroyed my Facebook account, I would be diminished. If you trashed Trivial Punk, I’d lose all I had written down. Those memories would die in your head and in mine. The difference being, those memories are MY history. These are strange questions that we must consider. Or, you could let them pass you by, but they will affect your life. Might as well join in the conversation.
R.I.P. Dear Friend. I’ll see you on the other side.