Memorial Walls: Why We’re Never Going To Die Again

Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever heard my grandfather speak.

He appeared out of the blue, as an undistinguished YouTube link in my Facebook inbox: “Brooks Robinson & Nestor Chylak Baseball PSA 1976”. My aunt had passed it along with a note that said “thought you’d find it interesting”, as if it were a stray interview clip from The Daily Show or something. He’s barely on screen for 5 seconds, but for the next hour I could only watch the clip over and over. There he was: Nestor Chylak, talking up Major League Baseball’s umpire benefits and smiling on a sunny day almost 40 years ago. He passed away before I was born, but yesterday I was given the chance to experience something special—a small piece of his life.

While it’s astonishing to me that a video this archaic would be added to the Internet, by modern standards it’s certainly nothing new to see a video of one of your relatives online. As pretty much anybody with a Twitter or Facebook account knows, we live in a culture of over-sharing. The stats speak for themselves:

  • Over 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • Over 500 million tweets are sent every day
  • Over 40 million Instagram photos are shared every day

And it’s growing at an exponential rate. In some ways that’s a frightening proposition, as the public outcry last month to the NSA’s information gathering illustrated how people don’t want to feel like their lives are being tracked. But such a negative reaction seems ignorant when one considers how publicly available we already make ourselves. Look around: our privacy has been long gone for years, and we’re to blame. We create so many data trails with our Internet use that it’s easier than ever to find out in any given moment exactly where someone is, what they’re doing, and what they’re thinking.

It’s even more staggering when you take into account how young the Internet is. We’ve lived at this enhanced level of sharing and online engagement for less than a decade. It’s hard to imagine what our social media profiles will look like in another 20 years, after real life has gotten a chance to play out on an increasing number of screens and platforms. No one really knows when such sharing will reach an endpoint, but it isn’t a terribly off-base assumption to think that eventually almost every real world interaction will have some kind of online analog. Imagine presidential candidates running in the year 2040, men and women whose every social interaction has been recorded for their entire life. They’ll either be the most boring people on the planet or the most brazen, but either way there will be a fundamental change in the way we as voters evaluate politicians. And it’s obviously not limited to politics: news, gossip, finance, romance…it’s all changing as a result of the Internet’s elephant memory.

Yet our newfound ability to catalogue our entire lives online may have its widest ramifications after we’re gone. Most of us have been unlucky enough to have a Facebook friend who’s passed away. (If you haven’t, well, it’s unfortunately just a matter of time.) There’s something incredibly powerful and saddening about going through a deceased person’s social media profile. Every picture, comment, and “like” becomes crushing, recontextualized by the cold reality that the person you’re trying to learn about doesn’t exist anymore. You’re literally picking through the remains, as physical a manifestation of that person’s memory as is possible.

A lot of people (understandably) find a situation like this difficult to deal with, and many social media platforms have the option to close down accounts for people who have passed. Facebook takes it a step further, letting you send a memorialization request so the profile of a friend who died is virtually shut down to everyone but their existing Facebook friends. In this state, their wall becomes a place for memorial messages and communion. But a far greater number of pages go unclaimed, eternally waiting for users who will never log into them again. There’s room for them. As the interconnected computer network known as the Internet continues to grow, we should see more and more evidence that the ones we love haven’t left us, at least on the digital plane. The Internet already accommodates the entire world—a few million digital graveyards won’t take up any space.

There’s something beautiful to the idea that our lives might continue after we’re gone, reveling in a haphazard combination of religion and technology. After all, who doesn’t want to be remembered? In a way, it’s no different from how we’ve always experienced loved ones who have passed, a natural evolution of home movies and Kodak Carousels. But while a single video of my grandfather is wonderful to have, this digital escalation can be hard to comprehend when you’re taking stock of a life. Think of every Vine video you’ve shot or selfie you’ve taken and picture it existing after you’ve died. Because it exists in a non-degradable, non-physical space, it’s almost a certainty that it will. We’re finding ways to live forever, and we don’t even realize it.

Before Friday, I’d been shown pictures of my grandfather and had heard stories about him. I’d tried to gain those little bits of insight into who came before me because it makes up a part of who I am. But the video above, as relatively insignificant as it may seem, is a more direct window than anything I’ve ever experienced. We aren’t prepared to have the dead speak to us. When I watch that video up there and hear Nestor’s voice, I’m reminded of that.

So on one hand, I rejoice at the gift I’ve been given, the wonderful fortune we have to grow up and live in this time. We will never be lost to history the way people from a thousand years ago have been erased, never ripped away by volcanic ash or eroded in the wind. Even our gravestones, the monuments that our society specifically chooses to mark our time on Earth, won’t outlast these digital markers. We’ve found a way to stick around, even while we crumble into dust.

But on the other hand, this seems like one more example of the way the world is not matching up with the way it should be. Maybe we’re not supposed to have our whole lives on display. Maybe every five years, some C++ should wash away our digital footprints, the technological equivalent of finding someone to box up our belongings and put them in the attic. It’s lovely that there will still be something around to remind people of me, but it doesn’t need to be a complete record of my existence. Because the truth is, as much as we might pretend otherwise, the time we spend online is only an approximation of our lives. Whether your memorial wall is in a garden outside of town or posted on the homepage of Reddit, it won’t make your life any more or less important to the people who truly care about you.

After all, who wants to live forever?

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One Response to Memorial Walls: Why We’re Never Going To Die Again

  1. Pingback: Playlist: October 2013 | Context Blues

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