Head on over to my main author website for information about All the Ghosts in the Machine, to include links to press, events, podcasts, reviews, and other publications.
Photo credit (c) Elaine Kasket 2019
At long last, All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age will be available worldwide on the 25th of April. As with any book – fiction and nonfiction alike – the creative process is full of twists and turns, and an author often don’t end up where she thinks she will. I hope – no, I know – that in reading this book and delving beneath the superficial ‘death on Facebook’ type of headline, you will share much of the surprise and wonderment I experienced when researching and writing the book. I hope that the last chapter, in particular, will give you a clear sense of direction for what you want to do in your own life.
There were too many key realisations for me to count in the making of this book, but here’s a smattering, just as a teaser.
- There are currently about 4 billion people connected online worldwide. In 2099, there may be about 5 billion dead people still connected on Facebook. If you’re not sure why this is so significant, prepare to be much better informed!
- If you’re only thinking of your ‘digital footprint’ as your interactions on social media – if you ‘do’ social media – there’s a whole lot that you’re not thinking about. And the things you’re not paying attention to are the things that could say the most about you after you’re gone. Maybe that won’t prove a problem for the ones you leave behind. But then again…
- There is perhaps no better illustration of the extent to which Big Tech (Google Apple Facebook Amazon) ‘owns’ us, and the extent to which we have lost control over our personal information, than observing what happens to our data when we die.
- The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, argues that we have lost our way. The Web we have, he says, is not the Web he intended, which is why he’s pushing for a new kind of web where control is wrested back from big tech and re-delivered into the hands of individuals. I get where he’s coming from. If ever there were a powerful argument for web decentralisation, it’s watching what happens to our ‘posthumously persistent’ online data, controlled and managed by profit-driven companies.
- Any sort of law or regulation from the pre-digital age struggles to cope with digital ‘stuff’. That includes laws of succession, which govern what we can and can’t leave to others in our will. Bad decisions are already being made by legal minds that don’t fully grasp understand the differences between the material and digital context. For example, if you currently think accessing a dead relative’s Facebook Messenger is the same thing as inheriting a box of physical letters – as a high court in Germany recently ruled – his book may convince you otherwise.
- Although algorithms reinforce the outdated notions that grief progresses in phases (just try Googling ‘stages of’ and see what pops up first), this isn’t the case. Grief is idiosyncratic, and all mourners need and want different things. Does the Internet change how we grieve? It sure does. But what’s more, it often legislates how we can grieve. And that’s a problem.
If this collection of teasers piques your interest, well, you’re in a growing club of people who are realising that online isn’t forever and that ‘digital legacy’ is a whole lot more complicated than we might have imagined.
Want to learn more? Here’s how:
Anywhere in the world: You can get the audio version of All the Ghosts in the Machine on Audible or Storytel. I was really happy to be asked to read the book myself, which is a gift for any author. You can also get the e-book in English on Amazon and Kobo if these are available in your country.
Everywhere except North America: You can purchase the English-edition trade paperback of All the Ghosts in the Machine online or through your local bookshop.
North America: You can get the trade paperback in early 2020, a fully up-to-date edition with the most recent developments incorporated. Until then, enjoy the audiobook and and e-book edition!
Other languages: The book is currently being translated into Chinese, Korean and Romanian, with further foreign-language editions to come. Stay tuned.
As she pulled her chair forward to conspiring distance and sat down next to me, her eyes were wary and her overall demeanour skittish. She opened her mouth, then shut it again. Her cheeks were flushed, her chin was ducked low, her shoulders were hunched. The woman was the very embodiment of shame. What on earth could her errand be? Was she about to ask me where she could find some illegal drugs? Was she hoping to procure a hit man? Was she about to confess some unpardonable sin?
‘I’m thinking of leaving academia,’ said my fellow conference attendee. ‘Maybe you can help me. How did you get out?‘
Oh dear, another one. I’d thought as much – all the indicators were there. Since leaving my position as a Principal Lecturer and Head of Programmes at a UK university, I’d been approached this way at least a dozen times. I was curious about the apparent extent of her terror, for she was simply asking me a career question, not risking her life to plot with me about digging a tunnel out of Stalag Luft III. ‘Why are you whispering?’ I asked.
We were miles away from her employer, but nevertheless she cast a glance to either side of us and quickly checked over her shoulder. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said. Even so, her voice remained hushed throughout the rest of the conversation.
I do have a hypothesis about this, one that I’ll explore in a future blog post. Leaving one’s job in higher education might not be easy for a variety of reasons, but I reckon that life in modern UK higher education institutions (HEIs) is giving faculty a kind of individual and collective inferiority complex. However extraordinary their gifts, however solid and potentially transferable their skill sets, academics don’t think there’s anything else they can do, anywhere else they can go…at least, not if they want to survive. Huge workloads and the tyranny of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) force everyone from lecturers to professors into insularity, unable to think beyond the immediate demands of their jobs. The fences surrounding the ivory tower appear to have grown higher and more impenetrable – no wonder the chances of carrying off an escape attempt are perceived as slight. But I didn’t feel that I had a choice. There was something I wanted and even needed to do, something my employer treated with disinterest and perhaps even mild disdain, something that was judged to have nothing whatsoever to do with my job. I hesitate to say it out loud, even today.
I wanted to write a book…for trade.
That’s right. Trade. Not for an academic publisher. Not for an academic audience. A general, non-fiction, popular science type of book, aimed at a broad readership, something that wouldn’t even cause a blip on the REF radar. Now that All the Ghosts in the Machine is submitted, accepted, and awaiting publication with Little, Brown UK, I’m reviewing the last year of my life and contemplating the next one, and I can honestly say that making the leap was one of the best decisions of my life.
If you’re an academic who’s also interested in being a public intellectual, let me hasten to say that writing a book for a trade publisher, aimed at a general audience, is not the only way to pursue that. But it’s what I’m going to talk about here. Maybe you think your primary barrier to writing for trade is time, perhaps related to your institution’s reluctance to privilege this kind of activity over, say, the production of research articles for 4* journals. Maybe it’s confidence, and if that lack of confidence stems at least partly from ignorance of this sector, I would like to help you out a bit by offering some nuggets of wisdom drawn from my learnings of the past year.
Read on for my top seven tips for academics who dream of writing for trade.
Maybe you’ve had this kind of experience. You’re about to stand up or perform in front of a group of people, having been touted as an expert in something, or an actor that knows their lines, or someone who can carry off a violin solo, or who can dance without falling over. Suddenly you think, ‘There’s been some terrible mistake. I’m going to let these people down. I’m going to let myself down. In fact, I just might die of humiliation right there on stage.’ Did someone just whisper ‘you’re a fraud’ in your ear, or were you imagining it?…sorry, am I making you break out in hives?
I’m not saying I got to that point, mind you. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s never been afflicted with crippling stage fright. Nevertheless, as I took my seat at Hill + Knowlton’s Creativity + Humanity, doing my best to be unobtrusive because the event had begun, I felt a frisson of unease. The people on the stage were talking about brands. Then someone with an impressive title assumed the podium to talk about the future of banking and to give me a PowerPoint inferiority complex. Then an international panel filed on stage to speak about energy. Rummaging in my branded canvas bag and encountering a paper packet of Lego along the way, I located a card that described the sector knowledge and specialist expertise that One H+K offered and scanned it for any terms at all that resonated with me as a psychologist. I found ‘Behavioural Science Unit’ and ‘Issues + Crisis’, which had the ring of familiarity, but there were a lot of other words too. ‘Financial + Professional Services.’ ‘Consumer Packaged Goods.’ ‘Energy + Industrials.’ I know people in these fields, but I can’t picture what they do at work. Would anyone in the room have any interest whatsoever in what I had to say?
I’ve learned that when you’re worried about something like this, often it’s best to just name it, which I did. (When I eventually see the video, I’m sure it won’t sound this slick, but it went something like this.) ‘I’m Elaine Kasket,’ I said. ‘I’m a psychologist. And you are not my usual audience. In fact, I don’t know what many people in this room do.’ Having confessed this, and having noticed that nothing bad happened as a consequence, I began to breathe more freely. ‘But I’m guessing that many of you in this room, directly or indirectly, and without necessarily realising it, are in a position to have an influence on people’s experience with regard to the digital remains of the deceased.’
The more I spoke, and the more conversations I had with people at lunch afterwards, the more I realised just why I shouldn’t have been worried. This is relevant – incredibly relevant – to all sorts of people. Every organisation and every brand represented in that room has control of some sort of digitally stored data about people – data that could be sentimentally or financially significant to someone – whether it’s associated with employees, clients, users, account holders, customers, service users, or patients. I was reminded of what I’ve known all along, which is that this is a critical time to be considering this issue, and it’s important to so many people who haven’t even thought about it yet. The Q&A that I did with Megan after the event is part of my argument as to why that’s the case, and it was also an opportunity to think further about what creativity means to me, which was already on the docket for a blog post in the near future. Follow the link, or read it reproduced in full below. Thanks again to H+K Strategies for a great day!
When I arrived at St. Leonard’s on Shoreditch High Street, the film crew looked distinctly gloomy. Their solemnity wasn’t due to their being about to descend into the dusty crypts under this 1740 building, at least not yet; at that point, it was because some organisation or another was holding a big party in the churchyard. The sound system was just kicking into gear, pumping out music on a sunny Sunday and threatening to interfere with the audio for the mini-documentary we were there to film. A party atmosphere wasn’t what the director had been anticipating or intending, and furthermore, we were having trouble gaining access to the underworld beneath the church. The caretaker hadn’t yet arrived to unlock the door, which, when we arrived, was blocked with rubbish and festooned with a string of bright yellow happy-face balloons. When he eventually appeared, though, we realised that there was no cause for concern, as far as filming was concerned. Down in the depths, behind and beneath thick walls and floors, you could barely tell whether it was day or night outside, much less hear evidence of revelry and dancing. We wended our way through dim corridors, using our phones as torches and looking for places to film.
On one hand, this was an incongruous place to be shooting a film on ‘E-Life After Death’. Modern people’s online ‘afterlives’ or digital traces are made up of odourless bits of code and complex arrangements of colourful pixels, but our environment in the crypt was an entirely different sensory experience. While the atmosphere outside was sunny and warm, down there it was cool, grey, and slightly damp. Every surface we touched, accidentally or on purpose, left thick smears of dust on our skin and clothes. No one said it out loud, but I was conscious that – along with the musty smell – I was likely inhaling minute particles of humans that had been dead for hundreds of years. Doors to vaults were virtually all open or absent, with the bricks that had once walled them off scattered about the uneven floor, tripping us up as we arranged cameras, lights, and filming positions. Through the gaping entrances we saw coffins stacked atop one another, some broken or turned on their ends. ‘Oh god, that’s a jaw bone, isn’t it?’ said one crew member, pointing the light from his phone into a collapsing casket. ‘Shit,’ said another, treading on something. ‘I’ve stepped on a bone. Oh, it’s a stick. No, shit, it’s a bone, look, it’s a human bone.’ Working out whether he’d directly disturbed already-scattered human remains seemed to really matter to him, almost as though he needed to determine whether he’d done something ‘wrong,’ whether he should feel unnerved or even guilty.
I was more nonplussed than they, having visited quite a few crypts in my time. This is partly thanks to the periodic ‘open days’ held in the Magnificent Seven cemeteries in London, which usually involve opening the crypts too. Still, I could understand their unease. Disturbing physical human remains isn’t usually something we undertake deliberately or view lightly. But interestingly – and at the heart of the documentary we were making – is the fact that we encounter the digital remains of the dead online all the time. They are everywhere we go, whether they announce themselves or not. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Trip Advisor, Amazon, LinkedIn. They’re on the comment threads under news stories, on the blogs, on websites of every stripe. And if you think about it, we often disturb those remains.
Strangers like us had clearly been down in these crypts many times before, and the resting place of nearly every 18th- and 19th-century person buried there had been disturbed, disrespected, and cluttered up with rubbish. Maybe you would never do that, but online you might find yourself picking over the digital remains of a dead person like a jackal. It’s not just strangers that do it. Sure, trolls can come along with their cruel insults and senseless smears, but well-meaning parties disturb digital remains too. Family may deny access to or even destroy digital legacies, so that other mourners who arrive at the online graveside find a barred door, or an empty vault. Corporations, too, have their rules about what can and cannot be done with digital remains, with the result that the memories of the deceased that are preserved don’t always constitute the peaceful, respectful picture that some might wish. When a company that stores or manages a deceased person’s data goes out of business, they may cart digital remains away with them, robbing the grave as they file for bankruptcy. So think about it. We’re perpetually accessing, embroidering upon, editing, destroying or otherwise messing with digital remains online, and yet it doesn’t give us anywhere near the same pause that knocking in a crypt door would (hopefully) provoke. Maybe it seems obvious why that is. But maybe it’s also worth reflecting on why we see it so differently.
Look out for the eventual documentary on BBC Ideas, airing date to be determined.
My 8-year-old very English daughter went to a very American summer camp last week, in the middle of a forest, near a great U-shaped bend in the great Ohio River. In a quiet house, with a lot of time on our hands, my mother and I sifted through some of the boxes full of photographs, letters, and other ephemera that she and her cousins had painstakingly assembled over the years, the repository of family history of which she is now a guardian. Synthesising it with the information available about our family on the Internet, it was a lot of information and terribly confusing. People had lots of children, they didn’t seem to vary the names they used very much, and I kept getting everything mixed up. The only way to keep it straight in my head was to make it into a kind of story. Why not? I thought. In addition to being an efficient way of organising information in my head, it could be a nice thing to pass on to the next generation. Realising that there was a one-way email system available to contact campers, I decided to write a letter to my absent daughter.
I have been doing some research about your ancestors, following the line of mothers down through the generations. Zoe, Elaine, Beth, Elizabeth (your middle name is all because of her), Beatrice, Annie, Mary, Katherine. Katherine is your great-great-great-great-great grandmother, and you share something with her, even though she lived long ago. Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, lives in our cells and helps make us what we are. mtDNA is special – it makes up only a little part of our genes and is only passed down from mother to daughter. If you had genetic testing, it could tell you who your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was all the way back in history. We don’t need genetic testing, though, for me to tell you a true story about Katherine, with whom you share 37 genes.
As far as we can tell – people didn’t always know exactly how old they were back then – Katherine was born in 1822 in County Longford, Ireland. Believe it or not, if that year is right, she was only 12 years old – only four years older than you are now – when she married your great-great-great-great-great grandfather, James, in 1834. James was from County Longford too, and both he and Katharine were Irish Catholic. He was an adult and she was a child – that wouldn’t happen anymore! Not long after the wedding, James and Katherine decided that it would be a good idea to go and live in America. They didn’t have aeroplanes then, so it was a long and often dangerous boat journey across the Atlantic Ocean. James decided that he would go first and check it out. Sailing across sea, he landed in New Orleans, down south in Louisiana. Perhaps he didn’t care for such a hot and swampy place after the cooler weather of Ireland, so he got a job as a ship’s mate and travelled north, up the big wide Mississippi River. The Mississippi feeds into a smaller river, the Ohio, which is the river that you can see from Grandmama and Pop’s house. (You’ve been on that river on a boat, which gives you something else in common with your great-great-great-great-great grandparents!) He looked around Louisville and liked what he saw, so he sent his young wife Katharine a letter encouraging her to come and join him.
Letters between America and Ireland travelled by boat and would have been very slow, and Katherine must have been waiting to hear from him for months. When she finally received his message, she quickly made arrangements and got on a ship. She can’t have been very old then, only a very young teenager, and she must have been frightened. She must have been quite brave, but apparently she later said that she would never again trust her life to a ‘handful of sticks’, so it must not have been a very sturdy-feeling vessel. After a long while she arrived in a big, dirty, unfamiliar city in an strange country. New York was pretty crazy back then and looked nothing like the city that it is now. James collected her, and she must have been very happy to see a familiar face.
Very soon after Katherine arrived, she and James had their first baby, Mary. First James got a job in Butchertown in Louisville, working as the big boss of a large pork house – that’s where they make pigs into sausages. They moved across the river to New Albany, Indiana, in 1848. They had more children, and James got a job preparing the ground for railroads, including one that ran from New Albany to Salem. Katherine stayed at home with Mary, John and Ellen. (We don’t know which house they lived in, but there are still many houses in New Albany that were around a long time ago, so maybe we could find it someday.) In 1850, Katharine gave birth to the couple’s fourth child, Edward. She’d been having babies since she was very young, and maybe this last childbirth made her a bit weak, for when little Edward was only seven months old, Katharine died. She was only 29 years old. That’s quite sad, isn’t it? Mary was a young teenager and could help look after the littler ones, but it was a lot for their father James to cope with, so he looked for a new wife. He married a second time – she was called Mary too – and she was quite a bit younger than him, just like his first wife. The family moved to Cloverport, Kentucky. That’s on the Ohio River too, and back in those days you would have most likely travelled there from Louisville by boat. Now it’s about 1-1/2 hours away by car. James and his new wife started a grocery store in Cloverport, and his oldest daughter Mary started to look around for a husband – that’s what teenage girls did in those days.
Pretty soon, your great-great-great-great grandmother Mary (that’s four greats!) met someone who was an Irishman like her dad, although this man was from County Donegal, not County Longford, so he would have had a very different accent. He was a few years older than her, but Mary thought he was pretty nice. His name was John Haffey, called Haughey back in Ireland. They got married in Cloverport when she was just 18 years old – that sort of thing was pretty normal back then too.
She moved in with her new husband, which was probably a good thing because her stepmother – who was only a couple of years older than Mary! – was busy having loads more babies and it would have been pretty annoying. John turned out to be a pretty successful guy, so John and Mary must have had a nice life down in Cloverport, Kentucky. Ten years after they married, when the city needed someone to build a new wharf – that’s the place where the boats come in from the river to load and unload their cargo – John Haffey got the job. A few years after he did that job Annie Haffey was born, and *she* was your great-great-great grandmother. I’ll tell you more about her another time.
So Katherine and James came from Ireland, which is the country right next door to where you were born, but since then, for nearly 200 years, your family hasn’t been able to tear themselves away from the Ohio River. Your great uncles lived next to it, and your great grandparents, and now your aunts and uncles and cousins all have their houses a stone’s throw away from it. Your grandparents’ house overlooks it. And now, at this very moment, you’re at a camp just down the river from where your great-great-great-great-great grandparents lived. I think that’s very cool.
My little daughter thought that this was a rather unorthodox communication, a bit over the top, and she let me know it. Settling into the back seat of the car, her hair unwashed, her feet blackened from a week’s revelry in the woods, her teeth somewhat suspect after days of ‘brushing’ them with her finger, she inquired what on earth I’d been thinking.
‘Why did you write me such a long letter that it had to be stapled together?’ she asked.
‘Ah, was that a bit weird?’ I said.
‘Well, yes,’ she said. ‘And I don’t think she and I have *anything* in common.’
Well, I reckon that she’ll appreciate it all someday. Given the fascination she showed when visiting the grave of her great grandparents, that day might not be as far off as all that.
Photo credit Andrew Neel on Unsplash.
Once upon a time, I was a reader, a peruser of books in shops, an attender of literary festivals, a babe in the woods. I’m still the first three things, but as for the latter, because I’m an author now too, the scales have fallen from my eyes. In my former incarnation as a publishing innocent, I presumed that the new hardcover releases on the shelves, in their pristine, gorgeously designed dust jackets, had been completed by their writers only very recently. Not the previous week or the previous month, mind you – I wasn’t so naive as to think that the wheels of traditional publishing spin that quickly – but I reckoned that if the author turned in fairly ‘clean copy’, the time period between submission and publication would be short – mercifully short, from the vantage point of any author eager to see their work in print.
I don’t do drafts. Does that sound pompous? Before you judge, I’m not claiming to be some sort of Mozart. (Remember that famous scene in Milos Forman’s film Amadeus, where Salieri – having been assured by Mozart’s wife that her husband doesn’t make copies – is desperately rifling through reams of his rival’s scores, dumfounded, seeking and failing to find any evidence of corrections? It’s not quite like that.) What I mean to say is, I edit so stringently as I go along that my first version is always very close to the finished, accepted product. While some scribblers can pull off ‘free writing’, bashing out words and saving the painful business of editing for a later date, I’ve never been able to manage that. I wish I could, for the notion of being able to write freely is utterly intoxicating. Instead, I have to get the first sentence, the ‘way in’, absolutely right. That unlocks the next sentence, which must also be perfected until it, in turn, unlocks the path to the third sentence. If that sounds painfully obsessive-compulsive, you’re right. It is. But there’s a payoff at the end: the manuscript is virtually ready to go.
Ah, but as it turns out, that’s not how it works. Self-publishing is gloriously instant gratification, but in traditional publishing, no matter how ‘clean’ the copy, no matter how happy your editor might be, no matter how much the writer is chomping at the bit, there is much to do between submission and publication. The authors’ information from Little, Brown, my publishing house in the UK, says that one’s publicist and marketing team are assigned after submission, about nine months ahead of publication. That’s right. A human pregnancy and the “gearing up” period for a book’s publication take about the same amount of time – and if, like me, you’re a woman that’s given birth, you remember how long that felt.
All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age has been a fascinating book to write. On one hand, it’s directly focused on death, digital death, and digital afterlives. On the other, these topics are merely lenses, a pair of spectacles that I’ve donned to more closely examine identity, privacy, relationships and grief; our rapidly changing social mores; and the ethical, moral, and legal dilemmas posed by our modern digital existence. Death in the digital age is important to consider in itself, but it’s even more important because, looked at in depth, it really helps us think about how we’re living now. I’m an impatient sort of person anyway, but I’m particularly impatient now, because I can’t wait to share it with you.
All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age is out on 25 April 2019 from Robinson/Little, Brown UK.