Disturbing Remains

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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.

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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.

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Look out for the eventual documentary on BBC Ideas, airing date to be determined.

Publication Date Announced!

andrew-neel-632321-unsplashPhoto 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.

Would you like to share your story?

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We’re reaching a point where most of us have personal experience of some kind of intersection between death and the digital world.  People may hear about the loss of friends and family via social media.  They may struggle with online platforms for control over or access to information about their loved ones’ digital legacies.  They may use a friend’s Facebook site for mourning and memorialising them after they are gone.  They may wonder what will happen to their own online material after they die, and some may even decide they’d like to maintain their social lives from the Great Beyond.  Throughout the remainder of 2017 and the start of 2018, I’m writing a book for popular audiences about all of these phenomena.  It’s called All the Ghosts in the Machine, and it’s published by Little, Brown UK and an as-yet-to-be-determined publishing house in the US.

If you have a story that you’d like to share with me, I would love to speak to you about a possible interview for inclusion in this book.  Please do reply to this post or email me on info@alltheghostsinthemachine.com .  I also speak frequently about this topic to various audiences, including the public, psychological practitioners, and academics, so if you are a journalist, producer, or representative of an organisation that would like to discuss this with me, please feel free to get in touch as well.

For more about the book, read on!  This is an extract from the original proposal, describing what All the Ghosts in the Machine is about.

This is a book about unintended consequences.  Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues launched Facebook to connect students at Harvard, not to create a mixed-use social networking platform and digital cemetery.  Skype was designed to enable us to chat to one another, not to live stream funerals.  In short, when the whiz kids of Silicon Valley created the technologies that we now use to capture, store and share massive amounts of data, it was the living consumer that they had in mind. And yet here we are, the dead and the living, still segregated in the corporeal world, but mixing and mingling like mad in the digital sphere. That situation is tantalizing and comforting to some, surreal and horrifying to others.  Whatever one’s gut reaction, though, those who think that this phenomenon does not directly affect them will be surprised at the number of ways that this assumption is untrue.  We are at a tipping point of awareness: more of us are realising that one day this issue will prove personally meaningful to us, but most of us have no idea just how complicated and multifaceted this issue is.

In the realm of death, as in much else, the digital revolution changes everything. It has been said that we are not truly dead while our names are still spoken.  In a technological landscape where it is more difficult to forget than to remember, the dead are still spoken about a lot – in fact, they may continue to “speak” themselves.  The ability to stick around in digital form holds out the prospect of a kind of immortality.  Through making connections with our dead easier than ever before, these very modern technologies may draw us back to quite ancient ancestor-veneration practices; our predecessors’ presence is more apparent and actively influential in society than has ever been the case before. Realizing that it is not just the great and famous who may have their legacies preserved, but all of us, do we make different choices in our lives?  How do we respond to the persistent echoes and reflections of deceased loved ones online, or otherwise in digital form?  Knowing that one day we will be one of them, how do we manage our own data? What happens when corporations compete with us for control of those data? And could the phenomenon of technological obsolescence eventually prove that a granite headstone memorial was the better option all along?

This book is about all levels of this fascinating and thorny territory: psychological, sociological, practical, legal, spiritual, ethical, and commercial.  It will tell the stories of people who have confronted unexpected and complex dilemmas at the many junctions where death and life meet online, help readers with their own confrontations with these challenges, and explore the implications that these fascinating new developments hold for all of us.

 

The Death Goes Digital podcast!

A lot has happened since I last posted on my WordPress site!  I got a fabulous agent – Caroline Hardman of Hardman & Swainson – and secured a book deal with Little Brown UK.  I’m extremely excited about writing All the Ghosts in the Machine, which is my first non-academic book.  I spend most of my days writing at this desk.

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A few weeks back I sat at that same desk and had a great conversation about the book and the topics covered in it with Pete Billingham of Death Goes Digital.  That conversation was lovingly crafted into a podcast, which has just been published today.  Please do have a listen – you can also download it as a podcast from Apple – and if you have a story of death in the digital age that you think needs to be told, email me on info@alltheghostsinthemachine.com!