Would You?

I just finished listening to a Xeni Jardin podcast on the Virginia Tech shooter and the digital manifesto he sent to NBC. The emphasis was on the manifesto itself, but Xeni mentioned something that I find perhaps more interesting. As the event unfolded there were lots of online accounts and communications, between students, witnesses, and… victims.

How many of the victims left behind MySpace or facebook profiles? Flickr galleries? Blogs? YouTube videos? In a strange way most of these people persisted on the Internet after their deaths in a very personal, intimate way. So my question – Would you look at the blog/profile/etc of one of the victims?

It wouldn’t be difficult. Names are available, you know what school they went to and where. What happens to these virtual segments of identity after the person is gone? Particularly when they leave in such an abrupt, tragic and public way? Who has control over them after they’re gone? Should they be preserved? Passed on – and to who? Destroyed?

Perhaps the creepiest possibility is derived from the field of artificial intelligence and work on automated personal representatives, digital clones that people can interact with when you’re away from the computer. Imagine yourself talking to a digital ghost.

In some sense I can see these “artifacts” as memorials and a reflection of the retribalization of human society. Though you may have no direct knowledge or connection to any of the victims, witnesses or the perpetrator himself, you can come to an understanding of them through their virtual imprints. Perhaps this offers an opportunity for empathy and understanding that hasn’t existed before. On the other hand perhaps its just gross.

However, whenever you create an online presence for yourself, you are making yourself into a public object to be viewed and interpreted. Privacy is at least partially a choice. Is it really that much different to have your profile lurked when you’re alive? Though then again, there may be some perverse celebrity attached to a spectacular death – something nobody could have predicted.

As the virtual world and the world of the flesh grow more and more intertwined, perhaps we need to begin to wonder, does death over here mean the same thing as death over there?


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