Death in the Digital Age
Our ambivalent relationship with death
A revealing test of how much digital technology has changed our way of life is our relationship with time. It has been established that our awareness of time diminishes as we navigate; we find ourselves at the end of the day without being aware of its actual duration, just as it is equally difficult to remember what we saw during the hours spent in front of the screen. Everything seems to flatten out in the instant, with no memory and no sense of duration. This concentration on the present dimension of time was not born with the web, but is part of a more general cultural climate that has profoundly affected our relationship with time.
Our relationship with death is an emblematic benchmark. Until the 19th century, life expectancy on average did not exceed 30 years. Those who lived to 50 years had generally already seen the death of their parents, spouse and most of their children. But familiarity with death led to a proactive attitude toward life, because it was animated by the perspective of the afterlife, for which the present was anticipation and preparation. It also offered a sense of continuity with loved ones, a tradition and a task that those who remained were called to continue.
Now flattened on a merely horizontal plane, today death has become “wild” – to quote Philippe Ariès’ famous expression – it is no longer part of the cultural landscape, and from being a step along the way, it has become the end of the line: “If there is no longer anything on the other side, death is no longer conceivable […]. In the 21st century, […] the claim to the right to die with dignity and the awareness of the question of euthanasia are inscribed in the representation of a shameful death because it marks the defeat of the individual as the builder of the self.”
On the other hand, when something is removed from ordinary life, it ends up entering human existence in another form. The fantasy version of death attracts young audiences especially. This can be seen in shows and narratives related to the afterlife, such as vampirism, or the horror genre. Stephenie Meyer’s novel Twilight (the first in a series of four, all crowned by great popular success), which tells the love story between a girl and a boy-vampire, had sold more than 17 million copies by the time the movie series commenced in 2008, which further contributed to its growing popularity.
Vampires – a popular focus of novels in the latter half of the 19th century – have a characteristic denied to human beings, immortality. They have a supernatural character where the divine has given way to the demonic. The vampire is a nocturnal being. It despises the light and fills itself with darkness. It is a hybrid of human and animal – the bat, in turn a hybrid of bird and mouse – and brings death, or rather entraps humans, shaping them in the image and likeness of the vampire. But in today’s new narratives vampires cease to be something disturbing; they have the features of a teenager with whom you fall in love. They no longer live at night, but during the day. They don’t live in a gloomy castle, but attend the local high school. And, above all, they protect the people they fall in love with, as a sort of new guardian angel, shaped according to the cultural features of the 21st century.
Another myth enjoying great success, and undoubtedly more disturbing, is that of zombies, beings generated by a global catastrophe The stories that characterize them are ludicrous. There is no real plot, but this does not affect their popularity: “In the end what produces the zombies is death alone, inexplicable, anonymous, and elsewhere definitely meaningless and impossible to ritualize, a death that is simply meaningless.”
Zombies and above all the extraordinary and lasting success of this narrative genre, which attracted notice in 1968 with George Romero’s film – the first of a series of six – The Night of the Living Dead, reflect the tragic ambiguity of our era. They are the proclaimers of an unprecedented epidemic of a cultural kind. They are the sign of a civilization that has failed in its relationship with death. It is no coincidence that to destroy them one must destroy not the heart, but the brain. Zombies are the living dead; they have left the cemeteries to occupy the places of ordinary life; they represent the disappearance of the sacred, of the separation between the world of the living and that of the dead. Like humans, they are insatiable consumers who have no peace and spread corruption and death everywhere.
The success of these narratives in the minds of the youth comes from an unspoken need to talk about death and its relationship with life. The great popularity of this theme, as has been noted, runs parallel to its complete absence from ordinary life, even from preaching.
Death on the web
The theme of death acquires a further value in the internet age. The data accumulated on social media and search engines form a person’s digital profile. So a person continues to be present in a very different way from the fictitious masquerades – an avatar, or a virtual character – of Second life. It is the image of the same person with whom you have lived, who interacts, talks and answers any questions arising from those who surf the web, always available a click away.
In 1997 the sociologist Carla Sofka introduced the term thanatology to indicate the influence that new technologies have on the representation of death. In the web a dead person continues to be present, to communicate in a visible way through videos, images and texts. Digital technology makes it possible to create a “griefbot,” an automatic channel (bot) used by those who remain to relieve the pain (grief) of the disappearance of a loved one: “Let’s think of Luka, the mobile app that allows you to dialogue with the digital specter of Roman Mazurenko, a 27-year-old Belarusian who died in a car accident. Eugenia Kuyda, Luka’s inventor, has made possible what is imagined in the episode Be Right Back (2013) of the futuristic television series Black Mirror. One may continue to dialogue with the dear departed by virtue of a technology that, reproducing the communicative style he adopted on social networks, automatically processes the answers to the questions of the living, ‘imagining’ the likely reactions that he would have had if he were still alive.”
Even if you do not resort to such sophisticated designs, the ability to access the deceased’s account allows you to empathize with that person and interact on social media as if he or she were still alive. As far as Italy is concerned, the story of Luca Borgogni, who died on July 8, 2017, is significant. “The mother discovered – with the help of her daughter and without Luca’s consent – the password of her son’s Facebook account and for months she wrote daily posts in the first person […], as if Luca himself was still writing.” When Facebook found out about the death, it closed the account, despite the protests of the mother, who claimed the possibility of inheriting her son’s profile in a similar way to any other property of a deceased family member. However, seeing messages and posts composed by a dead person, while it may be comforting for a family member, can instead have a traumatic impact on others. Death remains a public fact, and in social media it is so in an even more obvious way, and it is impossible to satisfy the needs of all those involved.
The question also remains whether the deceased would wish to continue to survive in this form or whether he or she would not prefer to die digitally. This is why many digital platforms provide for the deletion of data after learning of the user’s death or after a prolonged period of inactivity (for Twitter 6 months, for Google 18 months). Facebook has developed a commemorative profile so family or friends can continue to manage the user’s account data after their death. Another major problem is the processing of work data (notes, business programs, accounting) that are found on the servers of companies around the world and of which family members are mostly unaware.
Death on the web: possibility and perplexity
“Those who die come back again”: the updated version of this saying, which until recently was mainly a casual observation, can summarize the epochal change in the relationship with the dead made possible by the web. With the advent of social media, death ceases to be the subject of a taboo, rarely mentioned in public life, and becomes a topic shared by an increasing number of users.
There are sites that allow those who, in their will, wish to continue to be present, to share data, messages, videos, songs, in an interactive way: “Advanced and interactive digital funerary services are already seen by many operators as the business of the future, alongside the development of artificial intelligence systems for dialogue between the dead and the living.”
It has also become possible to continue your activity after death. The most famous example is the rock singer Ronnie “Dio” James (“Dio” refers not to a religious figure or God, but to the pseudonym of the Italian-American gangster Johnny Dio [= Giovanni Ignazio Dioguardi]), who died in 2010. Thanks to a hologram Ronnie was able to undertake a world tour in 2017 (Dio Returns), with great success in terms of audience and receipts.
This makes it much harder to die in the internet age. Among the many possibilities available there is also the offer of “digital gravediggers,” willing to take care of the virtual interface of the deceased and implement a sort of electronic cremation of data.
These possibilities have significant consequences, which should be taken into account in psychological, emotional and above all educational terms (bearing in mind that almost all young people surf the web). Always having a deceased person in the interface with whom one dialogues (or substituting oneself for it) leads once again to the erasure of the idea of death: “Pretending that there is a person who is no longer there means, in fact, making concrete the paradox according to which the death did not occur, although it did happen, complicating the human relationship with the end of life. The artificial continuity between the physical person, deceased and progressively decomposing, and a digital surrogate, which reproduces online narratives endlessly on media that are immune to becoming and aging, can trivialize the detachment, interruption and loss, the sum of which – on the one hand – shapes the definitive profile of the dead and – on the other – allows the grieving person to reconstruct his or her own existence again, planning for a new future.”
The relationships between the living and the dead become less and less tangible and indefinable. The dead, until now placed in special sacred spaces (i.e. separated from the world), continue to live on the web and become more and more part of the world of the living, until they become indistinguishable from them (as in the case of the Luka app). The very idea of the cemetery acquires new features and new meanings, on which we have not yet sufficiently reflected: “Social networks […] have become, despite themselves, gigantic digital cemeteries, where the dialogical exchanges between individual users take place amid expanses of ghost profiles, full of thoughts, photographs and memories related to people who are no longer there. On Facebook there are around fifty million deceased users and recent studies predict that, at the end of the century, if the popular social network is still active, there will be more profiles of the deceased than of users still alive. Facebook is, in other words, already today the largest cemetery in the world, accessible from any place with a data connection. It is a uniform cemetery, indifferent to the individual beliefs of its users,” which eloquently reflects the fluid character of the web.
In this way also the dimension of time is profoundly restructured, and with it the idea of something definitive, of no return, of which death is precisely the most powerful symbol available to the human imagination.
The changed relationship that one has with the dead also affects relationships with the living, which risk being reduced to episodic moments, available at the click of a button. In the absence of time limits, everything remains open, but also chaotic, unfinished, frayed. And it makes it more problematic to become engaged permanently for something worthwhile.
The fragility of emotional relationships is a sign of this changed relationship with time. The psychologist Catherine Ternynck reports the eloquent words of a man in therapy: “‘In love, as in books, I like only the first chapter. There everything is said … in what follows there is no taste’ […]. From this perhaps the clinical intuition in the face of numerous psychic sufferings, according to which true loneliness is.”
‘Privacy’ and grief
All this creates significant difficulties in terms of mourning, or processing grief. This obviously becomes problematic if the loved one is always present and, as we noted, willing to talk to those who remain by means of appropriate software that perfectly reproduces the tone and cadence of the voice, thanks to algorithms that allow access to an increasingly vast amount of memories (and in the future further expandable with the cloning of the brain) and make their speech credible.
These are innovations that, together with the rapid spread of cremation – a move for which there has been a lack of appropriate exploration of its consequences on a cultural and psychological level in the West – make it more difficult to let go of the dead person (the work of mourning), which is indispensable to continue healthy living. Equally irrelevant becomes the dimension of corporeality, a fundamental anthropological theme that is indispensable to acquiring awareness of the event/death: “Never having watched over a corpse is a metaphor for how the narcissist society has relegated illness and death to educational and cultural removal, making discourse on death and suicidal fantasies obscene and inaccessible.”
Without the thought of death, of a definitive point of no return reflecting the limited time available, even life is extinguished. When grief is not processed, Freud noted, it becomes melancholy, an evil aspect of life, a phenomenon that is worryingly increasing in our societies and that has serious repercussions even in political planning, to the point of making life impossible.
Another disturbing consequence of the inability to deal with grief comes from an increasing number of cases of domestic violence, of murder (especially of women), which arise from the refusal to accept loss, such as the possible end of a relationship. According to data provided by Eures (European Commission), 142 women were killed in Italy in 2018 (+0.7 percent compared to 2017), of whom 119 were killed in the family context (+6.3 percent). The percentage of female victims is higher than ever (40.3 percent). The main reasons are jealousy and possessiveness (32.8 percent). Denying the idea of death leads to its indiscriminate spread within ordinary life.
By offering access to a virtual community, social networks can certainly help and comfort those who remain, forming chains of solidarity to overcome the sense of loneliness that is one of the most painful aspects of losing a loved one. But they must do so with caution, taking into account the long time and the gradual nature of the difficult task of mourning. Otherwise, you risk celebrating yourself: you post a touching message just to be present on the platform and to highlight your own attentiveness, or to receive a remarkable response of “likes”, without thinking about how others are living that painful moment. Knowing that your messages will be seen and spread increases considerably the risk of reducing death to entertainment, even if it is to denounce a violence suffered, as in the case of Oceane, a 19-year-old French girl who filmed her suicide live on the web, or those who, instead of helping those in danger, take photos that ensure a high number of views.
Claire Wilmot, in an article in The Atlantic, analyzes the impact that social media had for her and her family with the death of her sister, Lauren. Claire was first of all struck by the fact that most of her relatives and close friends knew about it from Facebook, before they could even become aware of what happened and decide the most appropriate way to communicate that terrible news. What especially nauseated her was the way Lauren’s story was publicized, adding pain to pain by not respecting what she and her family were experiencing: “When I asked for some of the most offensive posts to be removed, I received no understanding, but hostility. ‘My intention was to celebrate Lauren,’ wrote one, defensively, as if good intentions were all that mattered. As cynical as it may sound, I wondered if the posts about other people’s deaths are used in a way not very different from the other posts on social media, as a means to assert one’s identity in a hectic online environment.”
The journalist certainly does not want to condemn social media. They really are a point of no return for everyone. But the world of the web is also a mirror of the ambivalence that characterizes every new discovery; it offers endless possibilities, but the speed that characterizes it raises the doubt as to whether it allows access to the deepest and truest dimensions of the human being; the risk of reducing every event, even the most intimate and painful, to a sort of spectacle and self-exhibition is real and must be discussed. There is something that cannot be transmitted on social media and requires rather silence and discretion; otherwise, instead of helping those who suffer, it accentuates their pain and sense of incommunicable loneliness. “Social media often reproduce the worst cultural failures surrounding death, that is banalities that help those on the periphery of a tragedy to rationalize what happened, but obscure the uncomfortable, disorderly reality of loss. Social media have increased the speed and ease of communication to an unprecedented level, yet sites like Facebook and Twitter are poorly suited to represent the peculiarity of grief […]. Social media may have opened up the space for public grief, but a ritual to ensure that the outburst supports grieving people (or at least does not make their situation more painful) has yet to be processed.”
The presence of a virtual community that speaks of the deceased and communicates with those who remain does not replace the process of mourning that knows its own paths, linked to the acceptance of grief and anger, especially helplessness in the face of the disappearance of a loved one, the emptiness left and the silence necessary for the inner exploration and the reinterpretation of history shared together.
That is why Wilmot proposes to use other ways that can help and that the web cannot suppress or replace. First of all, there is the importance of waiting, of taking time before doing anything, overcoming the temptation to be the first to share the scoop. Secondly, there is the need to get in touch with family members through more ordinary, also more discreet and intimate channels, such as visiting them at home or telephoning them, or through messages in a strictly private form.
If these modes are too difficult, social media risks becoming a kind of “Linus’ blanket” to mask our impotence. However, it is important to recognize it, because it can foster a true relationship with oneself and with the other, in an empathetic way, helping us first of all to understand the experience of those who have lost a loved one.
A theme that has been explored many times involving the novelties and limits of the digital sphere returns: the online world can reflect, but it cannot replace the offline world. Under these conditions it can best express its enormous potentiality, in terms of personal and collective growth.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 07 art. 10, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0720.10
. C. Ternynck, L’uomo di sabbia. Individualismo e perdita di sé, Milan, Vita e Pensiero, 2011, 109. Cf. G. Cucci, “La morte, cifra dell’esistere umano. Un approccio filosofico”, in Civ. Catt. 2017 IV 131-144.
. P. Ortoleva, Miti a bassa intensità. Racconti, media, vita quotidiana, Turin, Einaudi, 2019, 260.
. Cf. A. Spadaro, “’Second life’: il desiderio di un’‘altra vita’”, in Civ. Catt. 2007 III 266-278.
. D. Sisto, “Digital Death. Le trasformazioni digitali della morte e del lutto”, in Lessico di etica pubblica 1 (2018) 55. See C. Sofka, “Social Support ‘Internetworks’, Caskets for Sale, and More: Thanatology and the Information Superhighway”, in Death Studies 6 (1997) 553-574.
. D. Sisto, La morte si fa social. Immortalità, memoria e lutto nell’epoca della cultura digitale, Turin, Bollati Boringhieri, 2018, 97.
. G. Ziccardi, Il libro digitale dei morti. Memoria, lutto eternità e oblio nell’era dei social network, Milan, Utet, 2017, 19.
. See “Ronnie James Dio, il re dell’heavy metal torna sui palchi… come ologramma” (www.tgcom24.mediaset.it/spettacolo/ronnie-james-dio-il-re-dell-heavy-metal-torna-sui-palchi-come-ologramma_3086321-201702a.shtml), July 27, 2017.
. D. Sisto, “Digital Death. Le trasformazioni digitali della morte e del lutto”, op. cit., 56.
. Ibid., 57.
. C. Ternynck, L’ uomo di sabbia…, op. cit., 110f.
. G. Pietropolli Charmet – A. Piotti (eds), Uccidersi. Il tentativo di suicidio in adolescenza, Milan, Raffaello Cortina, 2009, 43.
. See G. Cucci, “Le nuove melancholie”. I destini del desiderio secondo Massimo Recalcati”, in Civ. Catt. 2020 I 381-389.
. See www.eures.it/sintesi-femminicidio-e-violenza-di-genere-in-italia/ In 2019, 94 women were killed for the same reasons.
. “I’m not doing this to create a mess, but to get people to react, to open their minds,” said the woman in one of those live fragments […]. Last month in Ohio, USA, an 18-year-old woman not only refused to rescue a 17-year-old friend who had been raped, but also broadcast the fact live on Periscope. “Never seen a case like this,” explained Ron O’Brien, Franklin County DA. Maybe because this kind of technology wasn’t in our pockets until a few months ago,” www.wired.it/attualita/tech/2016/05/12/suicidio-periscope-dittatura-streaming.
. C. Wilmot, “The Space Between Mourning and Grief”, in The Atlantic, June 8, 2016.
. See G. Cucci, “L’elaborazione del lutto come ritorno alla vita”, in Civ. Catt. 2017 IV 229-243.
. For a more in-depth examination of the subject, see Id., Paradiso virtuale o infer.net? Rischi e opportunità della rivoluzione digitale, Milan, Àncora – La Civiltà Cattolica, 2015.