Death in cyberspace

In Idoru, Gibson has Laney think about the dead woman’s personal data in this very poetic passage:

“In the week following Alison Shires’ death, Laney had used Out of Control’s DatAmerica account to re-access the site of her personal data. The nodal point was gone, and a certain subtle reduction had taken place. Not a shrinkage so much as a tidying, a folding in. But the biggest difference was simply that she was no longer generating data. There was no credit activity. Even her Upful Groupvine account had been canceled. As her estate was executed, and various business affairs terminated, her data began to take on a neat rectilinearity. Laney thought of the dead bundled squarely in their graveclothes, of coffins and cairns, of the long straight avenues of cemeteries in the days when the dead had been afforded their own real estate. The nodal point had formed where she had lived, while she had lived, in the messy, constantly proliferating interface with the ordinary yet endlessly multiplex world. Now there was no longer an interface. He’d looked, but only briefly, and very cautiously, to see whether her actor might be undertaking tidying activities of his own. Nothing obvious there, but he imagined Out of Control would have set a more careful watch on that. Her data was very still. Only a faint, methodical movement at its core: something to do with the ongoing legal mechanism of the execution of her estate.”

What is not expressly said in this passage is that the data is still there. It persists even after its owner’s death. It undergoes tiny shifts and tremors as scripts kick in and execute operations on the slowly cooling data-body of the soma that is no longer there.

This is not what happens in THIS world, though, regardless of how close one of Idoru might seem to be. In ours, your data disappears, vanishes, usually within a relatively short period of time. Your email box first starts to fill up with spam and messages from those who are yet to learn you’re no longer there, but then, not because of the size excess (kind of hard to fill five gigs with normal messages) but because of some periodic validation or some such, the provider first suspends the account and then deletes it. Your bulletin board and forum accounts get deactivated after a no-post no-view time. Your IM handles and numbers are freed and get assigned to new users (which is precisely what triggered this post – a friend whose Chat History I still have in my Miranda and who OD-ed two years ago lit up this afternoon – but of course it wasn’t him – it was someone else with his number, automatically assigned without any awareness – of course, why should they? – of the number having this long history of pain and joy). If we are defined by the data we generate then by that token we die again and again these days, die after the physical death, bit by bit as our data degenerates and dissolves in the ever-speeding river of electrons. Sure, some data may persist but with no accounts or profiles to bind them and with so much of online activity being anonymous these days, it becomes so much harder to identify with and pinpoint to the face and life behind it. Which is not good, soo not good at all, if memory is so digital, too, and what with us relying on these machinic means to remember the moments.

We die, but for such a long time kids and grandkids, or simply friends on a cold November night with some time to kill and two bottles of Scotch, still had the musty albums with yellowing photographs of a meme-ber who was no longer with them. But these days, what if Flickr cancels and wipes your account? No more 16:05 on the lake in July with that stupid grin on your face. No more blurred sunsets from your window. You’re gone but worse still your data is gone.

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