Perhaps you remember the Jim Carroll song, “People who died.” It was one of those songs that completely blew me away the first time I heard it. Not so much the 2346th time.
However, it’s on my mind today. It’s on my mind because technology has done this weird thing: It won’t let people die.
First, there’s my address book. In the past, after a few tries I found spiral bound paper agenda that I really liked, and every year I bought a new one. The one I liked had a small address book section in the back. Each year, I would transfer my important current contact information from one calendar to another.
“Important”: as in people I still like (at least sorta), people who still live near me, people who are alive.
When I was still using paper calendars, of course, I was younger, and more people I knew were alive. But then you keep going and life starts getting in the way. People you know succumb to the horrible diseases they’ve been living with (diabetes, multiple sclerosis), people you know and love die of old age, people you know get killed by terrorists, die of cancer, or…whatever.
The great thing about the paper address book at the back of my calendar is that each year, I culled the people who didn’t belong anymore. And perhaps that was one person per year.
But the digital lifestyle has changed all this. As my address book has grown, so has my hard drive. I don’t have to worry how many entries are in my address book—technology is far outpacing my addition of people important to my life.
And the result is…dead people.
Until last year, I just couldn’t face culling the deceased from my book. I do wish there were some feature in my address book to mark them “no longer with us” rather than just “delete.” But that’s not the case. In order to stop seeing my deceased loved ones (not to mention people I corresponded with briefly for an article I wrote), I have to delete them.
Deleting dead people is No Fun.
It seems so final. Yes, I should get over that. But it took me years to remove my lovely elderly friend Susie who was the first person more than 50 years older that I’d called a friend.
Susie was an aberration…until she wasn’t. People younger than I, people older than I, but within enough years to be in “my generation,” started to go. And I hesitated to remove them from my address book.
And then there’s social media.
LinkedIn, a service I find very useful as a business person, continues to recommend that I link with a former teacher of my son’s—a wonderful teacher, a truly incredible man—who succumbed to cancer a few years ago. Facebook lists several dead people as my “friends.”
I feel like we’re coming upon a new paradigm for “life.” Before the digital epoch, life was limited by flesh. And perhaps that limitation was extended a bit by paper in large buildings we called libraries. But life was life: You were born, you developed into the person you were going to be, you did stuff, then you died. If the stuff you did was deemed “important,” it might get “immortalized” on paper or film.
But in the digital life, nothing dies. In the European Union, they had to invent a “right to be forgotten.” In the US, we have no such luxury. Everything I do online is being sucked into the grand cyclone we call the Internet. When I step off this moral coil, my digital life won’t go with me.
I imagine my friends, my family, and my “friends” after I go: They join a new online service and they get the suggestion that they “friend” me, a dead person. They will be able to comment on my work, which will still be out there—alive, as it were. People I don’t know will receive suggestions for like-minded people to link to…including me, a dead person.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, hasn’t it been a goal of humans throughout the ages to achieve immortality? And doesn’t the Internet offer some sort of immortality? (Immortality 1.0. Sometime soon the Internet will be Old Hat and we’ll achieve Immortality 2.0. Stay tuned.)
On the other hand, seeing these dead people makes me sad.
Yes, I do, when I search in my address book for “house.” When I go onto LinkedIn to post an article and once again, it suggests dead people who would help me further my career. When Facebook asks me if I want to “share” my latest news…with dead people.
Ponce de Leon would be flabbergasted. Undaunted, we move on into this new stage of human existence. Dead people are dead, but they don’t go away. It’s comforting, in a way, that they never leave us. But it’s depressing, in another way, that we can’t let the dead rest.
Finally, I have started to cull. Every once in a while, I save a backup of my address book, then I delete. The friend, the teacher, the colleague. Delete, delete, delete.
Then I move on with my life. They had a right, I remind myself, to be forgotten.