“Can We Outlive Death on the Internet?”


Narisa: Ponderous Skull, 2000 (CC)

by Samik Dasgupta

Digital Souls: A Philosophy of Online Death
Patrick Stokes
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 208 pp

In the first half of the book, Patrick Stokes lays bare the strenuous conditions under which he is thinking through the questions of electronic communication and death. The Covid-19 pandemic is raging across the world and nations are announcing one lockdown after another, to check transmission of the virus. A new concept has entered our vocabulary: social distancing. It is compelling people to stay put in their homes. Various forms of alienation haunt us and we rely all the more on the internet to battle this feeling. Stokes captures this moment and tries to observe “the phenomenology of telepresence, its adequacy and limits”.

Through a pithy expression, Stokes presents us with a paradoxical mode of behaviour: “learning new ways to be present with the absent”. He is referring to platforms like Zoom, Google Meet or Houseparty, which have replaced our older spaces of socialising. He is also alerting us to how major events in our lives are happening on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We are in the helpless state of being unable to physically meet our loved ones, even those may well be dying. However, this book doesn’t limit itself to our experience of the internet during the pandemic. It stretches beyond this context to encompass the wide variety of ontological and ethical questions which beset our reflections on death in the age of the internet.

The premise of Digital Souls is clearly stated in a set of propositions laid out in the introduction. Firstly, the internet has changed our perception of time and space, allowing us to re-imagine the possibilities of the Self. Secondly, the altered perception afforded by cyberspace has paved the way for new methods of engaging with the dead. These range from taking selfies at funerals to holding in-game memorials or even building virtual mausoleums. Thirdly, following from the previous two conditions, mourning has become instantaneous and global. These premises beg us to ask: “Is public grief real?” “Who has the right to grieve?” And “…can people really survive death online or should we even let them do it?”

The author unpacks multiple answers to each of the existential questions posed with the help of specific case studies, spread out over seven chapters and a code section. Mirroring the bipartite cryptic naming of the book, these chapters have titles like ‘Dying Online’, ‘Electric Corpses’, ‘Second Death’, ‘When the Dead Speak’ and ‘Prey To The Living’. The main thesis running throughout these chapters is that the dead outlive their material being by surviving in the digital space. This can be done using multiple formats – through photographs, video clips and posts on their social media profiles; scheduled emails and tweets which turn up after the date of their physical death; chatbots and online avatars who carry forward the departed’s behaviour patterns through stored data and predictive algorithms; and, in the near future, there is the possibility uploading one’s consciousness. This kind of visibilisation of dead bodies runs the risk of reducing the dead to what may simply be content competing in the attention economy of social media. Following Heidegger, the author considers the act of replacement technology that renders the dead as merely a resource. What this leads to is a collapsing of our older binary ways of thinking about reality as being divided into the online and the offline. From pondering over whether the people on screen are real, we have come to accept that selfhood is now enriched with the multiply mediated co-authored selves emerging on the internet.

Stokes covers the debates around the custody of digital remains, differing from earlier practices of inheriting the legacy of a dead person. At this juncture, the author reveals a sense of foreboding that sets the mood for the book’s narrative. The digital remains of the dead can be subjected to manipulations which go beyond the intentions of the dead (i.e. the dead do not have explicit control over the process). One extreme manifestation of this is the hypothetical possibility of immortality, where digital flesh gradually replaces physical flesh and bots start to replace entire populations, taking decisions on behalf of humanity. The author finds comfort in the fact that, so far, no digital avatar is free of glitches and that the alterity of the dead mounts a strong defence against the possibility of replacement. In the coda section, devoted to the theme of uploading consciousness, the author discusses a specific technology called Lifenaut Mindclone. Stokes lays down his preference for such software provided it never becomes activated during the lifetime of the person in question.

While Stokes is aware of the digital divide that besets the Global South, his choice of book title, with its uncanny nod towards Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), hints towards a political critique. Gogol’s novel offers us a scathing critique of the Russian middle-class through the malevolent persona of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov who mysteriously sets about acquiring the “souls” of dead serfs from numerous landowners. Once he has acquired a sufficient number, he takes a loan from the government, a loan taken against people who are not alive to benefit from this money. The satirical thrust of Gogol’s writing laid bare the corruptions of the Russian government of his time. While Stokes doesn’t employ the mode of satire, he is addressing the exploitation of dead people’s memories in the form of big data, where numerous e-commerce giants work in tandem with social media platforms. In the chapter titled ‘Second Death’, Stokes shifts focus from what the lay reader should do with digital souls to the accountability that lies within the assemblage of neoliberal economies. These dictate the biopolitics of people in both online and offline realities, something that is evinced by the harsh truth that social media platforms can choose to erase the digital remains of a person if they feel the material resources for their servers are running out. Stokes leaves us here with a call to action. We must wrestle control from these corporations. We must restore dignity to the dearly departed.

About the Author

Samik Dasgupta teaches English Literature at the undergraduate level in Jalpaiguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India. His research interests are theatre pedagogy and comparative aesthetics.

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