Networked Mortality

Death is different now. In a time of networks and social media, it’s not just having a song remind you of your deceased loved one anymore, it’s Spotify suggesting you listen to their playlists. It’s scrolling just a bit too far too soon and seeing their last shares on Twitter or Facebook. It’s not just figuring out funerals and atom-based belongings granted through wills (or figuring things out there wasn’t any pre-planning), it’s a faceless mass of internet informing you that your friend has died. It’s not just compiling half-finished scrawled songs and old love notes, it’s debating cracking the password for a laptop full of memories. Because the internet and technology haven’t just changed how we live – it’s changed what happens in death. And we can simply be awash in tragedy in these new ways, or we can use those new connections to show our care and values, even through death.

Today the spontaneity of planning, which makes it possible to search for a place to eat with your incoming friend while already out the door, forms habits making the avoidance of planning for death even easier. But after working through the unexpected deaths of a number of networked friends, I have started explicitly planning for the eventuality of my own death, to ease the burden on others. I’ve set up a living will (detailing things like whether I want to be kept on life support — I don’t), a will (what to do with my corpus and my corpse — open them up and share the contents), and mechanisms for notifying the many communities I inhabit, helping them find each other for support. The compartmentalization of online selves otherwise makes discrete and care-full notifications difficult, and sadly the current viable option is mass broadcast.

Because I’m also from the parts of the internet that care about open access and free software, friends and I have taken my death preparations and formed a guide for the bits of postmortem planning other guides may have missed. Based on ideas from open access and information security, it includes topics like how to deal with passwords, contact lists, plans for account deletion while archiving information, and donating one’s body to science in ways that support open research.

This living documentation is called NetworkedMortality, and I hope it helps others to start thinking about and planning for the inevitable, either privately or in this wiki-based and public place. Just as the internet is about creating, storing, and transmitting knowledge, this guide is about contributing to something larger than the individual. It’s about continuing to build the commons, establishing protocols for death in the digital. The sorrow of death need not also be accompanied by confusion over what intentions would have been or who should know what. Funeral home directors and lawyers have helped guide us through the protocols of death in the better-known world. In this new space those steps are considered by Twitter, Facebook, and Google, but I at least would prefer to trust people I know to deal with my wishes more accurately and with more love. We’ll be hosting a “death drill” to test out these new protocols on December 13th from 2p-5p at the Berkman Center.

Too often, we think only about the short term – this quarter, this school year, this laughably short short life span – when considering how we plan as well as what we build. We must instead intentionally look to the public future, and our responsibility as members of that shared story. We must contribute to freely available knowledge which lasts beyond our brief moments. An unavoidable part of life is death. Let’s care for each other, and hold true to our values, through the entirety. Let’s network our mortality, together.

It is possible to speak about death without fear – I hope you can act from this place.  If you are in danger of harming yourself, please get help, rather than indirectly indicating through things like estate planning.