“The line between the living and the dead is blurred”

How does digital mourning affect the process? What ambiguity between life and death is created by the Internet? In the third and final part of our dossier on death in the digital age, the sociologist Helen Bordello sheds light on this forbidden subject.

Hélène Bourdeloie Sorbonne is a lecturer in information and communication science at Paris Nord University and a researcher at LabSIC. Her research focuses on post-mortem digital traces and online mourning, among other topics. In 2018, he published an article titled: “Living with the dead in the digital age. Reconstruction, problems and tensions.. He was also the co-author of the 2016 publication Talking about the digital life of the dead. New manners, new connections.

With electronic devices (computers, smartphones) and social networks containing hundreds of photos and texts, there is a complete digital tradition, public and private, that loved ones sometimes have to take care of after death. What is the effect of all this data on the mourning process?

The data that multiplies in the digital age is produced in our lifetime but is also created after our death, affecting the process of mourning, which can no longer happen in the digital age in the same way, which is the era of paradox; Traces or data, both invisible and endless, destabilize. The management of multiple post-mortem data actually raises ethical, legal, psychological and, more simply, logical questions for the right holders. Trace is irresistible with digital. How much of their perseverance, and for more disclosed “public” data, is of concern to rights holders who want these signs to disappear?

Another example is that a memorial on Facebook before the death of a deceased person may be run by a person, an heir, selected upstream. How much can an online profile be run by an “other” person other than a family member? How much can algorithms or technical parameters of a device interfere with the mourning process? I’m thinking of the example of a mother who told me about the plight of her daughter who couldn’t be “friends” with her brother on Facebook, who died before she was old enough to account… when faced with an infinite amount of data Those who do not know how to store, classify, transfer or “capitalize” this data may feel destitute.

Today, social networks allow the deletion of a dead person’s account or the creation of a memorial page. Do you think these are good solutions? If not, what alternatives might exist?

Conversion to commemorative pages is a “good” solution for recording deaths. If we consider the existence of Facebook from 2005-2006, it took until 2009 to transform an account into a memento (memory account). Over the years, many of the deceased remains in the account, because, if death is sometimes explicitly declared for a particular account, for others, the heirs continue to animate it by speaking on behalf of the deceased. However, a situation which, of course, has not disappeared, but which is diminishing when the pages of memory are known, blurring the boundaries between the living and the dead, distinguishing the boundaries between life and the dead. And floating. When the condition of the dead is not recorded, temporary and spatial landmarks are disrupted and, consequently, the mourning process. The alternatives that exist are virtual cemeteries, a place dedicated to the dead.

Is it better to keep an account of the dead on social networks or to visit these special platforms?

It is up to each individual to decide what is best for him. But it is certain that in the case of the memorial platform dedicated to death, the purpose of the project is clear; There is no ambiguity; It’s like a cemetery: we know it’s a site dedicated to the dead. However, this separation between the living and the dead becomes much more blurred with generic social networks – when the commemorative account is “labeled” – where one can quickly slip into hybrid situations, where genres are mixed and where status individuals are uncertain, unclear. . Living for some and dead for others.

The Internet, with the generalization of pseudonyms, makes another form of mourning even more obscure: when a person is no longer active under a pseudonym, it can be difficult for his friends to know that the person is simply upset or something has happened to him. How does this ambiguity affect the relationship to death?

Opacity and paradoxes strengthen the basis of the Internet’s identity as well as the paradoxes associated with funerals, for example in relation to space-time or in distinguishing the dead. In rituals, we try to hold the dead, but to dismiss him, to give him a new status. However, the development of a whole host of pseudonyms or “strategies” with the help of digital technology only reinforces the dilemma that identifies the relationship between death and our society.

With artificial intelligence, companies use their data to create a chatbot or an avatar that promises eternal life to a dead person. What do you think?

Artificial intelligence actually gives us hope that in the end it will be possible to transcend the notion of limitation and finally achieve this everlasting desire, to achieve immortality. However, in my opinion there is not only a chimera and a frenzy, which is intensified by the development of transhumanist ideology, but also a risk to the living, which disrupts their relationship with the dead. The risks are not only ontological or psychological but also ethical (creating digital doubles, brain digitization projects, etc.).

Betting is economic when we know that start-ups are turning the digital perpetual project into a commercial argument (selling immortality). At this stage, bereaved psychologists point to the plight of the bereaved who see their relationship with the dead become more complicated with the use of artificial intelligence devices.

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