These are some of the questions Illinois Institute of Technology humanities professor Mel Hogan is delving into this fall with a class on death, memories, and archives in the digital age. As a communications academic studying the crossroads of technology and humanity, previously she has tackled big questions such as archiving absence, and where Big Tech and the environment intersect.
Ahead of the school year, Hogan answered questions via email on death, data, and digital humanities.
Chicago Inno: This fall you’re teaching a class called “Digital Death: Archives, Memories, Body, Decay” at IIT. Tell us a little more about what this class will explore.
A new aspect of our lives in the digital age is that it is nearly impossible to escape what happened in the past once it has been posted online. How do you anticipate this will impact the future as people post more personal information at a younger age?
As many scholars have noted, the full implications of what people are posting online are not yet known, but there is cause for concern. The concern is both in terms of people’s privacy and in terms of the control and ownership of user-generated information (and its metadata) by Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon.
As a critical communication studies scholar, I don’t tend to speculate about the future, but my observation is that, so far, huge interventions (such as the Wikileaks leaks, the Snowden revelations, and the Ashley Madison hack) trigger slow and mostly obscure policy review, which may eventually trickle down to and affect everyday users. I also believe that the aggregation of user data that is already at play (as big data) is only likely to become more influential (and simultaneously more invisible, or seamless) in our everyday digital engagements.
On the other end of the spectrum, once we die we are all leaving behind a lot of information. How do tech companies currently deal with this? What could be improved?
There are digital assets management companies that offer a variety of services in preparation for your own death. They’ll offer services to back-up your digital assets and make sure your passwords are passed on safely, and possibly disconnect your social media accounts and so on. There are also a slew of apps, like Timehop and Memoir, that serve up the an algorithmically-generated past based on content created and uploaded over the years. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have a death policies. Facebook has a “Memorialization Request” form and the settings allow you to leave a “Legacy Contact” to delete the account should you pass away. It won’t automatically delete accounts though so that means the dead could one day surpass the living on Facebook. Twitter deletes accounts after six months of inactivity. There’s no unified approach to dealing with death, yet.
What I focus on in my digital death class is the affective connection we have to objects and traces, and how our understanding of the past and future shape how we want to be remembered and forgotten. Through that we discuss how history is created, whose lives are evidenced in the archive and who is left out, and how the present context shapes how we read the past.
Your course includes material ranging from the Atlantic to the BBC series “Black Mirror”. Are there any TV shows, journalists, or publications that do an especially good job at delving into these issues that people should look to if they want to consider the “big questions” in tech further, but perhaps outside of reading academic papers or textbooks?
Absolutely. I think that pop culture – TV shows like “CSI”, “Hannibal”, and “Black Mirror”, and films like Her and Ex-Machina – does a good job of considering the big questions of technology. Some of the films I like to show in class also include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for our week on forgetting), Stories We Tell (for dealing with storytelling in relation to media and memory), and a colleague recommended the documentaries A Will For The Woods and A Family Undertaking (for weeks dealing with funerals and rituals of death). I rely on podcasts as assigned “readings” in my class, such as 99% Invisible’s “The Nutshell Series” (about autopsies), Reply All’s issue on Silence and Respect (about public shaming), and Radiolab’s edition on The Right to be Forgotten….While there are many outlets for addressing these big tech questions, there is still an incredible lack of diversity in terms of who gets to speak in this context. I think much more of this works needs to be thought of in relation to intersections of class, race, sexuality and gender – and usually that’s where the academics (and activists and artists) come in. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology is one such place addressing this lack, but more needs to be done. Much more.
What areas would you like us to all be a bit more thoughtful about in the tech world?
I believe that the intersection of Big Tech (internet infrastructure in particular) and the environment requires more attention and academic scrutiny. This is where my research is focused these days. Climate change and the environmental impacts of digital media should be issues accounted for in the design, production and repurposing of technology. Following this, I think more
attention in the tech world needs to be paid to e-waste, and especially those bodies that become registers of toxicity given the global social inequities on which much of Western technological conveniences rest.
What is the importance of looking at tech through a humanities lens?
There’s nothing more human than an awareness of our mortality and the urge to counter it – to resist our own disappearance by leaving important traces behind and then making sense of those traces for an uncertain future.